Performances Not to Miss: Musical Romanticism

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This is part of a weekly series of columns devoted to a brief look ahead at the weekend's principal Tanglewood concerts.

The 19th-century movement known as Romanticism affected all the arts, but none more so than music. The composer, music critic, and author E. T. A. Hoffmann said that music is the most Romantic of all the arts, "or, one might say, the only genuinely Romantic one, for its sole subject is the infinite." The title of the movement derived from the word "romance" - a heightened narrative fantasy in poetry or prose, whose origins go back to the Middle Ages. Music's power lies in its non-specificity, its ability to evoke emotions that cannot readily be put into words.

Two of the most Romantic composers of the 19th century are featured at Tanglewood this weekend: Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. On Saturday night we shall hear the Second Piano Concerto of Brahms and Schumann's Second Symphony. Sunday afternoon's concert will feature Schumann's Cello Concerto as well as his Concert Piece for Four Horns and Orchestra and Brahms's Serenade No. 1.

Robert Schumann was one of the most gifted composers of early Romanticism. He was imbued with a literary imagination, wrote symbolic references into his music, and, although he was himself a talented pianist, he was married to one of the greatest concert pianists of the age: his wife, Clara Schumann. In the 1840s he was at his fullest strength as a composer, focusing in turn on songs, symphonies, and chamber music, including beautiful works for solo piano. By 1850, his mental health had begun to break down, and he was ultimately committed to a small mental hospital — a very humane one, where he had his own room and could read or play music as best he could. His (and Clara's) only great pain was that she was not allowed to see him, as the doctor thought that such visits would agitate him. In 1856, she was summoned to the hospital. "I had to go to him," she wrote later. "He smiled and with great effort put his arms around me. All the treasures in the world could not equal this embrace." Robert Schumann died two days later. He was 46.

The lives of Schumann, Clara Schumann, and Brahms were intertwined. When Brahms was 20 years old, he visited Schumann a few months before his final commitment and played some of his own compositions to the older composer. After a few minutes, Schumann went to fetch Clara, saying, "Now you will hear music such as you have never heard before." He published a journal article, extolling "this important new talent, a new power in music," and he wrote to Brahms's father, describing the young man as the "darling of the Muses."

After Schumann's death, a profound life-long friendship flourished between Clara and Brahms. She wrote to her children how Brahms had acted after their father's death: "He came, like a true friend, to share all my sorrow; he strengthened the heart that threatened to break, he uplifted my mind, he cheered my spirit whenever and wherever he could; in short he was my friend in the fullest sense of the word." For his part, for the rest of his career Brahms turned to her constantly for advice and musical criticism, while she supported and encouraged him. His letters to her are tender and deeply affectionate, while she describes him as "my beloved friend."

In 1896 Clara died in her late 70s. Brahms, who had never married, attended her funeral, and on his return home composed one of his most beautiful works, the "Four Serious Songs" for voice and piano on texts from the Bible. The fourth song, from Corinthians, describes the immortality of love: "These three things endure: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love."

Jeremy Yudkin is Professor of Music at Boston University. He gives pre-concert talks for Tanglewood every Friday at 2:30 p.m. and every Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Lenox Library.

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