This morning I finished 1853 A Year in Music by High MacDonald. It sorted out a whole lot of misconceptions about composers’ and performers’ lives. Liszt, Berlioz, Schumann – Robert and Clara, Brahms, to name only the most famous, were zig-zagging about Germany performing, meeting, talking and planning non-stop. Every now and again they managed some composing. Wagner was exiled from Germany, but they all went to Switzerland or Austria to meet him, or they all spent time in Paris where technically Berlioz lived and worked, he also visited and performed in London. Verdi dropped by, but didn’t meet up with them. It was the amount of travelling they did, both the famous and many others less well-known today, that astonished me.
I had always thought of Brahms as a big solid man with enormous hands. Pianist friends had told me that you needed a giant span to reach his chords. He turns out to be (in 1853) a slight, shy, beautiful young man, with a high voice and modest bearing. Nearly silent in company, but an acknowledged genius both as a pianist and a composer almost from his first appearance. He was also a perfectionist. Many of the compositions played in 1853 were never published as he felt they were not good enough.
Clara Schumann comes to life as both a hardworking pianist/composer and an astonishingly devoted wife and mother. Liszt is a dynamo, moving, stirring, managing, travelling non-stop, composing, playing. Robert Schumann, firing on half his cylinders, a somewhat lost soul, in the last year before his confinement in a mental home. Wagner a frustrated exile, a troubled hypochondriac, full of gigantic plans and dependent on friends, both for society and money.
I just don’t know how they coped with all the travel. It was dizzying even to read about it.