Do Composers Compose Out of a Need for "Personal Expression"? The Strange Case of Dr. Mendelssohn and Mr. Schumann

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Mendelssohn, Schuman

Obviously, any artist is de facto “expressing himself personally”. But to reduce the purpose of an artist to a need for self expression is so simple minded that the phrase “personal expression” becomes meaningless.  It puts me in mind of amateur poets (a class with whom I am intensely sympathetic, by the way) who take one class, write a few incoherent and narcissistic poems, and proudly proclaim that they have a need for “self expression”.  Meaningless, meaningless, meaningless.  This is for amateurs, not professionals. 

Which brings me to Mendelssohn’s String Quartet, op. 80, in f minor (Beethoven’s most hopeless key; vide the “Appassionata” sonata).  If those who think Mendelssohn is wimpy were to listen to this piece, they’d “have another think coming,” as the expression has it. Those who say that Mendelssohn is wimpy either don’t know Mendelssohn, are mean spirited, or have a deficiency in their aesthetics. But they are not even potentially correct.  No way. In the best scenario, some music lovers who have innocently labored under this regrettable delusion, promulgated by irresponsible critics and even musicians, some of whom are indeed motivated by antisemitism, like Wagner, for instance,  may cure themselves in a most pleasurable and fulfilling manner by listening to a broad spectrum of his works.

Mendelssohn composed this agonizing and despairing quartet in 1847, supposedly as a response to the tragedy of his sister Fanny’s (1805-47) death.  Felix had been very close to his sister, and suffered deeply when she died. The quartet is full of “deep suffering” as well.  Must be a connection, right? I don’t buy it.  I don’t buy it, even if it could be shown that Mendelssohn consciously thought he was expressing his grief by the quartet’s composition.  Composition doesn’t work that way.  The professional obligation to create meaningful work isn’t at the beck and call of personal circumstances.

There are other works that fall into this category: Mozart’s a minor piano sonata (a response to the death of his mother); Brahms’s Requiem (death of his mother plus the death of Robert Schumann); Stravinsky’s Symphonie en Ut (wife and daughter).  In all fairness, I should point out that Stravinsky commented that it was the composition of the work that “kept him going”, and that the work has a reasonably sunny disposition.

The cases of Berg’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s String Trio are completely different.  These are programmatic pieces that specifically introduce personally definable elements as part of their structure and meaning.  Deaths and love affairs, for Berg, a near fatal heart attack, for Schoenberg.  Incidentally, personal allusions represented in musically concrete ways was a pervasive stylistic feature of Berg’s music. 

Most interesting is the case of Robert Schumann, the professional who pretended to be an amateur.  He didn’t fool me!  His case is similar to Berg’s.  Papillons, Carneval, Frauenliebe und Leben, etc. are “programmatic pieces that specifically introduce personally definable elements as part of their structure and meaning”.  Schumann’s commitment to his craft is as discernably professional as any other great composer.  That doesn’t mean he was as technically gifted as Mendelssohn; of course he wasn’t.  Genius and technique are not the same thing.  I look forward to discussing the “cult of the amateur” in connection with Schumann in my upcoming class. 

I’ll give the last word to Stravinsky, but I have to paraphrase, I don’t feel like pawing through Robert Craft’s zillion books about Stravinsky to find the exact passage.  When Stravinsky was asked when and where he got his musical inspirations, he responded:  “At my desk, when I’m trying to compose.”  The words of a professional.