by Hermann Max

My childhood remained largely untouched by the hardships of the war, in part because my father was not drafted into the army. He was given a deferment, although he never belonged to a political party.

Piano-playing and singing were favored pursuits in my family. Music, and the humanity of my parents, who were strongly marked by the menacing circumstances in the time up to 1945, were the decisive influences in my childhood. The musical life in the city of Goslar was rich in tradition, and strengthened my inclination towards music in the years that followed: I was already an active participant in it while still in school. But it was my studies with Uwe Groß in Braunschweig (now emeritus professor in Herford) that led to my career choice. This study was preceded by piano lessons from the age of ten and violin lessons during the last three years of my schooling.

Fürchtenmachen and Glückes genug from Schumann’s Kinderscenen were my favorite childhood pieces, and I played them tirelessly and with unending delight, incorporating a wide variety of rubati. My parents liked these pieces too, but, when my stamina was particularly great, they were sometimes seized with the irresistible urge to go out for a walk. When I began practicing Schumann’s little gems, reading difficulties led to involuntary rubati, which however shortly gave way to more skillful ones.

As I began thinking about rubato in seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century music many years later, I thought back on those early tempo liberties. It occurred to me that when playing from original sources, rubati might well result from the difficulties of reading those often illegible manuscripts, rather than from some artful attempt to convey affect: a pure fancy of mine, perhaps.

Imagination possibly also played a part in the impression I had when playing the Kreisleriana, the Arabesque, as well as in my study of Schumann’s songs: I often felt as if another person were speaking through his music, rather than himself. It always seemed to me that Schumann inhabited a faraway place, beyond reality…not so far-fetched a notion in the time of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Wackenroder and Tieck. It seems to me that certain moments in his music are hidden heralds of his tragic end.

Schumann’s slide from reality into a fantasy world seemed apparent to me in his G-minor piano sonata. The first movement is marked So schnell wie möglich (as fast as possible). On the second-to-last page of this movement it says Schneller (faster), and then after the last turn, Noch schneller (still faster). At first I found this absurd. But I soon recognized it as a brilliant setting of the crossing of a frontier: with excessive haste rushing away into a nebulous realm, into the freedom of eternity.