Notes 60.1 (2003) 165-167
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Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann & Brahms. By John Daverio. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. [viii, 310 p. ISBN 0-19-513296-3. $49.95.] Music examples, illustrations, index.
John Daverio's new book probes various kinds of intersections among the three composers listed in the subtitle. Like all first-rate musicological work, the book blends purposeful speculation with meticulous research. Its organization into three parts is both logical and graceful, and each of the seven chapters has much to offer. Part 2 (chaps. 3-5) offers critical insight into the music of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and is not only the center but also the heart of the book. Entitled "Uttering 'Clara' in Tones," these three chapters treat the expression of love for Clara Schumann in music of both her husband and Johannes Brahms. Daverio devotes the first of these chapters to evaluating the assumptions upon which the so-called Clara motive rests. Eric Sams first described this putative cipher almost four decades ago ("Did Schumann Use Ciphers?,"Musical Times 106 (1965): 584- 91); since then it has appeared in many exegeses of works by both Schumann and [End Page 165] Brahms. After a preliminary exposure of weaknesses in Sams's methodology, Daverio pursues a number of related questions and, in so doing, summons a succession of vivid images of early-nineteenth-century culture. To begin with, he finds the rules of the game that underlie the nine incontrovertible instances of musical ciphers in Schumann's life work—not one of which uses the Clara motive—and shows that these rules do not hold in Sams's examples. In a further dismantling of the critical edifice, Daverio discusses a fascinating manual of cryptography that Sams had adduced as empirical evidence.
After discussing, among other things, an encrypted message and its sinister context in Edgar Allen Poe's story "The Gold-Bug," Daverio asserts that "in describing Schumann as a cryptographer we are hardly making a neutral biographical observation," for we are placing him "in the company of shady figures" (p. 87). Cryptograms, furthermore, are concealed messages made from arbitrary signs, whereas we are meant to easily decode Schumann's ciphers, which use real signs, namely the letters denoting musical pitches. In a final interpretive move, Daverio proposes that Schumann's procedures make him a "pictographer" rather than a cryptographer. This leads into a dazzling discussion of rebuses, Schumann's compositions for children, an essay by Walter Benjamin about children's books, and nineteenth-century parlor games.
In chapter 4, Daverio examines Brahms's use of musical ciphers, noting that the pieces based on them were, like those by Schumann, for the most part "cast for media associated with the bourgeois drawing room" (p. 108). He uncovers the rules of the game for Brahms, which not surprisingly closely resemble those for Schumann, and then the somewhat different rules that underlie the use of ciphers by their mutual friend, the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim. Debunking purported appearances of the Clara motive in Brahms's music, Daverio points instead to other kinds of homage to persons whom he revered in compositions based on ciphers.
Acknowledging that both Schumann and Brahms must have tried to capture Clara in tones in some way, he offers a compelling alternative in chapter 5: interpolations "into the folds of preexistent musical textures" (p. 131). Daverio develops the evocative and striking image of a fan, folded and unfolded, "a signifier for the erotic experience but also a metaphor for the process of remembrance" (p. 128), to convey these effects, which abound in Schumann's music. The interpolations take a number of forms: disruptions of the temporal flow, layered insertions into self-sufficient textures, and, in the case of the eight Novelletten, a succession of "interlocking interpolations" (p. 139). Citing many instances in which Robert interpolated brief passages from Clara's music into his own, Daverio also points to similar practices in the compositions of both Clara and Brahms. Thus, in a discussion of Brahms's early and remarkably allusive Variations on a Theme of Schumann...