On Jan. 15 at the Gardner Museum, pianist Jonathan Biss and his mother, violinist Miriam Fried, perform the second of two concerts pairing works of Robert Schumann and Bela Bartók. Biss will open the program with “Gesänge der Frühe” (“Songs of Dawn”), the last work Schumann completed before suffering a catastrophic mental breakdown. The work, rarely performed, has often been interpretively shadowed by Schumann’s tragic descent into madness. But at its core are the kind of extrapolations of music’s rhetorical quirks that enthralled Schumann from the start — one of which would provide counterpoint to a study of a different art form: photography.
In 1980, French thinker and theorist Roland Barthes published “La Chambre claire” (or, in Richard Howard’s English translation, “Camera Lucida”), a “note on photography.” Soon after, Barthes was struck by a car, dying a month later at the age of 64. “La Chambre claire” is itself permeated with death, in particular Barthes’s grief over the loss of his mother. In its most famous section, Barthes sorts through old photographs of his mother, searching for one that might present more than mere shadows — “looking for the truth of the face I had loved,” as he wrote. And he finds it: His mother, age 5, standing with her brother in a greenhouse, a winter garden, the picture somehow capturing for Barthes something of his mother’s essence. (Provocatively, Barthes did not include the image in the book: “It exists only for me.”)
Barthes compares the photograph to “the last music Schumann wrote before collapsing, that first ‘Gesang der Frühe’ which accords with both my mother’s being and my grief at her death.” At first glance, the reference seems simply sentimental, echoing the music’s biographically elegiac aura. But a closer look reveals deeper possibilities. The first movement of “Gesänge der Frühe” is a measured chorale, saturated with Baroque-style dissonance. In traditional practice, such clashes temporarily fracture musical time: One voice lingers while the harmony shifts, or vice versa. But Schumann makes the disjunction systemic, pushing the bass line and the rest of the texture insistently out of sync for long stretches.
Which exactly mirrors part of Barthes’s analysis: Photography’s poignancy is that every photograph perturbs the flow of time, hanging onto a moment long after everyone and everything it touches — the subject, the era, the observer — have moved on. As with Schumann’s expansion of Baroque practice, the unresolved temporal discrepancy creates expression.
“Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other,” Barthes concluded, “tame if its realism remains relative,” but “mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time.” Such, indeed, is Schumann’s music, ever singular and simultaneous, caught in life’s exterior flow — and interior eddies.
Fried and Biss perform Jan. 15, 1:30 p.m., at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. 617-278-5156, gardnermuseum.org