Text of the booklet "Robert Schumann - PIANO WORKS"
Critics are always keen to know something the composers themselves cannot say. [...] Heavens above, when will the day dawn that at last nobody asks us what we wanted to express in our God-given compositions: look for the fifths and leave us in peace. Of course Schumann’s parting shot about the search for parallel fifths (intervals forbidden in composition) was in jest. This was something Schumann himself never did, although he was a first-class critic. On the contrary, he showed a lively interest in any circumstances relating to his subject matter when he wrote about a composer or his works in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. He wanted to know ‘about the composer’s school, the opinions he held in his youth, his ideals, even his activities and living conditions’.
This album features piano compositions Schumann wrote in the 1830s: the Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.11 (1833–1835); Kreisleriana, Op.16 (1838); Arabeske, Op.18 (1839); and Blumenstück, Op.19 (1839). Instead of seeking fifths we will try to picture circumstances in the composer’s life that would have influenced these pieces.
All of the above-mentioned works were composed for his ‘old, dear, beloved’ pianoforte. Schumann spent his ‘happiest’ hours sitting at this instrument. He wrote that the piano ‘was obliged to share everything I felt, all my tears and sighs, but also all my joys’. As a small boy Schumann spent many hours each day improvising on the piano. If he was unable to play for any length of time he experienced ‘a painful yearning for music and piano playing’. At the age of twenty Schumann abandoned his law studies so he could finally devote himself to music, attempting to make up for lost time in his career as a pianist. Hoping to quickly becoming a virtuoso pianist, he invented a mechanical device to develop independent movement of the fingers during playing. One finger was suspended in a loop and remained motionless while he practised exercises with the rest of his hand. Alas, this enterprise ended tragically. The tendons of his right hand were permanently da-maged in the experiment and his aspirations to become a pianist were ruined. Nonetheless the pleasure Schumann derived from composing for piano remained, and until 1840 he mistrusted any other instrument. But after ten years had passed other genres and performance ensembles began to interest him and the piano became ‘too narrow’ for his way of thinking, although in the last years of his life during confinement in the Endenich insane asylum Schumann spent many hours improvising on the piano. This pursuit gave him new strength, although the feeling was only temporary. Eager to share his joy with his wife, he wrote: ‘Sometimes I do wish you could hear me playing’.
By all accounts Schumann was taciturn and self-absorbed, and when venturing an opinion he spoke in muted, expressionless tones. After Wagner had spent time in his company he described Schumann as a ‘highly talented musician, but an unbearable man’. Judging from external appearances nobody could have imagined he was a man concerned about ‘everything that happens in the world: politics, literature, people’ and captivated by ‘everything worthy of note in modern times’. Subsequently this ‘everything’ found expression in his music (this is cited in his letters). Music betrayed the extraordinary intensity of his inner life, which was otherwise hidden from view.
It was in 1828 that Schumann first met ‘a capricious little girl who loved cherries more than anything’. He was eighteen, she was still nine. So far he only dreamt of a career as a pianist, but little Clara had already tasted the first fruits of artistic success. Seven years later they were betrothed, but the proposed marriage encountered opposition from her father Friedrich Wieck, a piano teacher who taught both Clara and Schumann. He hastily did his best to separate the lovers by taking Clara to another town, believing she would soon forget Robert. ‘It was easier for the knights of old who could walk through fire and slay dragons to win the hand of their beloved,’ lamented Schumann. Four years of secret correspondence and infrequent meetings followed (1836 to August 1840), and for Schumann this marked a period when he was either ‘desolate, ailing and exhausted’ (if Clara had not written for some time), or on the contrary, ‘excessively happy’ (after being reassured that she loved him the same as ever). ‘Nothing inspires so much as suspense and a longing for something,’ he noted, adding that sometimes this longing ‘evokes one’s innermost thoughts at the piano’. In 1840 Robert and Clara’s anguish was rewarded by their long-awaited marriage, and at the same time one of the most remarkable chapters of Schumann’s art was finally complete – his music for piano.
On the night of October 17th to 18th, 1833, soon after the death of his much-loved sister-in-law Rosalie, Schumann wrote that ‘the most terrible thought any man can have occurred to me – that of losing one’s mind’. He goes on to ask ‘Whatever happens if one cannot think any more?’ The idea ‘took his breath away’ and his unaccountable fear ‘drove him from one place to the next’. Of course, there is no obvious link between his compositions and this dire foreboding of his future illness. But the composer wrote at one point that the key to all his actions and all his personal peculiarities lay in the suffering he had experienced. As he himself declared: ‘God knows what monstrous things might be disclosed to us, could we but witness the moment of conception of every work of art!’ Quite possibly his reflections on insanity would number among these ‘monstrous things’.
