Schumann’s Swiss Journey in 1829
Berne, 31st August 1829
To his mother
[Berne, 31st August 1829
My letter from Basle will by now have arrived in Zwickau; if the heaven of my heart was already full of violins over there, now I am nearly out of my mind with joy. The poet’s eye is the best and richest; I take the objects not the way they are but how I perceive them within me subjectively, and so one lives more lightly and freely; for instance, we have had beastly weather for the last four days and the sky has shrouded its Alps and glaciers to me in a quite bitter and angry manner, but the more the world is limited from the outside, the more it grows through the imagination on the inside, and so I imagined all the dark Alps to be perhaps even more beautiful and higher. Of course, in such a situation, it would be better to just stay put, delve into a book and let the Alps be the Alps; but my answer does not frighten me, as my reward is the allure of the distance and of the presence on old classic mountains, and this feel has poetically excited hundreds of others before, without including the practical and robust experience of travelling.
After this slightly learned discourse, I will continue my letter from Basle in some short strokes à la Hogarth or Titian. In the morning, the weather was pure and good; the Englishmen, with whom I was travelling, could not understand why I had chosen the rather uncomfortable seat on the coach box. – But you will understand it: in this way, I could exchange a few fleeting words with a young grieving widow from Havre de Grace from the box into the coach, which were returned with fleeting and not so very grieving glances. You see, I am open, like a child. There is not much I can say about the abundance and beauty of the drove-roads and meadows; the Rhine moved on with me, and on the other side, there were green, powerful and lovely mountains; anyway, as much as the Alps were still smiling children here, now they had grown into smiling old men. I spent the night in Baden, a health resort [in Aargau/Switzerland], which is not [the health resort of] Baden-Baden in [the Grand Duchy of] Baden [now part of Baden-Württemberg/Germany], but there I found again the cheerful life of the health resorts; there were a lot of Germans - by the way, quite an exception – then there was music and, of course, dancing. The grieving widow was flying around as if her husband was still alive. - - - - - From Zurich, I walked to Zug via the Albis. I wish you would pick up a map for all my reports, so that you could travel after me, so to speak. This hike was really superb and also not tiring because of the constant beautiful variety; I walked along the street alone, a little knapsack on my back, swinging my hiking stick in the alpine air, stopping every few minutes, and looking back to firmly engrave in my memory all those marvellous Swiss paradises. Man is not as unhappy as he thinks he is; he has a heart and this heart finds its most beautiful echo in nature. I leapt down the Albis like a gazelle, and when all those giants, covered with foliage or ice, and the lakes with their dark green peacock wings rose, and the herds leapt on the mountains, and the village and herd bells rang down from the mountains, I went very quiet and silent and moved on only slowly, my eyes riveted on the mountains.
Oh! Spare me the description for now how I jumped up onto the Rigi and how I stood miles above ground and how the sun set and how I saw it rising again and how complete strangers closely stood next to each other like siblings and how I managed to steal some beautiful glances even from a beautiful Englishwoman, and how the whole of Switzerland rested in front of me, quiet and grand, like in prehistoric times.
Now ride with me over a dozen of laughing lakes and climb the mountains with me, to Sarnen, Lake Lucerne, Lucerne, Lake Sarnen, Brienz, the Giessbach, Interlaken, and Thun, and sit down with me now in Berne and let me clasp your hand and let me thank my father who was able to make his sons so happy. After three days of execrable weather, the sky has now reopened its sleepy blue eye and shows me again the mountains in the distance. How beautiful Berne is! The most beautiful town in Switzerland, or even more than that. –
Turned away from the visual world, everything becomes surer, clearer and firmer in the distance of the past and of recollections; there, enthusiasm becomes a fiery, serene, Greek peace, and any depictions become purer, calmer and more divine. Hence brace yourself for the description to come later, where you will have to work your way through mazes of words.
Tomorrow, I will leave from here for Lake Maggiore, via the Gemmi [Pass]; I hope to be in Milan in five to six days’ time. If ever I manage to remain faithful to my tender thought, each of my relatives will receive a letter from my journey; those to you and Eduard are ready now; the next one should be sent from Lake Maggiore to Julius, the fourth one from Milan to Emilie, the fifth one from Verona to Therese, the sixth one from Venice to Rosalie, and the seventh one from Innsbruck to Karl.
