Text of the booklet "Robert Schumann - PIECES FOR OBOE AND PIANO"
In his youth Schumann was reputed to be a tender-hearted and desperate Romantic. This is undoubtedly true. We need only recall his ardent love for future wife Clara and how passionately he fought for her, how fervently he poured his feelings into numerous piano pieces and spared no effort in writing critical articles, where he furiously attacked Philistines and waxed lyrical about talented young composers such as Berlioz and Chopin.
When Schumann later found family happiness and his life became more tranquil, at least to outward appearances, characteristics that had previously lain hidden finally surfaced. The pieces recorded for this album give an idea of what the mature Schumann was like as a person and what interested him. Nearly all of them (except the violin sonata) were composed in Dresden, where he lived from 1844 to 1849. It should be mentioned that the change in Schumann’s place of residence which involved leaving Leipzig, the epicentre of musical activity, and moving to quiet, peaceful Dresden was undertaken on the advice of his doctors. The composer suffered from bipolar affective disorder. He was overcome by bouts of terrible depression which, in the end, also led to his death. Initially the move brought no relief: ‘I am still badly afflicted and often quite despondent. I am not allowed to work at all, only to rest and take walks, but often I lack the strength even for a stroll,’ wrote the composer in October 1844.
After a while Schumann’s malady temporarily receded and once again he was immersed in his compositions. Here in Dresden he wrote 53 different works, almost a third of his entire creative output. Although Schumann composed prolifically and with utter self-oblivion, externally at least he led an extraordinari-ly well-ordered, humdrum existence. His first biographer Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski comments: ‘Every morning he worked until noon. Then he took a stroll, accompanied by his wife and one of his friends. At approximately 1 o’clock he dined, and after a short rest resumed his work until 5 or 6. Thereafter he usually visited a public place or private club he belonged to, where he read the newspapers and drink a glass of beer or wine.’
Undoubtedly these modest, ordinary pursuits afforded the respected ‘Herr Doktor’ Schumann both tranquillity and pleasure. He methodically worked and rested, played dominoes and chess, showed interest in what he read in the newspapers, received guests, drank beer and, finally, found time for his numerous offspring (the Schumann couple had eight children, born one after the other). ‘My parents’ house was an artistic home that in no way differed at first sight from the home of any kind-hearted, unassuming burgher’, recalled Schumann’s eldest daughter Marie.
Characteristics such as his strict record-keeping allow us to discern in the composer’s personality a thrifty burgher yet doting head of the family. Expenses were entered in thick ‘Housekeeping Books’, plans for the future noted in a ‘Project Book’, the joys and disappointments of private life entrusted to a ‘Marriage Diary’, and their children’s first achievements listed in special ‘Memento Books’. For example, the ‘Memento Book’ for Marie contains this fascinating address from a father to his one-year-old daughter: ‘As for walking, of course nothing yet. The same can be said of speech. Singing is much more advanced, you already sing some intervals and tone sequences. Where you see lines of music at the end of this book you will find a few little melodies that I often sang for you, sitting at the piano. Let us diligently continue.’
Schumann believed that all human happiness was contained in concepts of diligence, thrift and fidelity. He was deeply affected by the world of childhood and enraptured by simple domestic pursuits and deference for unhurried, habitual tasks. All this was testimony of the specific atmosphere that reigned over Germany as a whole, not only his own family.
The word that characterises this atmosphere most precisely is ‘Biedermeier’. Initially Gottlieb Biedermaier was a fictional character to which two friends, the doctor Adolf Kussmaul (1822–1902) and lawyer and writer Ludwig Eichrodt (1827–1892), attributed a cycle of their poetry. They penned a parody of the edifying scholastic lyrics that were already viewed with some scepticism in Germany by the time the cycle was written in 1853. To be precise, the Biedermeier period lasted from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the revolutionary events of the late 1840s. In the interval between these two upheavals people were weary of social unrest and began to poeticise a familial, domestic mode of life.
