The passion, music and melancholy of the Schumanns comes to life in letters and song.

There are words, and then there is music. In a few rare cases, the two can come together in a way that each throws light of aspects of the other. The Schumanns: Love and Life in Letters and Song, is a production which aims to do just that, promising to bring to the stage all the sweetness, the sorrow and the ardour contained in the music of German über-Romantic Robert Schumann.

The Schumanns: young love

The composer will be portrayed by the multi-talented actor and musician Philip Quast, who starred in the STC’s production of Waiting for Godot headed to London next year, while his virtuoso pianist wife will be in the hands and voice of musical theatre star Lisa McCune who has just finished thrilling audiences in The King and I.

Quast is no stranger to German lieder, and the work of Schumann in particular. “I am of German descent although I grew up on a farm in NSW so I had little contact with any music except country and western,” he explains. “However my grandmother had sheet music lying around, all of which seemed to be in German. In that music was copy of Schubert’s Winteriesse – beautifully bound in green leather with gold lettering – and an old tattered collection of Schuman songs.” The budding actor went to NIDA where he took vocal classes. “I had a singing lesson once a week and somehow Schumann’s Ich grolle nicht became the song I worked on,” he confesses. “It struck such a chord (no pun intended) that I became obsessed with the art of song, and particularly Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op39.”

The focus of the show is of course the life and marriage of two musical geniuses – a tumultuous union that gave rise to many well-known compositions, but less well known will be the texts, which include letters, amassed in volumes, and writings from a shared journal. The Schumanns draws on this revealing correspondence.

Andrew Greene of Lyrics Arts Incorporated describes their correspondence as “a sort of 19th century equivalent of texting. Their format was a house journal, which contained everything from short notes or letters, ideas, jokes, criticisms and complaints of the ‘you forgot to buy the milk again’ variety.”

The couple’s words are featured in the show alongside Schumann’s much loved lieder work, which Greene believes contains clear autobiographical overtones. Mezzo Sally Anne Russell and baritone Byron Watson will take on the vocal leads while Greene hopes the show will cultivate a further interest in music for piano and voice: “I’m hoping that by hearing their story in their own words it may make the journey into their music a more interesting and lead people to examine their vocal repertoire a bit further.”

Robert Schumann’s marriage to Clara was not without difficulties. Their engagement faced much opposition from her frequently furious disciplinarian father, his former teacher Friedrick Wieck. After a laborious court case, the Schumanns won, and the pair wedded in 1840. The distress stemming from this incident is just one of many misfortunes that marked Schumann’s life with tragedy.

The Schumanns in later life

The unfortunate composer suffered from mental illness throughout his life. Doctors diagnosed him with a form of psychotic melancholia and suffering of this nature is discernable in his music. Philip Quast can clearly empathise: “There was deep down a strange melancholy pain in the Schumanns – even the love songs – which moved me.”

Robert went on to fling himself into the Rhine. The attempted suicide saw him committed to a mental asylum where he died two years later. Quast is candid about what he clearly feels is a personal connection. “I have struggled so much with my own mental health the last ten years I now understand why his music affects me the way his does,” he admits. “We are all capable of behaving in the worst and the best possible ways given a particular environment and circumstance. In order to understand this you have to empathise and not judge. I feel this in Schumann’s music. But when you are as sensitive as he was it can also destroy you.”

During the time of his incarceration, Clara was forbidden to see him. Clara herself suffered a great deal. The couple are nonetheless characterised by a strong bond of enduring love. Robert Alexander, who will be narrating says: “I think the audience will enjoy the unraveling of their early relationship, the dedication to each other in the face of parental opposition and the beautiful juxtaposition of music and the truthful story of a remarkable couple.”

Quast sums it up a little more darkly. “There is a line by Old Adam in As You Like It where he is talking about how ones virtues can become ‘sanctified and holy traitors’. ‘Oh, what a world is this when what is comely envenoms him that bears it!’ It’s self explanatory, but when you hear Jacqueline du Pré play the first movement of Schumann’s cello concerto it becomes doubly painful.”

The show is at the Studio Theatre at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday, October 28 at 7.30. Tickets are $40 with a concession rate of $20.