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Robert Schumann’s Small and Large Universes

Creativity measured in small and large form piano compositions

In 1834 Schumann founded the music journal Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik. For a decade, he edited and wrote music criticism for this publication. He championed the work of numerous young composers. (Read his first published article, a review on Chopin’s Opus 2) His writings embodied the most progressive artistic aesthetics of the time. In his journal Schumann often wrote under two pseudonyms – Eusebius (his sensitive, lyrical side) and Florestan (his fiery, stormy side). These characters were members of Schumann’s fictitious “Band of David” (along with Mozart, Chopin, Paganini and Berlioz among others) – an artistic brotherhood sworn to battle against the Philistines, the purveyors of all that was antiquated, mediocre, and shallow in contemporary music and culture.

Robert and Clara Schumann, 1850

Robert and Clara Schumann, 1850

During this period Schumann composed primarily for the piano. Among these piano compositions were the “Abegg Variations,” Op. 1 (1830); “Davidsbundlertanze” (“Dances of the Band of David”), Op. 6 (1837); “Carnaval,” Op. 9 (1835) – a portrait of a masked ball attended by his allies and his beloved Clara; “Phantasiestucke,” Op. 12 (1837) – a series of mood pieces; “Kreisleriana,” Op. 16 (1838) – a fantasy on the mad Kapellmeister Kreisler from a short story by E.T.A. Hoffman; and “Kinderszenen,” Op. 15 (1838) – a poetic series of evocations of a child’s world. The uncompromisingly lofty and elaborate pianistic demands of these works and their widely varied range of dynamic nuances and densely textured web of primary and secondary voices confounded audiences at their initial performances.

The Schumann’s sonata form (or sonata form-like) compositions, little can be explained from the standpoint of tradition. Instead of classical dramatic contrasts, thematic action develops towards a definite goal. This type of musical narration often lasts to the end of the coda , in other cases the constant evolution of a thematic thought or the continual transformation of a motif receives the leading role. In order to obscure the essential events of the works or of the movements Schumann often employs “traditional” formal gestures. Hungarian musicologist Pál Richter argues that one of the most interesting compositional modi operandi is the repetition of a longer section in different keys, reminding of the exposition-recapitulation duality. The déjà vu feeling was generally one of the starting-point in Schumann’s workshop to move away from traditional sonata procedures. Influenced by the narrative content of the works, various strategies were elaborated by him to excite the déjà vu, or to relive musical moments.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (1833-1838), was not, in fact, the composer’s second such work in order of composition. The so-called Sonata No. 3, really a reworking of the Concert sans orchestre of 1836, acquired its present identity only after Schumann revised the earlier work (including the restoration of a scherzo removed before publication) in 1853. The Second Sonata, Schumann’s last large-scale work in the genre, is the most streamlined of the composer’s completed piano sonatas; within its very manageable and clearly organized confines one finds some of the composer’s most characteristic music for the keyboard.

Hear Martha Argerich play Sonata No. 2 in g minor Op. 22:

2nd mvt | 3rd mvt | 4th mvt

The Fantasie in C, Op. 17, composed in the summer of 1836, is a work of passion and deep pathos, imbued with the spirit of the late Beethoven. This is no doubt deliberate, since the proceeds from sales of the work were initially intended to be contributed towards the construction of a monument to Beethoven (who had died in 1827). The closing of the first movement of the Fantasie contains a musical quote from Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferna Geliebte, Op. 98 (at the Adagio coda, taken from the last song of the cycle). The original titles of the movements were to be “Ruins”, “Triumphal Arch” and “The Starry Crown”. According to Liszt, who played the work for Schumann – and to whom Schumann dedicated the work – the Fantasie was apt to be played too heavily, and should have a dreamier (träumerisch) character than vigorous German pianists tended to impart. Liszt also said, “It is a noble work, worthy of Beethoven, whose career, by the way, it is supposed to represent.” According to Hutcheson: “No words can describe the Phantasie, no quotations set forth the majesty of its genius. It must suffice to say that it is Schumann’s greatest work in large form for piano solo.”

Hear Sviatoslav Richter play Fantasie in C Op. 17:

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

The Humoreske of 1839, far more serious-minded and substantial than its name might suggest, is built in five discrete sections. A name used as a title in the 19th century for a lively instrumental composition, often ‘good-humoured’ rather than ‘humorous’. Schumann, Dvořák and Grieg among others, used the French or the German title. Humoresques are generally short and in one movement, but Schumann’s op. 20 is one of his largest piano works and is more like a suite. Mercurial in it shifts of mood, it reflects the composer’s report to his wife Clara that, while working on the piece, he was “laughing and crying, all at once”. Originally entitled “Grosse Humoreske,” this piece has been regarded by some musicologists as an ill-judged attempt by Schumann to take his formula in Kreisleriana a step further. This assessment is harsh, however, for these pieces, unified by their extremes (“laughing and weeping”) and generally in the key of B flat major, are colorful and imaginative, full of energy and depth, and if they do not strike out new territory, they are rife with ideas and never sound tiresome.

Hear Piotr Anderszewski play Humoresque Op. 20:

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Related articles:
Robert Schumann – A Musical and Literary Giant
Nicolas Economou Plays Schumann
The Grand Sonata – Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor


New Book: “Sviatoslav Richter – Pianist” will be released on April 13

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) is widely recognized as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. In this translation of the first full-scale biography of Richter, Danish composer Karl Aage Rasmussen combines his artistic appreciation of Richter’s career with a sympathetic telling of the pianist’s life based on family archives and interviews with people who worked and lived with him.
Richter enjoyed early success in the Soviet Union, winning the Stalin Prize in 1949. He traveled and performed throughout Russia and Eastern Europe, and earned notice in the West via his recordings. In 1960 he toured in the West to great acclaim, including a run of successful performances at Carnegie Hall. He would remain an active performer throughout his life.
Richter was an intensely private and withdrawn individual who disliked the glare and trappings of celebrity, even preferring to play small halls where the audience could concentrate on the details of his performance. The book also details his chronic depression and homosexuality, and the impact that this may have had in curbing his political activities. Rasmussen celebrates one of the giants of twentieth-century music while painting a realistic portrait of the often troubled double life that many Soviet citizens, especially public artists, were forced to lead.

The book is so well-written, exciting, and captivating, it can almost be read as a novel; it is also thoroughly well-documented and characterized by the author’s enormous professional knowledge. It is impressive that a Danish writer with no particular knowledge of the Russian language has been able to include so many essential details; one would be hard-pressed to imagine anything lacking on this account.

Publisher: Northeastern (April 13, 2010)
Pre-order the book at Amazon.com


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