Last Thursday, iPalpiti Artist International kicked off their 13th Annual Festival of International Laureates not with a chamber music concert, but with a screening of Spring Symphony (1986) (imdb.com), a bittersweet drama about the careers and romance of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck. On the whole, I enjoyed the film’s portrayal of 19th century European society, the hard life faced by even the most accomplished musicians, and Schumann’s determination to succeed against all odds. His future wife, of course, is the young and innocent martyr, suffering at the hands of a greedy (if not outright abusive) father and being cheated on by her patriarchal husband-to-be. Unfortunately, “abusive” takes on not only the connotations hinted at in rumors of the time, but also a more sinister meaning.
Although there’s plenty of historical evidence to support creating a dramatized conflict between Clara Wieck and her father, the movie strongly hints at an incestuous relationship. This inadvertently brings to the surface questions about “artistic license.” Where is it appropriate to draw the line? Amadeus (1984) (imdb.com) has convinced two generations of the musical illiterati that Antonio Salieri was an envious murderer and Joseph II was a simpleton. If it were possible for Spring Symphony to gain a similar level of popularity here in the United States, then perhaps we’d see the same effect on Friedrich Wieck’s already tarnished reputation.
So, why is it acceptable to invent horrible stories about someone long deceased purely for our own entertainment? Doing the same for someone alive today might bring about a slander or libel suit, but those from the past don’t have that freedom. Although it might be difficult to build an economic case around this, there’s surely room for an ethical one. The facts alone are certainly enough to create a moving story, and disputes among historians offer plenty of opportunities for creative interpretation, while still remaining within range of what’s probable. Spring Symphony probably won’t discourage anyone from purchasing Wieck’s exercises, but our society’s continued acceptance of adulterated truth should be mourned.