Schizophrenia and Schumann: The Possibility of a Split Musical Personality

by Nathan Cornelius

In one of my favorite books on music, Harald Krebs’ Fantasy Pieces, the composers Florestan, Eusebius, and Meister Raro meet at a café to talk music. Each orders a coffee and a slice of Schwarzwalderkirschtorte and proceeds to offer a brilliantly perspicacious analysis of each other’s works. When Chiarina tells them to go home, one of them pays the bill and is surprised to find the total comes to exactly one-third of what he had calculated. Of course, Florestan, Eusebius, and Meister Raro are all pseudonyms of one composer, Robert Schumann, representing different sides of his musical personality. As the book progresses, Schumann’s alter-egos become increasingly disjointed and their discussions increasingly far-fetched, discussing music written several decades after their lifetime. Eventually, even Chiarina (Robert’s wife, the pianist and composer Clara Schumann) becomes unable to keep them under control, and the book ends with Florestan and Eusebius in Dr. Richarz’s insane asylum, composing versified modernist music analyses whose form mirrors their content.

While Krebs’ book is overall a whimsical send-up of Schumann’s own literary conceits, it also raises some substantial psychological questions. We know for a fact that Schumann did ascribe different sections of his compositions to the pseudonyms Florestan and Eusebius and that his mental health deteriorated in the latter years of his life. It is just conceivable that he might have had what would now be called multiple personality disorder. Perhaps at some point his sense of multiple identities went from just a literary device he occasionally used to an inescapable presence in his life.

When I was a graduate student in composition, my mentors would tell me that school was a good time to branch out and explore many potential styles of writing to see which ones suited me the best. But by the time I became a professional composer, they said, I would have found “my own voice,” a personal style I could call my own. The goal of this process of stylistic exploration was assumed to be the cultivation of a deep and distinctive musical personality which would uniquely mark my work. My teachers often spoke of creating a unified “sound world” for each piece and eventually from one piece to the next, once I had only decided on a direction in which to go.

For my part, I struggled to follow this advice, careening from neo-romanticism to post-serialism to spectralism and back within just two years as a composition major. Whatever direction I pursued in one piece, I would run off and do something completely different in the next. I rationalized my utter lack of continuity as a composer by appealing to my freedom as a student to try different things and see what worked. But deeper down, my aspirations really were somewhat unsettled.

Finally, one of my teachers asked me a simple question that I had never thought to consider: “What kind of music do you actually want to write?” After some reflection on this, two things became clear. First, I had a particular affinity for two very different kinds of music: one sensuous, passionate and sympathetic to tradition, and the other noisy, provocative, and unflinchingly innovative. You might say I have a bit of Florestan and Eusebius inside myself. Second, I was also fascinated with a dialectic between two strongly contrasting kinds of music in uncomfortably close proximity to each other. I remembered my excitement when I first discovered works such as Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3 or Penderecki’s Symphony No. 2, which alternate between biting dissonance and soothing consonance in a single movement.

The problem with both of these interests is that they violate my teachers’ ideal of a unified compositional voice, almost like intentional musical schizophrenia. Is it even possible for a composer to develop a coherent and persuasive voice in two opposing styles at once? You can’t hike up both sides of a mountain at the same time. Even Schumann’s Florestan and Eusebius differed primarily in emotional affect, not in technique or style, both being emotionally Romantic yet rhythmically and harmonically adventurous. Trying to write both neo-tonal and spectralist music at the same time is a different enterprise altogether.

Yet the state of the music world is also very different today than it was in Schumann’s time. In the past century, all of the Western fine art traditions have become deeply fragmented. No matter how much stylistic unity and economy any one piece or oeuvre may have, you cannot count on any common context within which listeners will perceive it, the way Schumann’s contemporaries would have understood his music in relation to Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. As Chaya Czernowin puts it, every piece written today has to first teach its listeners how to understand it in order to actually be understood. While Czernowin prefers to construct her self-defining musical forms in a minimalistic language—and does so with great subtlety and skill—a study in radical contrasts could come across to listeners even more readily.  In this autonomous, anything-goes environment, adherence to any existing compositional tradition no longer provides a significant boost in comprehensibility.

If anything, juxtaposing utterly alien musical characters in the same piece affords the composer a broader expressive palette from which to paint the outlines of a musical form. As soon as a dialectic between opposing kinds of music (tonal/atonal, loud/soft, pure/noisy, etc.) is established, listeners are immediately aware of the symbolic grammar of the piece, even if they may not yet know what the various symbols stand for. By manipulating these musical characters over the course of the piece, the composer performs operations akin to those of symbolic logic, creating a network of meaningful relations which may be understood either in the abstract or as metaphor.