Today the word Biedermeier is a wide-ranging definition of an entire cultural epoch that has given us practical but rather pleasing furniture; paintings, drawings and engravings of people in a setting that would include the furniture; homely bric-a-brac and family albums; artless verse; and the genre of ‘Hausmusik’, or domestic music making.
Schumann turned his attention to supplementing the Hausmusik repertoire at a very opportune time, since his own children were growing up by then. In 1848 he wrote the piano cycle Album für die Jugend (Album for the Young). Apparently the composer was greatly encouraged by recognition from his publishers and the music lovers for whom these didactic pieces were written. Whatever the case, he now showed interest in music that catered for various tastes – it could be performed on the concert stage or in a close circle of friends or family.
In this way the author of music for symphony orchestras and opera theatres, quartets and choirs found a new application for his talent, and in 1849 he produced a variety of duets with piano. The Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano Op.70, the Fantasy Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op.73 and Three Romances for Oboe and Piano Op.94 stand out among them. Schumann probably hoped that his pieces could be performed by instruments for which they were not necessarily designated. For this reason he noted that the horn and clarinet could be replaced by a violin or cello, the oboe by a violin or clarinet. Neither would Schumann have objected, in our view, to the present interpretation: all three compositions and the violin sonata are performed on this album by two remarkable musicians – the oboist Alexei Utkin and pianist Igor Tchetuev.
Fantasy Pieces (Fantasiestücke) Op.73 was originally called Evening Pieces (Soiréestücke) by the composer. Indeed, these pieces were probably written for an evening concert in a private home. This was the setting for the first performance, by Clara Schumann and Dresden clarinettist Johann Kotte. Shortly afterwards the Fantasy Pieces were published and the first public performance was given at the Leipzig Musicians’ Association (14 Ja-nuary 1850). Later they were included in the repertoire of renowned violinist Joseph Joachim. Why Schumann renamed these pieces is unknown, but undoubtedly he was very fond of the word ‘Fantasiestücke’, since he used it several times for his chamber compositions (Op.73 has three namesakes: piano pieces Op.12 and 111, also piano trio Op.88). It is assumed that the composer borrowed the title from Hoffmann, since the first three volumes of Hoffmann’s novellas were published in 1814 as Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (Fantasy Pieces in the Manner of Callot). The whimsical and fanciful qualities of Op.73 are seen, for instance, in the following. Schumann unites three diverse pieces in the cycle and prescribes how each should be performed: piece No.1 – ‘Zart und mit Ausdruck’ (Tenderly and with expression), No.2 – ‘Lebhaft, leicht’ (Animated, light), No.3 – ‘Rasch und mit Feuer’ (Quickly and with fire). At the same time he adroitly creates interconnections between the contrasting pieces. Listen attentively: the phrase that begins the second piece already appeared fleetingly in the piano part of the first, and the main motif of the third develops from the final notes of the second. Moreover, Schumann skilfully recapitulates the entire cycle in the impetuous and striking last piece, entwining the melodies of both preceding pieces.
Alexei Utkin played Op.73 on an oboe d’amore, which has a lower pitch than the ordinary oboe. His choice of instrument allowed him to perform from the score for clarinet, without any detriment to the original concept (the lowest note produced by this type of oboe, the G3, is required in the first piece).
Three Romances Op.94, like the Fantasy Pieces Op.73, was first heard at a private gathering. This time the first performers were Clara Schumann and court Kapelle concertmaster Franz Schubert. In the 19th century short instrumental pieces were often called ‘romances’. Usually these were lyrical miniatures with melodious tunes, but they could vary considerably, since the term was not confined to specific form or content. The genre of songs without words created by Felix Mendelssohn was the closest approximation of a romance. Schumann wrote three cycles of romances: before those for oboe he had composed Three Romances for Piano Op.28 (1839) and later Five Romances for Cello and Piano (1853), which appears to have been lost.
