Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The ghost of Robert Schumann

Yesterday, I was driving home from work, and was listening to Symphony Hall, the classical music station on Sirius-XM Satellite Radio, and the announcer said that we'd be hearing the Violin Concerto in D Minor of the brilliant and tragic composer Robert Schumann.

"And there's quite a story to go with it," he said, and proceeded to tell us how the composer had written the piece in 1853, three years before his death, for his friend and fellow musician Joseph Joachim.  Joachim, however, thought the piece too dark to have any chance at popularity, and after Schumann attempted suicide in 1854 the sheet music was deposited at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, and everyone forgot about it.

In 1933, eighty years later, two women conducting a séance in London were alarmed to hear a "spirit voice" that claimed to be Schumann, and that said they were to go to the Prussian State Library to recover an "unpublished work" and see to it that it got performed.  So the women went over to Berlin, and found the music -- right where the "spirit" said it would be.

Four years later, in 1937, a copy was sent anonymously to the great conductor Yehudi MenuhinImpressed, and delighted to have the opportunity to stage a first performance of a piece from a composer who had been dead for 84 years, he premiered it in San Francisco in October of that year.  But the performance was interrupted by one of the two women who had "talked to Schumann," who claimed that she had a right to first performance, since she'd been in touch with the spirit world about the piece and had received that right from the dead composer himself!

We then got to hear the piece, which is indeed dark and haunting and beautiful, and you should all give it a listen.

Having been an aficionado of stories of the paranormal since I was a teen -- which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a long time ago -- it's not often that I get to hear one that I didn't know about before.  Especially, given my love for music, one involving a famous composer.  So I thought this was an intriguing tale, and when I got home I decided to look into it, and see if there was more known about the mysterious piece and its scary connection to séances and ghosts.

And -- sorry to disappoint you if you bought the whole spirit-voice thing -- there is, indeed, a lot more to the story.

Turns out that the announcer was correct that violinist Joachim, when he received the concerto, didn't like it much.  He commented in a letter that the piece showed "a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy, though certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feelings of the creative artist."  And he not only tucked it away at the Prussian State Library, he included a provision in his will (1907) that the piece should not be performed until 1956, a hundred years after Schumann's death.  So while it was forgotten, it wasn't perhaps as unknown as the radio announcer wanted us to think.

Which brings us up to the séance, and the spirit voice, and the finding of the manuscript -- conveniently leaving out the fact that the two woman who were at the séance, Jelly d'Arányi and Adila Fachiri, were sisters -- who were the grand-nieces of none other than Joseph Joachim himself!

Funny how leaving out one little detail like that makes a story seem like it admits of no other explanation than the supernatural, isn't it?  Then you find out that detail, and... well, not so much, any more.

It's hard to imagine that d'Arányi and Fachiri, who were fourteen and nineteen years old, respectively, when their great-uncle died, wouldn't have known about his will and its mysterious clause forbidding the performance of Schumann's last major work.  d'Arányi and Fachiri themselves were both violinists of some repute, so this adds to their motivation for revealing the piece, with the séance adding an extra frisson to the story, especially in the superstitious and spirit-happy 1930s.  And the forwarding of the piece to Menuhin, followed by d'Arányi's melodramatic crashing of the premiere, has all of the hallmarks of a well-crafted publicity stunt.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed to discover how easy this one was to debunk.  Of course, I don't know that my explanation is correct; maybe the two sisters were visited by the ghost of Robert Schumann, who had been wandering around in the afterlife, pissed off that his last masterwork wasn't being performed.  But if you cut the story up using Ockham's Razor, you have to admit that the spirit-voices-and-séance theory doesn't make nearly as much sense as the two-sisters-pulling-a-clever-hoax theory.

A pity, really, because a good spooky story always adds something to a dark, melancholy piece of music.  I may have to go listen to Danse Macabre, The Drowned Cathedral, and Night on Bald Mountain, just to get myself back into the mood.

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