So far this year, I’ve written two main pieces, one of which included my best impersonation of a 19th-century rondo-scherzo and another that started with almost 5 minutes of aleatoric noise. It feels like giving one side of my creative personality an outlet allows me to concentrate on developing the other side for a while without being constantly tempted to look the other way. Still, pursuing two divergent goals at once, whether in the same piece or alternately in different pieces, is risky business. While you may not end up as an insane genius like Schumann, many lesser creators have surely faded into obscurity as the contrasting facets of their work ultimately canceled each other out. But, if realized with conviction and skill, this method of working can potentially offer a powerful tool for communicating within an increasingly fragmented artworld.

The Trouble with Autobiography

IMG_3345 cropped

by Nathan Cornelius

One of my biggest motivations for writing music is my desire to express feelings or images I’ve experienced in my life and share them with others. Until recently, I had thought the best way to communicate this to people listening to my music was to include a program note along with it mentioning the events that inspired the piece. Thus, I would write tantalizingly vague statements like, “As I was reminiscing about a conversation I had with some friends years ago…” or “Several years later, I had a dream about that trip, in which the details had been muddled…” However, I’ve begun to question whether this is an effective method of sharing the feelings behind my music with listeners. As I’ve been working this summer on another piece inspired by experiences from my life, I’m trying to think through how—or even whether—to speak about the music’s relationship to those experiences.

Thanks to some thought-provoking discussions in a seminar I attended, I’ve realized that specificity in program notes can actually hinder listeners’ appreciation of the work, in several ways. First of all, what moves us emotionally varies from one individual to another. Explaining the emotional impetus behind a piece could cause listeners to relate to it more closely, or they might be just as likely to dismiss it as quaint or irrelevant. Composers seem to be notoriously bad at predicting which way audiences will react to their disclosures.

More importantly, too much specificity in explaining the music limits the richness of meaning it may take on. While recent musicology has done much valuable work in undermining the intentional fallacy in music, most performers and conductors still seem to assume that the composer’s word is a reliable and complete source for determining the meaning of a piece of music. I don’t deny that the composer’s intentions are relevant to interpreting a piece, but I also believe that, as one of mentors liked to say, “Any great artwork will mean more than the artist could have intended.” Telling the audience in advance what I, the composer, was thinking robs them of the chance to discover their own connections, insights, and reactions to the music, which could ultimately endow it with many more layers of meaning than I initially envisioned.

In addition, many people seem to assume that any piece reflects to some extent the circumstances of the composer’s life or emotions at the time of composition. However, this assumption is simply not justifiable, even if the piece is genuinely autobiographical. Most of my pieces are based on events that happened weeks, months, or even years before I actually sat down to compose the music. The poet Wordsworth famously said that art comes from “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but I tend to draw on a lot of recollection with little spontaneity. In fact, I believe that the deeper the emotion associated with an event, the longer it takes my mind to process it, and therefore the longer until I am free to draw from it in my creative work. But the time spent ruminating on these experiences, even the unsatisfying or disturbing ones, is a worthwhile investment, since after I have worked through them on a personal level, I can harness them into a powerful impetus for creativity.

Furthermore, what is to stop me from lying to my audience in the program notes? How could they possibly judge whether or not my explanation of the work is true? After all, I was the only person there when I wrote it. Music history is full of instances of composers strategically revising their account of their music’s genesis to tell a more dramatic story to the crowds. While not intending to stoop to such mercenary calculations, I am now more hesitant to simply blurt out the whole truth to the audience, knowing that the more they read into it, the less they can read out of it. So in striving to be authentic as a composer (and as a human being), how do I tell my future listeners something that resonates with what’s in my heart without limiting their freedom to experience the music?

I’ve recently been pondering this question in relation to one of my favorite composers, Gustav Mahler. Mahler prepared elaborate programs for most of his symphonies, complete with titles, subtitles, literary allusions, heroic narratives, and descriptions of nature. However, when the time came for his works to be performed, he didn’t necessarily release these programs to the public, in some cases only divulging them privately in letters to friends. In other cases, he was somewhat indecisive, premiering a work without a program and then adding one later, or publishing a program only to withdraw it. Much ink has been subsequently spilled over relating these programmatic narratives to the events of Mahler’s life, and scholars have identified purported programs for each of the symphonies in Mahler’s correspondence. These associated tropes, such as “the hero’s funeral,” “the three blows of fate,” “the farewell to life,” etc., are well known to Mahler aficionados today.

The moral of the story seems to advise composers to be circumspect in writing about their own music. If anyone still cares enough about your work to be reading about it in 50 or 100 years, anything you write about it can and will be found out. Every word you speak instantly escapes out into the world as from Pandora’s box, impossible to recapture. Even if you only disclose the secret meaning of a piece to your closest friend, and that person keeps it in confidence, you can be sure that after you are dead, future scholars (or ravenous program writers) will rifle through your letters and emails for any clues they can find. As the line from the musical Hamilton goes, “History has its eyes on you… You can’t control who tells your story.” While I hope I’m not as consumed with my own legacy as the character Hamilton is, I don’t want to prevent future listeners from enjoying my music for its own sake by saying something stupid about it now.

