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In October, pianist Jonathan Biss set out on a vision quest, a season-long immersion in music by Robert Schumann. Biss and the members of England's Elias String Quartet have been exploring Schumann and associated composers in cities throughout Europe and North America, including a Carnegie Hall concert webcast live on this page (and at WQXR) Tuesday, April 2 at 8 p.m. ET.
Biss dubbed the tour Schumann: Under the Influence. In each of the 30-some performances Schumann is the centerpiece, surrounded by composers who inspired him and by successors as diverse as the 87-year-old György Kurtág and American composer Timothy Andres, still in his 20s. A new piano quintet by Andres will receive its New York premiere at the Carnegie concert.
To get his journey started, Biss penned a series of Schumann essays for NPR Music and then sat down to play Schumann's music and talk about it with Performance Today host Fred Child.
Schumann, Biss says, has always been a huge part of his life. He has bonded deeply with the composer, who he feels is both misunderstood and underrated.
"It would be fair to call Under the Influence an advocacy project," Biss writes on NPR Music's blog Deceptive Cadence. He also says that in trying to explain why Schumann's reputation needs rehabilitation he's surprised even himself.
"I feel protective of him. The feeling is there, unmistakably, but I recognize that it is bizarre. Schumann is, after all, one of history's best-represented composers, not an injured baby animal to be wrapped in a blanket."
Still, the misconceptions abound. And Biss is quick to dispel them, pointing out that Schumann's symphonies are indeed well orchestrated and that the late pieces, written after the composer's bout with mental illness, are far from incoherent.
There's no dispute, however, over the greatness of the Piano Quartet in E-flat. A staple of the chamber music repertoire, it also anchors the upcoming Carnegie performance.
"Some moments in Schumann's Piano Quartet have a euphoria much like that of the more famous Quintet," Biss says. "Others are reminiscent of his greatest piano works in the sense of the privacy and fragility they convey. Because Schumann is Schumann, these two sides belong to one another — they come together to make an improbable, magnificent whole."