Schumann, Robert: Märchenerzählungen

The year 1853 held ominous vicissitudes and important events for ROBERT SCHUMANN. One of the more propitious events was his first meeting, through the violinist Joseph Joachim, with Johannes Brahms. Schumann’s instant recognition of the younger composer’s abilities and his subsequent publication of an article entitled ‘Neue Bahnen’ (‘New Paths’) in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which described Brahms’ skill in cosmically rhapsodic terms, had an enormous influence on the shape of the young composer’s career (and psyche). Additionally, on the good side, his tour of the Netherlands with his wife Clara at the end of his tenure in Düsseldorf (1850-1853) was very successful. But both the tour and his role in the musical life of Düsseldorf had ended under a cloud. His position as conductor of the orchestra there was being reduced because of increasingly bizarre behavior (for example, continuing to conduct a performance for some time after it had ended). He began to complain during the Netherlands tour of ‘painful aural disturbance’; by March of 1854 he was at an asylum in Endinich, suffering from very severe psychosis. He remained there until his death in 1856.

Surprisingly, there is little in the Märchenerzählungen (1853), to suggest the severity of his decline. They were composed during the time of Brahms’ visit, and their ‘miniature’ quality may remind a listener of Schumann’s earlier works. They are perhaps simpler than the earlier works (some say more market-oriented), but they are by no means simplistic. There may be an element of distance or remorse in the low instrumentation and in the somewhat avoidant subject of ‘Fairy Tales’, but all in all the pieces seem rather untroubled. Without complete disregard for the extreme tumult in his life (and head), it may be simplest to find in Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen a legitimate and understandable escape into musical fantasy. For the troubled Schumann and the subject of fairy tales, this seems as comfortable an understanding as any.

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