In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, according to Tennyson. In the spring, Duluth Superior Magazine sproutingly turns to Home and Garden. In the spring, the DSSO’s final concert of the 2011-12 season mercurially turns to Schubert and Schumann.
Franz Peter Schubert was born into modest circumstances, the son of a schoolmaster father and a former housemaid mother. After an aborted attempt at schoolteaching, the composer set out to make a musical career. Unlike, evidently, 21st-century Wisconsin, teachers in 19th-century Austria were not grossly overpaid. Even less well compensated were musicians. And if there’s a person less well compensated than a professional musician, it’s a professional musician who can’t find work. Schubert was one of those. He did find a friend’s couch to sleep on, and he did find a girl he wanted to marry, but laws required that the potential husband actually have an income.
Marriage thwarted, Schubert sought connubial satisfactions in some unsavory quarters. He passed away at the youthful age of 31, with symptoms of syphilis and mercury poisoning, mercury being the treatment of choice for that ubiquitous disease.
Schumann, born some 13 years after Schubert, enjoyed a degree of professional success. As a young man he turned away from a career in law to one as a concert pianist, and, when a hand injury made that impossible, to composition, and eventually to music criticism and conducting.
Widely known is the story of the injury suffered by the young Schumann through the overly enthusiastic use of a hand-stretching device. And it is also widely known that his malicious piano teacher, the father of his beloved Clara, refused the young couple permission to marry, which they received only after bringing the case to court.
Unfortunately neither story is quite true. Evidently his eventual father-in-law forbade the wedding because he knew the true cause of Schumann’s failing control of his extremities: mercury poisoning, resulting from his treatment for syphilis. The hand-strengthening device that Schumann ordered was in fact a means of treatment for his weakened muscular control, not the cause. The wisdom of the father-in-law proved itself years later when Robert went gradually insane. At the age of 44 he jumped into the Rhine river in the middle of winter. He was fished out and taken to an insane asylum, where he died by refusing to eat, effectively starving himself to death at the age of 46.
The wonderful thing about art is that in its highest form it is not about the creator, but is a self-referential experience for us viewers or listeners, enabling us to touch our souls in a very real way. Despite difficult, short, and somewhat sordid lives, these two men created immortal music that can uplift and exalt us. The DSSO’s performance on May 19 includes Schubert’s Symphony no. 8, “Unfinished,” the two extant movements of which are glorious, and Schumann’s Symphony no. 3, “Rhenish,” among the most joyfully exuberant works in our repertoire.
The prodigiously talented young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff, whose Violin Concerto completes the program, is – to the best of our knowledge – mercury free.