Schumann scholar gives insight into composer's life

The German is a 'hot topic' in the music school this season.
Jon Finson, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor, spoke Thursday on the life of Robert Schumann at Whitmore Recital Hall. The lecture was part of MU's "Chopin, Schumann, and the Romantic Imagination: A Bicentenary Celebration."

MU students, along with the general public, gathered in Whitmore Recital Hall on Thursday to expand their knowledge of German composer Robert Schumann.

Jon Finson, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spoke to the crowd specifically about Schumann’s speculated anti-Semitism and its effect on his friendship with Felix Mendelssohn, as well as his compositions.

Finson explained there was evidence in a diary, kept between Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, that they shared anti-Semetic feelings. These feelings were contradicted by their relationship with Schumann’s close friend and mentor Felix Mendelssohn, who was Jewish.

“Jews remain Jews,” Finson quoted from one of Schumann’s famous love letters to his wife.

Finson said despite these anti-Semetic feelings, Schumann passionately denounced comments made by Franz Listz at a party shortly after Mendelssohn’s death and nearly started a fist fight with him as a result.

After providing background information about Schumann’s relationship with Mendelsshon, Finson moved on to the bulk of his speech dealing with one of Schumann’s lesser-known works, "Opus 95."

“The Schumanns were crushed by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn’s deaths,” Finson said. "Opus 95" is thought to express his love for them and show his grief.

Finson said the work not only expresses Schumann's grief, but also serves as a renunciation of his anti-Semetic feelings, as it uses the poems "Jeptha’s Daughter," "Sun of the Sleepless" and "Thy Days are Done" from Lord Byron’s "Hebrew Melodies."

Finson said this piece is very representative of Schumann’s later style, which is more experimental and dramatic than his earlier works, as evidenced especially in the movement “Jeptha’s Tochter” (Jeptha’s Daughter).

“With this piece, Schumann embraced a new tolerance at the end of his life by renouncing his previous anti-Semitism,” Finson said.

After playing a recording of "Opus 95" for the audience, Finson asked the audience if they even liked the piece, as it is so dramatically different from the early works of Schumann.

“It’s certainly not 'Dichterliebe,' is it?” he said.

Students said they came away with a better understanding of Schumann as an artist and a person.

“This gave me a new perspective on these three songs and exposure to works of Schumann that I have never had before,” said Josh Atkins, a bassoonist and graduate student in the School of Music.

Students were impressed with the extensive knowledge of Schumann that Finson, an author of several books about Schumann, provided in his speech.

“The speech was very informative,” junior music major Kyle Lee said. “There are few opportunities to get that much information about Schumann.”

The speech fit in with MU’s School of Music’s Chopin, Schumann and the Romantic Imagination: A Bicentenary Celebration this season.

“I’m trying to learn more about a lot of composers, and Schumann is a hot topic at the School of Music this semester,” Lee said. “I am glad I had the opportunity to learn from someone who has studied him so extensively.”

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