Schumann’s “Wonderfully Intimate Worlds”: An Interview with Benjamin Grosvenor

Schumann’s “Wonderfully Intimate Worlds”: An Interview with Benjamin Grosvenor

On February 8 and 9, the Houston Symphony welcomes renowned pianist Benjamin Grosvenor for the first weekend of the Schumann Festival, the signature event of our 2019–20 season. Grosvenor performs Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto at Jones Hall, as well as a one-night-only recital featuring the piano composition Kreisleriana.

Read on for Benjamin Grosvenor’s thoughts about Schumann, whom Grosvenor has called one of his favorite composers.

Houston Symphony: We look forward to welcoming you back to Houston for the Schumann Festival! What, in your opinion, makes Schumann’s music for piano unique compared to that of other composers?
Benjamin Grosvenor: Schumann was a uniquely mercurial personality; intellectual and innovative in the way that he constructed his music and in his approach to form, but emotionally highly volatile and expressive. His piano music is particularly special, inhabiting wonderfully intimate worlds, and with so much of it with the personal significance of having been written for or inspired by his wife, Clara.

HS: Schumann famously created two alter egos in his diaries, criticism, and music: the fiery Florestan and the dreamy Eusebius. Are there any passages you associate with these characters in the Piano Concerto?
BG: We see these two facets alternating with each other in the first movement of the concerto—even within the first few lines, where the passionate opening outburst dissipates into one of the most intimate and beautiful melodies. In this movement, we see this theme and its motives shaped and transformed into a number of different guises.

HS: Schumann was known for the links he created between music and literature. Does E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fiction influence the way you interpret Kreisleriana?
BG: I think Schumann identified strongly with E.T.A Hoffmann, and with the character Johannes Kreisler—a wild, eccentric, witty conductor prone to extreme changes of mood that appear manic depressive. He was “drawn constantly to and fro by his inner visions and dreams as if floating on an eternally undulating sea, searching in vain for the haven which would grant him the peace and serenity needed for his work.”

It is hard not to see in this something of Schumann himself, and the two musical characters he defined in his character and his work. It is also a piece in which Clara is very significant. He wrote to her, “There’s a very wild love in a few movements, and your life and mine and many of your looks.” It was written at a time when her father stood in the way of their relationship, and it is an emotionally varied work penned initially in just a few days of improvising at the piano. It has tender moments of introspection, but also those of agitation and perhaps even anger.

Join Benjamin Grosvenor and the Houston Symphony for Schumann Festival performances at Jones Hall on February 8 and 9! A limited number of seats are available for Grosvenor’s intimate Sky Bar Recital on February 8. Learn more and get tickets.

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