Robert Schumann: Music Amid The Madness Marin Alsop, meet Robert Schumann. The Baltimore Symphony conductor reconnects with the composer's symphonies, probing for a deeper meaning within this widely performed but still misunderstood music. The Symphony No. 2, Alsop says, traces Schumann's emotional frailty.

Hear Marin Alsop discuss Schumann with NPR's Scott Simon

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A great number of creative geniuses have had episodes of madness. Think of Van Gogh, Ezra Pound, or Sylvia Plath. Now, did they succeed despite, or maybe even because of their mental maladies? The German composer Robert Schumann suffered from depression and mental illness most of his adult life. He tried to commit suicide, failed, and was institutionalized. Later died in an asylum at the age of 46.

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is with us to talk about Robert Schumann's "Second Symphony," which she says is a musical account of his journey back in an especially severe bout of depression. Thanks so much for being back with us.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): Great to be here, Scott. Thanks.

SIMON: Most people, I think it's fair to say, think of piano music when they think of Schumann.

Ms. ALSOP: They do. I mean that's the majority of music that Schumann wrote until he got married at the age of 30 years old. And he married a virtuoso pianist, Clara Wieck. And she was so supportive of him and encouraged him to expand into broader forms. You know, just experiment. And in his first year of marriage he wrote several symphonies. First time he had ever written for orchestra, amazingly.

(Soundbite of Schumann's "Second Symphony")

SIMON: Talk us through the opening of the Second Symphony.

Ms. ALSOP: In the brass at the beginning, there's a little motto. Like Beethoven's "Fifth," it's a motto of inescapable fate. And of course at this opening it's very quiet. So you really have to listen intently to hear it. And underneath you hear the string doing almost a water, liquid-like chromatic passage. But it's the brass to listen to.

(Soundbite of Schumann's "Second Symphony")

SIMON: What set off the "Second Symphony?"

Ms. ALSOP: The Second Symphony was written after Schumann had a very rough depressive episode. And once he got married, he hoped that maybe there would be some kind of relief for him. And this was the worst episode ever. It lasted a long time. And he gradually crawled his way back really through listening to the music of Bach.

You know, the great thing about Bach is it's so incredibly organized and consequential and sequential.

SIMON: So, he didn't take Prozac, he listened to Bach.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah, now there's food for thought. You can almost sense him crawling out of this dark hole. And this slow introduction then leads to this incredibly vivacious allegro section which makes up the majority of this movement.

(Soundbite of Schumann's "Second Symphony")

SIMON: Would this gorgeous music be possible without whatever drove him to the depths? Would the utter majesty, joy of discovery in this music be possible, unless he'd almost suffered for it?

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, isn't that the ultimate question? This entire "Second Symphony" is a study of moving from desperation and desolation to triumph.

It's interesting, because I've spoken at length to a psychiatrist, who's also a pianist, a Juilliard-trained pianist named Dr. Richard Kogan. And he says, that's of course the dilemma for psychiatrists, you know, in prescribing drugs that it evens them out so much that they lose that edginess and that excitement and the thrill of creativity in the high times.

(Soundbite of Schumann's "Second Symphony")

SIMON: Are there sections of the "Second Symphony" where you can hear both what we think of as the signature melodic gift of Schumann, but more deliberate style of Bach?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, you know, this piece is fascinating, because Schumann, he was very into the idea of coding his melodies and putting people's names in things. You know, he would encrypt different messages and in one of the movements of this piece, in the scherzo movement, he actually takes Bach's name, he's so grateful to Bach, and he translates it into pitches. So B equals B-flat. Then you have A, and then you have Schumann. And H in German is B-natural. And this is a whole section that's based on that four letter, four note motif.

(Soundbite of Schumann's "Second Symphony")

Ms. ALSOP: And you can hear the fugue, little mini-fugues going on underneath.

(Soundbite of Schumann's "Second Symphony")

Ms. ALSOP: Just beautiful music, isn't it?

SIMON: Boy it is.

Ms. ALSOP: I mean, not played that often.


Ms. ALSOP: What happens is, you know, we should also mention that Brahms shows up at his doorstep a few years earlier. And Brahms then becomes hugely popular. And Schumann of course is suffering from these depressive states. And he's institutionalized at the age of 44.

SIMON: And of course suicide at the age of 46.

Ms. ALSOP: I mean it's, the story is just horrifying. Because the doctors felt that his wife, Clara, should not visit him, that it upset him too much. So she was forbidden to go to the institution whereas the young Brahms would be there almost daily. And we haven't even talked about the fact that in addition to Clara being this formidable virtuoso, concert pianist, she traveled the world, she made a living, and she also had ten children in the meantime, you know, p.s. on the side. And seven of them survived.

So Clara, I mean can you imagine how heartbroken - I mean, she adored Robert, and believed in him 100 percent. So, there's a thought nowadays that Schumann was basically starving himself to death. I mean he was in utter agony, being separated and isolated as he was. And Clara went to visit him just a day or two before he died. And he probably was so happy in that moment that he might have eaten, and that might have resulted in his death.

SIMON: Yeah. Did Schumann go through periods of greater and lesser interest?

Ms. ALSOP: I have to say in my lifetime I can't recall a real focus on Robert Schumann's orchestral music. His piano music is quite popular, but you know the reason why? Because when he died, Clara Schumann went on for 40 more years of concertizing, and she promoted his music throughout the world. But he didn't have a conductor to do the same.

SIMON: Hey, you can't marry the whole symphony.

Ms. ALSOP: Right, exactly.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the third movement. What do you hear?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, the people that know Schumann's music probably know it for these beautiful songs he wrote and melodies. And this opening of the third movement, to me, it's just all about his love for Clara. I mean it's so beautiful and so emotional and romantic.

(Soundbite of Schumann's "Second Symphony")

Ms. ALSOP: Beautiful, isn't it?


Ms. ALSOP: So plaintive and yearning. And what's fascinating to me is that the way he wraps all of this together to close the symphony out. He brings that motto that we heard at the very opening in the brass. He brings it back, but now it's triumphant. And this is a symphony about his life, telling his listeners I have struggled and I have overcome.

SIMON: Marin, thanks so much.

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, a pleasure to be with you, as always. Thanks. Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

(Soundbite of Schumann's "Second Symphony")

SIMON: You can hear a whole performance of Schumann's Second Symphony and read Marin's essay on the music section of This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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