Sonata, Kreisleriana, Arabeske, Blumenstück – only the first of these, the sonata, refers to a familiar musical form. But a sonata in this style was an entirely new phenomenon. The title page of the first edition makes no mention of Robert Schumann. Instead the composer becomes a two-faced Janus with the mysterious pseudonyms ‘Florestan’ and ‘Eusebius’. These were ima-ginary personae that Schumann often used to sign his articles and the two often quarrelled, personifying the composer’s own opposing hypostases in his music journal. By nature the former was fiery, passionate and at times ruthlessly sarcastic, while the latter represented a gentle dreamer and philanthropist loath to hurt anyone’s feelings. Both put ‘heart and soul’ into the composition of this sonata and dedicated it to Clara (who else?). Naturally the sonata is about love – a love that evokes widely diverse states: each has a separate movement. In the introduction that precedes the first movement two voices are heard: we may assume this is an anticipation of future events by Florestan and Eusebius. Florestan speaks of the impending drama in the first movement; Eusebius muses on the tranquil delight of the second. By the third movement (a scherzo) their thoughts have turned to whimsy. The fourth could easily be called a fantasy on the theme of love that knows no laws or bounds, since it contains an extraordinary number of musically diverse episodes (strung one after the other and repeated in garlands of notes). Schumann applies the direction semplice, ‘simply’, to one such episode. Simply, but on a theme of prime importance.
Dedicated to Frederic Chopin, Kreisleriana takes Schumann’s favourite form – a cycle of miniatures. He took just four days to write it and later admitted that he preferred the work to many of his other compositions. Clearly the emotions invested in the music were especially dear to him. These were innermost feelings that Schumann confided to Clara alone: ‘You and one of your ideas play the main role’; ‘boundless love is heard in some of the movements’; ‘your life and mine are there’. To others he left only the title – Kreisleriana, which conjures up the image of Kapellmeister Kreisler and conveys an intuitive feeling that the composer is concealed behind Hoffmann’s character. Kreisler the musical genius, idealist and dreamer created a deep impression on Schumann and their destinies were similar in some respects. As you may recall, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr describes a veritable ‘Schumanniana’: Johannes Kreisler and the young singer Julia fall in love but every chance of happiness is cruelly blighted by Julia’s mother, wife of the counsellor Benzon. When Kreisleriana was composed Robert and Clara bore a distinct resemblance to the pair in Hoffmann’s novel, although still unaware that their own story would have a different, happier outcome.
The cycle is comprised of eight movements which the composer classified by the subheading ‘Fantasies’. Simple enough, one might think: movements in free form, nothing special here. But take note: fantasies are the only genre where a thought flashes like lightning, then fades in mid-flight before it transforms into a new idea which is for a moment forgotten, then strikes out anew…
The Kreisleriana fantasies represent the swarm of scintillating ideas that troubled the composer before he artfully ensnared them in a net of sheet music. This calls to mind the advice Schumann once gave in a critical review of his contemporary Franz Lachner’s music to be ‘more cynical, refrain from repeating fine thoughts too long and squeezing the last drop from them; instead they should be blended with other new and even finer thoughts’. Close study of Kreisleriana would have shown Lachner what Schumann had in mind. For a cycle lasting appro-ximately thirty minutes there is a vast number of ‘fine thoughts’ or themes. Seventeen, if we take the trouble of counting them. They leave an indelible auditory impression: ideas come into being and die away in our presence, before our very eyes. Quick reactions are required and it is no simple matter to play the role of accessory in this lively game. Just try to grasp a completely new idea every ninety seconds or so!
The Arabeske and Blumenstück comprise two one-movement pieces that are best characterised in Schumann’s own words: ‘variations without a theme’. Indeed, in these compositions there are no traditional themes or variations to be found. In each of the pieces several images or themes take turns, although the intonations are characterised by a similarity that is reminiscent of variations. This is not difficult to detect: for instance all three themes in the Arabeske begin with a version of the same motif of four sounds, although each continues in a new vein.
Schumann describes his aim in devising such pieces in his letters: ‘I want to skilfully unite the little things, and I have many of those’. By ‘little things’ he meant the same themes he first used to weave the Arabeske or Girlande (the original name), and then the whimsical Blumenstück.
The German word Blumenstück was used to describe a floral picture (Blume means ‘flower’ and Stück a ‘piece’, a ‘trifle’). Schumann may have selected this title to evoke associations with literature as well as painting. We know that the composer was exceptionally fond of the German Romantic writer known as Jean Paul (born Johann Friedrich Richter). Jean Paul’s satirical novel verbosely entitled ‘Flower, Fruit and Thorn Pieces; or, the Married Life, Death and Wedding of F.S. Siebenkas, Poor Man’s Lawyer, in the Burgh of Kuhschnappel’ tells the tale of a man whose family life is so wretched that he follows a friend’s advice and takes desperate measures. By faking his own death Siebenkas miraculously regains his freedom and proceeds to marry the beautiful Natalie.
While the title Blumenstück alludes to Jean Paul’s ‘flower pieces’, the composer had no intention of illustrating the novel. There is a deeper and more interesting connection. Schumann used various musical themes, as diverse and similar as the different literary images adopted by Jean Paul. The writer’s wish to portray a ‘mosaic picture of this life of ours, made up of many small pieces, many-tinted moments, motes, atoms, drops, dust and vapours’ and to express the whole in one breath, in a single surge of emotion, was achieved in this remarkable composition by Schumann.
Varvara Timchenko, translated by Patricia Donegan
Text of the booklet "Robert Schumann - PIANO WORKS"