In the Op.94 romances the composer made a point of writing simple, uncomplicated music. The instrumental parts do not require virtuoso performance and pose no real difficulty for amateur musicians. Schumann’s straightforward directions are in keeping with the music. He calls for the first piece to be played ‘Nicht schnell’ (Not quickly), the second ‘Einfach, innig’ (Simply, intimately), and the third, again, ‘Nicht schnell’. Schumann sustains this simplicity of tone throughout the romances and the listener feels they are slightly stylised, in the manner of folk music. At the same time this simplicity in no way unites them – the images developing in the miniatures are quite different. Now we hear a moving elegy (No.1); now a song, simple-hearted and entirely devoid of guile, with an animated middle section (No.2); next a bizarre hybrid resembling a ballad coloured by dancing leaps, with a broad lyrical theme in the middle (No.3).
Adagio and Allegro Op.70 is an exclusively concert opus, unlike the two previously mentioned. Here Schumann is mastering the various possibilities of the chromatic horn. This interest is also reflected in the Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra Op.86, written in the same year, 1849.
Right up to the 19th century natural horns were used, and many notes attainable with other instruments were impossible to produce (on the whole only those that belonged to the harmonic series could be played). A special valve mechanism was devised to improve the horn’s function. With this innovation not only the player’s lips participated in sound generation, but also his fingers operating small levers – the valves. The chromatic scale could now be produced, and during Schumann’s lifetime the improved version of the horn gradually grew in popularity.
When Schumann began composing music for horn he clearly wished to prove that the instrument was now equal to any string instrument: it could sing or play lively virtuoso music just as well. To demonstrate both these functions the composer selected a form consisting of two movements, slow and fast tempo (a common practice in the 19th century). The solo part in the extended Adagio is rich with semitone steps, demanding long breathing and faultless legato. Schumann adds a generous number of wide-interval leaps, with the melody now retreating to deep bass notes, now reaching for the highest notes in the horn’s range.
The fiery Allegro is entirely different, giving way to striking triplet motifs, sharp repetitions and ascending flights up the scale and triad notes. Although the composer doesn’t wish to part with his Adagio, and in the midst of a fast-tempo movement comes an exquisite and unhurried theme, filled with yearning.
SonataforViolinandPianoOp.105 was written in Düssel-dorf, where the composer settled in 1850 with his wife and child-ren. The move brought him renewed energy and several more years of creative life.
Schumann was encouraged to write the violin sonatas by the leader of the Leipzig orchestra Ferdinand David, who asked him to create some splendid new compositions for violin and piano. The violin sonata was a new genre for Schumann. His first attempt was the Sonata Op.105, composed in the autumn of 1851. When this experiment failed to satisfy him he immediately wrote a second sonata, added the subheading ‘Grand’ and de-dicated it to the renowned violinist.
Schumann had his own reasons for this – possibly the more substantial second sonata was a better match for David’s own expectations. But the miniature Sonata Op.105 has many admirable features of its own and should not be underestimated.
Foreboding and heartfelt anguish seethe in the major theme of the first movement, with the violin melody pitched so low that it could be played on the cello. This theme takes a specific role. Throughout the movement Schumann continually returns to the initial motifs, scarcely altering them – each time the same notes, the same register. We have the impression that the composer is troubled by an obsessive idea that recurs over and over again.
The Allegretto that follows brings a sense of invigorating repose. In contrast to the first movement it soothes the listener with a variety of impressions: a carefree pastoral tune, then a melancholic romance and fiery scherzo. But with the onset of the finale our attention is refocused. Neither the quick tempo nor the fleeting new images can detract us from the most important factor – the initial notes of this movement. The composer inevitably returns to his point of departure, over and over again. Nor has the main theme of the first movement disappeared: in the finale the central motif reminds us of its continuing presence in the coda.
As we approach the end of the cycle there is a strong feeling that the insistent ideas pervading this sonata are inescapable and no resolution is possible. We are involuntarily reminded of Schumann’s words: ‘We would discover terrible things if we could penetrate to the source from which every work began.’ Where did the source of this sonata lie? What emotions tormented the author’s soul? Alas, we have no way of answering such questions.
Varvara Timchenko, translated by Patricia Donegan
Text of the booklet "Robert Schumann - PIECES FOR OBOE AND PIANO"