Monday, March 09, 2009

From the Books

A series wherein I post longer excerpts from books I've read.

I've been toying with the notion of writing a film script, as a different kind of challenge. I haven't worked in the screenplay format since many years ago, when I was writing Star Wars fanfic; those stories I wrote as scripts. (OK, to tell the truth, I've already been tinkering with screenplay format, producing a script for a movie about an unemployed writer-type, down on his luck in life, who starts over from scratch in his mid-thirties by taking a job as a janitor in a grocery store. You know, fantasy. That project is unlikely to ever see the light of day, though.)

The script that I really want to write, though, is an idea that's been kicking around my head for several years now. It always surprises me that there really aren't a whole lot of movies out there about classical music and the people from its history. Sure, there's Amadeus, but what else is there? Just reading through just about any composer's life reveals a world ripe for harvesting of stories, and hey, the soundtracks would pretty much select themselves, right?

Anyhow, one might think that I'd be hankering to write a movie about Hector Berlioz, and maybe that'll come one day, but the story that's capturing my attention now is what may be the most important love story in classical music history: that of Robert and Clara Schumann. Their story is passionate, romantic, and tragic, and it saw the production of some of the most lyrical music of the Romantic era. What a great costume drama that would make!

The basic facts are these. Robert Schumann was one of the most archetypal of all Romantic-era figures. His life was fairly short (46 years), he fought madness and alcoholism all his life, he attempted suicide twice in his life, and eventually died in a sanitarium two years after his second suicide attempt (in which he was pulled from the Rhine river by fisherman after he had flung himself into it). He was also one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era, and a noted music critic as well, producing some of the most enduring piano music, art songs, and concertos of all time. His symphonies are also staples of the orchestral repertoire.

Through all this was Clara, whom he met when she was just a child, and yet he courted her anyway, to the chagrin of her father, who tried to keep his daughter from a man he respected but still saw as a lunatic (not entirely inaccurately, either), until the two finally wed after a lengthy court battle. Their marriage was loving and devoted, but not without trial; Clara was one of the great piano virtuosos of the nineteenth century, but her career had to be put on hold so Robert could compose. She would endure ten pregnancies and lose three children, and when she eventually lose Robert as well, she would live another forty years after his death. Her deep friendship with Johannes Brahms forms an interesting postscript to her marriage to Robert Schumann; Brahms would never marry, and many have speculated that this was because he was in love with Clara his entire life. (No evidence exists that their relationship ever became physical.)

So, of late, I've been doing some preliminary research into the lives of Robert and Clara Schumann, including reading their letters, which have been gathered into a two-volume collection, edited by Eva Weissweiler. These letters are illuminating in many ways. Letters tend to be the most revealing of all writings from decades (or centuries) gone by, and in this age of quick e-mails or notes hastily scrawled on a Post-It, it's amazing to read these long missives and remember that correspondence was more than just a way for people apart to keep in touch with one another; letter-writing was a major way of passing time in an age when any form of entertainment other than reading entailed dressing up and leaving home. People were literary because they had to be, lest they die of boredom. It's tempting to read these letters and think "Wow, people back then really knew how to be in love", but I'm not sure it's the passion that's changed, just the expression of it. But it's impossible to read these letters and not feel the passion radiating from them, in some cases 170 years after they were written and dispatched to secret intermediaries (lest Clara's father find them and put their relationship to a definitive end).

Here are a few passages from their letters that stood out for me.

Clara to Robert, January 1838

But don't think that I am angry with you for this; on the contrary, I am happy to know that you don't love me because of my talent, but, as you once wrote on a little piece of paper, "I don't love you because you are a great artist; no, I love you, because you are so kind." That please me immensely, and I have never forgotten it.


You cannot lose me; that would be impossible; my spirit would follow you forever.

Robert to Clara, February 1838

"Sometimes it feels as if a great many alleys were running pell mell through my heart and as if my thoughts and feelings were bustling about in there in all directions and running back and forth, just as people do, and they were asking one another, "Where does this one lead?" - to Clara – "and this one?" - to Clara – everything leads to you. The business with the alleys in the heart is a curious thought, isn't it? And they sometimes lead to the lips and suddenly tehere's a kiss, and the lovely girl snuggles up to the man, and their names are Clara and Robert--"

Clara to Robert, March 1838

What would you like me to do, my dear Robert? Should I embrace you, should I give your hand a hearty squeeze, should I cry, should I laugh? I am in the mood to do all of these things, because your latest letters were so precious, as cheerful as the loveliest spring.


I am very bored with traveling now; I am longing very much for rest; how much I would like to compose, but I can't do that here at all. I have to practice in the morning, and we have visitors until late in the evening; then I am completely exhausted, as you surely see from my letters because they often indicate that my head is totally empty. --But you should always recognize my heart, because it remains untouched by the events of the day. If I can compose something for the journal, I will. "Macbeth" appears to be very beautiful; --I don't think that anything of mine would compare favorably to it. I am like you. There are many alleys running through my heart, too, but they are even narrower, and there are more of them.

My mind has hardly investigated one of them when it encounters the next one, and so on, ad infinitum. I cannot stay with one idea; right away there is another one – the fault is yours alone - I don't know what this will lead to, I always console myself by thinking that I am a woman, and they weren't born to compose. I often doubt myself. But I remember that you did not want to speak of doubts anymore; I agree with you! Doubt is a disastrous word and also a disastrous state to be in.

Robert to Clara, March, 1838

Where should I begin to tell you what kind of person you are making of me, my love, magnificent one! Your letter provided me with one delight after another. What a life you're opening before me, what prospects! Sometimes when I read through your letter I feel like the first human might have felt when the angel led him through the new creation, from peak to peak; each beautiful region followed by even more beautiful ones, and the angel then says, "All of this shall be yours."

I'm not sure how I'd use these; maybe in the typical way of having them read as voiceovers. I haven't really given much thought at all as to the form such a film might take; this is all just preliminary stuff, and I don't know if I'll ever even get around to writing this. But I hope to.

This much I do know: the end credits must roll, at least in part, as "Traumerei" plays. Here is "Traumerei", played by Vladimir Horowitz in Moscow in 1988. He often played "Traumerei" as an encore.

What a love story Robert and Clara had!

No comments: