by Gabriel Prynn
1846 was to be a watershed year in the relationship between Felix and Robert. Three months after Felix conducted the premiere of Robert’s Second Symphony, bitter feelings seem to have grown between the two, with Felix writing to his diplomat friend Klingemann in London: ‘he [Robert Schumann] has behaved very ambiguously (or worse than that) – and has circulated a truly hateful story about me – about which I shall say no more – which has damnably cooled my former zeal to help him on.’
Indeed, we have come to believe that in the last years of their lives Felix Mendelssohn took a cool, rather patronising attitude towards Robert Schumann. But what had led to this?
In 2009 the missing letters between Robert and Felix came into public awareness, and they shed light on the subtlety and complexity of their association.
The letters they exchanged during the 1830’s reveal that as the marriage between Clara and Robert approached, so the relationship between Robert and Felix transitioned from one of friendly and mutually supportive colleagues to intimate friendship. Felix starts to ends his letters with ‘und bleiben mir gut’ (stay true to me), which he normally only reserved only for close friends and family:
Following their marriage in 1840, the two couples – Clara and Robert, Cecile and Felix (married in 1837) – would frequently engage in social and musical activities together. The birth of the Schumann’s first child in 1841 brought with it a new level of intimacy in their relationship: Felix joyfully accepted to be the child’s godfather.
In 1844 the opportunity for a tour for the Schumanns in Russia arose. Robert was very reluctant to proceed with the project, but agreed after Felix’s encouragement (he had received a secret visit from the weeping Clara). On their way to Russia, the Schumanns made a stop in Berlin to visit the Mendelssohns and Felix presented Clara with his new Song without words, Op.62, dedicated to her (from Book 5, No.1):
On a practical level, Felix also wrote warm letters of introduction for the Schumanns to his highly placed friends in St. Petersburg and Moscow to ensure the success of their tour. The Russian tour was indeed a triumph – for Clara. Despite her best efforts to promote Robert’s music, he remained in her shadow.
Unknown to Felix, Robert was now seriously ill, possibly triggered by the depressing experience in Russia, but more likely due to the encroaching symptoms of the syphilis he had contracted during his younger days. Publicly Robert declared that he had given up his position as editor of his music magazine to concentrate on composing. Privately the doctors were telling him to take a complete break from all of his work for the sake of his health. There now followed a long hiatus in the correspondence between Robert and Felix.
Finally, in July 1845, Robert writes to Felix and opens up about his nervous collapse and expresses is fervent desire to see him again. Felix replies immediately, affirming his friendship and agreeing that they should commit to meeting again. A month later they would reunite, but only for coffee, not for the more ambitious plans they had initially discussed, and in Schumann’s hometown of Dresden since travel is becoming too challenging for Robert.
Felix decides to redouble his efforts to promote Robert’s music, specifically by using his influence to both programme and conduct the premiere of Robert’s Second Symphony by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on November 5th 1846. Yes, this is the same concert that Felix refers to in his angry letter to his friend in London cited above …
Old Leipzig Gewandhaus, as it was in the time of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Note the sentence of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, Res severa est verum Gaudium, above the stage: « True joy is a serious thing »
Tickets can be bought online, by phone (514-285-2000, option 1), or in person at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts ticket office (1380 Sherbrooke West)
Webcast concert also available starting Saturday, May 22.