The English climb the mountains like mad ants; they are good and gentle people and only God knows why they are treated so appallingly badly in Germany, given that they have to pay for their stay dear enough. The proportion between the English and other nationalities travelling in Switzerland is something like one to eight.
As frugally as I tried to live, I still needed four to five thalers, sometimes even five to six every day. Travelling is extremely expensive: for instance, for the trip from Basle to Schaffhausen (fourteen hours), I had to pay fourteen thalers!! In Italy, I hope I will get by with two thalers a day.
This will have been enough for you, dear mother, and I am concluding now, as the clock has just struck four and the waiter is ringing to the table d’hôte. I find it difficult to have to stay hungry until four o’clock.
Please pass on thousands of greetings to everyone and please tell everyone that despite all those Alps, dear Zwickau still remains my cherished Zwickau. Why does one love more warmly and more extensively from afar? Farewell, dear mother, and please excuse my scrawling, and if ever an avalanche buries me or I fall onto an alpine mountain or I am struck by lightning, please do not weep for me, as I would die beautifully and more grandly and more freshly than on a sickbed.
Kissing you and being with you forever,
Your son Robert]
[Milan, 5th October 1829
This is what fate does to man, dear Rosalie! I wanted to be and should have been in Innsbruck eight days ago but now I am still stuck in Milan for the second time. I find it impossible to write a lot today, for the only reason that I do not feel like boring you and me. Hence a concise tale of my woes in seven chapters, from how I felt in Venice until today. My letter to Emilie from Venice will be with you by now, I hope. So then: -
Chapter one of the tale of my woes:
A beautiful evening had inspired me to go out to sea, so I took a Venetian gondola and rode outside, far outside – God knows for how long; but then on the return ride, I was overcome by fits of seasickness.
Chapter two, consisting of
abdominal pain, stomach cramps, headache and vomiting, diarrhoea, feeling sick, that is, a living and gnawing death.
Feeling frightened, I called a doctor who actually cured me over as much time as I could have helped myself, that is, over three days. In return, he did not hesitate to ask for a whole Napoléon d’or which I was good-natured enough to give him.
After a closer inspection of my wallet, it turned out that, although everything is possible according to my old belief system, it was impossible in this case to return to Germany. I therefore decided on something else but this will come only in chapter six.
In the middle of this wallet and other embarrassments, I was hit by a shameful scam where I had to assume the role of the victim. A merchant, with whom I had travelled from Brescia, ran away with a whole Napoléon d’or, so that I was left with hardly enough to pay for my flat in Venice.
Tragic struggle between good and evil within me: whether to sell or not to sell the watch that my mother had once given me. But then the good genius awoke in me and I preferred to take another trip of thirty miles instead of giving in.
Chapter seven - and last.
Now I am sitting here in a fast stagecoach, with a sad and phlegmatic face, squeezed into a corner, thinking how happy those students must be who are able to sit together now with their sisters-in-law. – It was a deadly mood, a fit of homesickness. Then I thought of Zwickau, how beautiful it is when it fades away in the evening, carried by the sun, and people sit on benches in front of their houses and the children play or wade around in the flowing mountain water, as I did myself at the time, and so many other things. - - -
These, dear Rosalie, are the amenities of travelling in Italy. How good I felt when I heard the German tongue again at the Reichmann Hotel in Milan, you can believe me that [Milan being Austrian-controlled and German-speaking at the time]. My first request to Reichmann in Milan was for money, something he had already offered me during my first stay here; and so he gave me sixteen Napoléons d’or, without questioning me about my personal or my family circumstances, with no interest, etc. – That was just another good German.
So, dear Schumann family, you have now read all about my woes from my part, which God may safeguard you from; and dear family, please do keep in your thoughts your hard-pressed relative, who still has to climb quite some damn mountains before he can see his home country again.
Dear Rosalie, you can believe me that I would definitely prefer to return to you and to Saxony, instead of Heidelberg. - - Italian women are beautiful; nevertheless, others are beautiful, too, for instance, a certain person in Schneeberg, whom I should kindly request you to give my regards to. –
Carl will receive my next letter from Germany.
Please kiss your little golden angel from me and send this letter to mother in Zwickau, to make sure she does not worry about her little baby. Kindest regards to everyone and you with all due loyalty and love as always.
Your Robert S.]
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