Thus, I’ve decided to stop going into much autobiographical detail in describing my music. I now write my program notes with an aim to stimulating listeners’ own emotions rather than fixating them onto specific ones of mine. In particular, I try to reserve first-person pronouns for basic facts of when and how I wrote the piece. For hinting at deeper questions like what the piece is “about,” I prefer to address the audience in the second person or just to leave pronouns out of it altogether and try to paint a picture without explicitly telling anyone to look at it. In fact, giving audiences images or impressions (in the sense of Monet or Debussy) as a point of departure seems more helpful than talking about my compositional techniques (which needlessly abstract things) or mentioning the allusions or influences I draw from (which are necessarily specific and therefore narrow the range of meaning).

I still intend to write music that comes from the deepest parts of who I am; I’m not sure I can do otherwise. But the music also needs space to speak for itself; after all, it can’t do otherwise either. I just have to learn how to not drown it out with my own babbling.

Luciano Berio, Rendering

by Nathan Cornelius

Most classical musicians know Franz Schubert as the author of nine symphonies, one famously left unfinished, and Luciano Berio as the author of fourteen incredibly difficult solo pieces entitled Sequenza. Less known is the fact that Schubert also left sketches for a tenth symphony unfinished at his death (as opposed to his eighth, which he simply abandoned for other projects), or that in the 1980s Berio orchestrated these fragments, assembled them into a continuous piece, and published the result as Rendering.

Berio was no stranger to inserting bits of canonical works into his own music; in the third movement of his Sinfonia, for example, he has vocal soloists singing and speaking a collage of absurdist texts over a complete performance of the corresponding movement from Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony. But the treatment of old and new music in Rendering tends toward juxtaposition rather than overlapping, alternating between passages of Schubert’s music, scored for standard late-classical orchestra, and eerie, dense webs of sound-mass by Berio featuring numerous divisi and a prominent celesta part. Berio describes them as “a kind of connective tissue which is constantly different and changing, always pianissimo and distant,…performed quasi senza suono and without expression.”

These interstitial passages have a gauzy, colorless effect, both timbrally and harmonically: by having almost the entire orchestra playing, but extremely softly, Berio dilutes the vibrant colors of Schubert’s orchestra. Likewise, his static harmonies serve not so much to negate Schubert’s bold harmonic progressions as to freeze them in a sort of suspended animation until the next fragment can pick them up. In addition, the distinctive timbre of the celesta, so anachronistic to Schubert’s sound-world, clearly announces the beginning of each Berio interpolation, making the structure of the work audible on a very basic level, without even requiring harmonic or formal analysis on the part of the listener.

And this is probably for the better, as any listener expecting a sonata-allegro form in the first movement would be deeply confused when what seems to be the beginning of the recapitulation launches into a rapid coda and then abruptly ends! It is unclear whether Schubert simply had not written out the recapitulation or whether he actually intended to use such an unconventional structure. Similarly, the third movement as it stands combines elements of the Classical scherzo and finale tropes, a move which Berio appreciates as forward-looking. Indeed, Berio’s interest in the work itself seems to be primarily historical, seeing it as an interesting (and sadly, a final) stage in Schubert’s evolution as a composer.

On another level, Schubert’s sketches, reproduced on a separate staff in Berio’s score, provide a fascinating window into his compositional process: we see the composer hastily writing out a short score with only melody and bass lines for the entire first movement. Schubert apparently wished to strengthen his counterpoint skills and was working his way through counterpoint exercises in the last weeks of his life. Thus, Berio’s second movement opens with an orchestration of a two-voice canon found on the same page of Schubert’s manuscript, which gradually morphs into the paired melody and countermelody of the second movement. Then Schubert puts his learning into practice in the third movement, writing several boisterous fugato passages.

Yet perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Rendering is how it problematizes the issue of its own authorship. Clearly, the majority of the musical content is either Schubert’s own or Berio’s pitch-perfect imitation of him. Nevertheless, the expressive meaning of the piece as whole derives from the fact that Schubert’s music is broken up and interspersed with bits that sound utterly modern. This is neither a transcription nor a paraphrase nor a scholarly completion, and simply attributing the authorship to “Schubert – Berio,” as the published score does, seems to obscure more than it reveals about the piece. Instead, Berio has resurrected a not-quite-dead work to create something which is neither old nor new, a uncanny yet strangely attractive musical zombie inhabiting its own time, its own context, and (for now at least…) its own genre.