Schumann’s Bach

I once attended a lecture on Boccherini’s cello concertos by a leading expert, and perhaps inevitably, someone brought up the issue of the B-flat cello concerto that most of us still know in its nineteenth-century arrangement by Friedrich Grützmacher (whose name, according to Dimitry Markevitch, translates delightfully as “mush-maker”).

I was expecting the scholar to denounce Grützmacher’s strange patchwork of several different Boccherini compositions into this unbalanced, now unfashionable hybrid, but he didn’t. He just shrugged and said “You can say what you like about Grützmacher, but if it hadn’t been for him, we mightn’t know about Boccherini now.”

I thought of this strange gratitude today as I was looking through some nineteenth-century editions of Bach’s cello suites for an article, including a few well-meaning attempts at piano accompaniments, most notably that of Robert Schumann. I’d heard of this years ago but never gone to much trouble to track it down. I think I’d mostly been amazed that a musician of Schumann’s perspicacity should have felt it necessary to add a gloss onto music that was already harmonically complete and perfect.

What I found surprised me. I suppose I’d expected a florid piano accompaniment in the Romantic virtuoso style, but it wasn’t that. Instead, it was surprisingly sensitive, not brutishly or capriciously done in the slightest. The texture was rather sparse, and wouldn’t overpower the solo cello even on today’s instruments. I have to say, I kind of liked it.

I wondered, is that what musicians like Schumann felt they had to do to make Bach’s music palatable to their contemporaries? Consider Mendelssohn’s adaptations of the St. Matthew Passion, made not out of  disregard for Bach’s original, but of consideration for the instruments available in 1820 and the realities of public performance.

I suppose we all make our own concessions to the performance culture we live in, whether we admit it or not. Without Mendelssohn, the performance history of Bach’s music could have taken a radically different direction. Mendelssohn and Schumann were Bach scholars as well as Romantic composers, and they loved Bach just as much, in their nineteenth-century way, as we do in our twenty-first-century one.

With this in mind, I’ve decided I’m going to try to convince one of my pianist friends to perform Schumann’s accompaniment with me, maybe alongside some of his chamber works for cello and piano. (I see this has already been done by Ensemble Villa Musica–I hadn’t heard the CD, but have just ordered it.)

Bach’s cello suites have a feeling of sacredness for me, but in a way so does Schumann. His piano accompaniment may be sacrilegious to modern sensibilities, but then, I’ve always enjoyed being an iconoclast.