sat 20/07/2024

First Person: Steven Isserlis on Schumann's advice to the young | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Steven Isserlis on Schumann's advice to the young

First Person: Steven Isserlis on Schumann's advice to the young

The cellist and writer on a new book annotating a great composer's wisdom

Schumann and Isserlis: wise words refractedBoth Isserlis images by Joanna Bergin

All musicians have particular musical passions, composers, styles or genres to which they are irresistibly drawn. I have many – almost too many at times; but among the most enduring is my love for the music, writing and personality of Robert Schumann. Another important aspect of my musical life – another passion, in fact - is the work I get to do with young musicians.

Writing (co-writing) this book has given me an opportunity to combine these passions/pleasures, by taking Schumann’s own invaluable advice for the young musicians of his day, and updating it in order to render it more accessible for today’s youngsters – as well as (I hope) for today’s musicians and music-lovers of all ages. Schumann was an idealist, a dreamer; but in these aphorisms for the young he combined wonderful imagination with an exactitude that keeps his pearls of wisdom precise and to the point. In fact, I’d say that around 25 percent of this book is taken up by his advice, and 75 percent by my interpretation of it as well as my own additional advice.  That may sound slightly imbalanced; but it’s the way the book worked out.

Schumann's Advice to the Young in GermanThe overall aim is to further Schumann’s ideals, which harmonise so well with the values which I was taught by the great teachers with whom I was lucky enough to work - such as Jane Cowan, Sándor Végh, György Kurtág and Ferenc Rados.  In their very different ways, all these giant figures passed on Schumann’s messages of musical idealism and purity.

I hope, though, that that does not make the book sound too serious or esoteric; it isn’t. Schumann was writing for youngsters (albeit extremely high-minded ones); his tone is at times playful, at times admonishing, at times profound. As for my additions – well, I can’t help lapsing into silliness at times. At one point my publisher offered the observation that a particular paragraph would perhaps fit better into one of my children’s books; I had to remind her that she wasn’t really dealing with a grown-up author here. (She took the reminder very graciously).  But my overall aim is serious; and I truly hope that this book will be of some use to those who read it.

Perhaps a few excerpts will give an idea of the general tone:

On Being a Musician

The object of art is not to acquire wealth. Become a great artist, and other things will come.

Ah, so right, so right – though few of us object to riches, if truth be told. But if earning a lot of money is your principal aim as a classical musician, then you’re in the wrong profession. (Try managing a hedge fund instead.) The same goes for applause: it’s lovely, and I don’t know of any musician who does not enjoy an enthusiastic reception (even if they pretend not to); but it must not be the main goal. An honest approach to music will not necessarily whip an audience into a frenzy (depending on the piece); it may leave them in thoughtful mode. But people with true sensitivity to music will feel your sincerity and be moved by it; and moving people is more important than impressing them.


Practise scales and other finger exercises diligently; but that alone is not enough. There are many people who think they can obtain great results in this way, and who spend many hours in such mechanical labour every day, right into old age. That is the equivalent of trying to pronounce the alphabet faster every day! You can employ your time more usefully.

Yes: the bad news is that one really does have to do some scales and exercises every day, just to discipline the fingers (or voice); but the good news is that they really shouldn’t take too long – they are merely a means to a far more enjoyable end. We always have to know why we’re doing them. Some people are tempted to think that if they’re suffering in their practice, they must be doing themselves good; but that’s a dangerous fallacy. I think of the scale and exercise routine with which I start each practice day as cleaning my cellistic teeth; I quite enjoy it, in fact – partly because it only takes about ten minutes. My fingers become reacquainted with the cello and the bow; and then I’m ready to start my real, creative work. Some people have gained a certain facility, I suppose, from endless scales and studies; but that’s not the same as acquiring a great technique. Genuine technical command allows us to play the music we’re performing without having to think about the difficulties; it gives us the freedom to listen to ourselves. The point of scales and exercises, ultimately, is to help our fingers/voices acquire the precision they need in order to produce the interpretation we hear in our heads/hearts.

Schumann's Album for the YoungComposing

If Heaven has bestowed on you a fine imagination, you will often spend your solitary hours seated spellbound at the piano; you will want to express the feelings of your heart in harmony, and the more elusive the sphere of harmony may perhaps be to you, the more mysteriously you will feel as if you are being drawn into a magic circle. In youth these may be your happiest hours. Beware, however, of abandoning yourself too often to the influence of a talent that induces you to lavish your powers and time upon phantoms. Mastery over the forms of composition and a clear expression of your ideas can be attained only by constant writing.

Write, therefore, more than you improvise.

This feels autobiographical. We know that the young Schumann spent countless hours at his beloved piano; his genius probably began to manifest itself there. But as he confessed to Hummel in an early letter: "The fact that I sat at the piano all day and improvised proves nothing." There’s a difference between playing whatever comes into your head and real composing. (We’re not talking about jazz here, by the way – that’s something else altogether.) Beethoven’s improvisations were said to have been extraordinary and unique, and probably gave him invaluable new ideas; but that doesn’t mean that he could have improvised his great works. Some of his later pieces took him several years to complete, in fact, each note hewn with huge effort; one can feel that in the seeming inevitability, the extraordinary depth of the music. The same goes for speech. People can give wonderful speeches off the cuff, of course; but a Shakespeare play, with its layers of meanings and hidden connections, had to be written down and worked upon with infinite care in order to attain the profound universality that has spoken to generation after generation.

Isserlis in action

From my own advice

On Being a Musician

Don’t overestimate the importance of beauty for its own sake. Many people can make a more-or-less beautiful sound; but truth is what we should be seeking, with beauty almost as a by-product. It’s the same as speech: very nice if you have a good speaking voice – but it’s what you say that matters. Similarly, beware of becoming a "projection-junkie". Be aware that your audience has to hear your performance clearly, of course; but don’t become obsessed with being as loud as possible at all times. If an actor were to stride to the front of the stage and yell out the speech "To be or not to be" at the top of his voice, no doubt people would hear every word; but they wouldn’t hear the meaning.

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