Α melancholic ethic

In all kinds of work associated with Robert Schumann a ruminating protagonist draws on melancholy as an ascesis of affect to practice a post-classical critique of repetition and identity.

We see this role everywhere, from the Byronic unrepentant hero in his Manfred, op. 115, a “Dramatic Poem in Three Parts with Music” [1848] (now available as a film by Johannes Deutch, 2011), to Martin Geck’s Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer [2010] to Sophia Kapsourou’s four-act Greek play Schumann (2017), starring both the composer and a 21st-century pianist who jumps into the Rhine during the Robert Schumann Competition in Düsseldorf.  This central figure of 19th-century European culture is not sad or despondent but ethically melancholic.

We can find an excellent framework for the ultimate melancholic composer in the conclusion of “1837: Of the Refrain”, plateau no. 11 of Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus [1980], dated after the year of the first edition of Schumann’s Études Symphoniques, op. 13, for solo piano: “In Schumann, a whole learned labor, at once rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic, has this sober and simple result: deterritorialize the refrain. Produce a deterritorialized refrain as the final end of music, release it in the Cosmos — that is more important than building a new system. Opening the assemblage onto a cosmic force. In the passage from the one to the other, from the assemblage of sounds to the Machine that renders it sonorous, from the becoming child of the musician to the becoming-cosmic of the child, many dangers crop up: black holes, closures, paralysis of the finger and auditory hallucinations, Schumann’s madness, cosmic force gone bad, a note that pursues you, a sound that transfixes you. Yet one was already present in the other; the cosmic force was already present in the material, the great refrain in the little refrains, the great maneuver in the little maneuver. Except we can never be sure we will be strong enough, for we have no system, only lines and movements. Schumann” (350).

“Schumann” indeed since he does not have the canonizing strength and the legislative authority to build a system, as Beethoven or Brahms did. His melancholy is the mood of a critical rhythm that deterritorializes the dominant refrain/ritornello/ritournelle (in the authors’ terminology) of modern monumentality. It can be heard in the legendary piano commentaries concluding many of his lieder, like the conclusion of “The Two Grenadiers” (here starting at 3:58), or in the piano accompaniment of the second stanza of Wehmut/Melancholy, op. 39/9 (here between 0:56-1:44). I owe to Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, the most enlightening conversations on this topic.

Being “cosmic,” not universal, Schumann operates not as a towering solitary genius but as a “melancholy assemblage” of “lines and movements” that gathers in overlapping milieus extraordinary men and women — writers (Jean Paul, Heine), composers (Liszt, Brahms), musicians (Clara Wieck, Joachim), friends (Florestan and Eusebius), patrons, listeners, and many others. It is his melancholic view of the self in a “mental theatre” (Byron) that makes him a nodal point in the incandescent constellation of 1848. His is an example of those modes of melancholy that, instead of isolating people, bring them together to ask rhythmically/critically who reforms and who rebels after revolution and remorse.

June 14, 2017

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