Telling music's greatest love story...
Robert and Clara Schumann's intense relationship has long fascinated music lovers. Now their story once again comes to life through a new project from Sting, Trudie Styler and friends.
There are few love stories in the history of classical music to compare with that of Robert and Clara Schumann. From their early forbidden romance through to Robert's tragic death in a mental asylum, their life together was a romantic roller-coaster, and one that has long proved magnetic for musicians and audiences alike. Now a special project, Twin Spirits, written and directed by John Caird, is bringing Robert and Clara to life again, with the help of some of today's most sympathetic musicians and featuring, as the musical lovers, Sting and his wife Trudie Styler.
Sting and Styler may not at first seem the obvious candidates to portray an unstable 19th-century composer and his beloved, but on reflection it's hard to imagine anyone better. As they said when I met them at the filming of Twin Spirits: 'Like Robert and Clara, we have a long-term relationship and we don't have to act so hard to be in love!'
It's not the first time the story of Robert and Clara has been brought to the stage by actors and musicians in collaboration. It lends itself particularly well because there's such a wealth of material to draw on - letters, diaries and an intimate document known as their 'marriage diary', a book in which they took turns to record their hopes, insecurities and anxieties for each other's benefit.
One thing that's especially compelling about this new production is the way that it's stage-managed. The performance space divides into symmetrical halves, one male, the other female. There's a piano on each side, played by lain Burnside and Natasha Paremski; each has a singer, respectively Simon Keenlyside and Rebecca Evans; and each a string player, violinist Sergei Krylov and cellist Natalie Clein. The music includes Lieder by both Schumanns, an extract from Mozart's Don Giovanni and Chopin's variations on it, and Robert's piano piece 'Traumerei' from Kinderszenen, arranged for two pianos and the string players, besides a substantial chunk of the D minor Piano Trio. And presiding over everything is the narrator DerekJacobi, his beautiful voice and quiet yet magnetic presence serving as a unifying force.
Robert first met Clara when she was only a child. Her parents, unusually for the time, were divorced and she lived with her father, Friedrich Wieck, a piano professor who groomed her relentlessly for prodigydom. Robert, a pupil of Wieck, lodged in their house and suffered a turbulent life, including several unfortunate romances and a broken engagement; his penchant for extreme living and heavy drinking made Wieck view him as a distinctly unsuitable prospective son-in-law.
As the relationship between Robert and Clara deepened, Wieck took stronger measures to keep them apart. When he forbade them to meet, Robert began writing piano music for Clara in which he buried musical ciphers. When she played those pieces, the theory went, they would be united in spirit. Eventually the young couple took Wieck to court where they campaigned for their right to marry, and won. Their wedding took place one day before Clara's 21 st birthday.
Their early years were filled with the usual concerns and pleasures of newly weds; the difficulties of pregnancy; the joys of parenthood. But other troubles were brewing: Robert's expectation that Clara's role was as wife and mother when her raison d'etre had always been her playing; the pressures of supporting a family on the income of a composer. And beyond that there loomed a more sinister issue: Robert's mood swings and tendency to instability.
'I think Schumann's personality is reflected in his music,' says Sting. 'It has all those levels of emotion, from the playful to the alienated. As an actor I have to play someone who today would be called bipolar - he goes from one extreme to the next. It's quite a challenge!'
Styler adds: 'To hear their music alongside their letters is very empathetic. And when you hear the music played by such accomplished musicians, it transports you; it enables the characters to breathe through you.'
In 1853, the young Brahms arrived on the Schumanns' doorstep in Dusseldorf. Twenty years old, fair haired, blue eyed and phenomenally gifted, he swept them both off their feet when he played his piano compositions to them. Soon he was virtually a member of the household. He was popular with the children, revered Robert and soon developed a desperate crush on Clara.
Five months later, in 1854, Schumann attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. A boat saved him, but he himself elected to go into a mental hospital at Endenich, near Bonn, afraid that he might harm Clara or the children. Clara was forbidden to see him in case her presence upset him, and it was only when he was dying, two years later, that she was finally summoned to his bedside. 'I have no love left to give,' she says in Twin Spirits after he dies. 'He's taken it all with him.'
Clara never remarried, though there are many more letters - often in exchange with the devoted Brahms - whose words in their turn are intensely moving. She lived to a ripe old age and enjoyed world renown as a pianist and teacher.
Then she developed arthritis in her fingers and could no longer play the big virtuoso works, Brahms began to write short piano pieces for her. When Clara died in 1896, Brahms was distraught; less than a year later, he too was dead.
With this intense story combined with wonderful music, it's no wonder that people are still falling under the spell of the Schumanns. But Sting has another point to make: such collaborations between actors and musicians that the Schumanns' story inspires are a way of bringing this music to a new audience. To this end the proceeds of the Twin Spirits DVD are going to the Royal Opera House Foundation, which contributes to the ROH's education work.
'We're trying to get kids interested in music, opera and ballet when they would never be exposed to it otherwise,' Sting explains. 'Once people see this kind of thing they may think: I'll have a go at that. Anything that brings people into theatres who wouldn't normally come is good. And it makes the music less abstract if there's a story behind it.'
And this story seems to touch every heart it reaches, as Sting and Styler discovered when they performed Twin Spirits at Windsor Castle for HRH the Prince of Wales. 'He cried!' Styler reports. 'He was extremely moved by it.' Sting adds, a touch wryly: 'Well, he's no stranger to difficult love relationships.'
© CLASSICfM By Jessica Cuchen