Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 4:00 PM
Arabesque in C Major, Op. 18 Robert Schumann
Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch
Intermezzo I (Sehr lebhaft) – Tempo I – Intermezzo II (Etwas bewegter) – Tempo I
Schnell und spielend
Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17
Durchaus phantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen
Mässig - Durchaus energisch.
Langsam getragen - Durchweg leise zu halten
Russell Sherman, piano
In a letter to Clara Wieck, Robert Schumann wrote of his great Fantasie in C major: “You can only understand the Fantasie if you go back to the unhappy summer of 1836 when we were separated.” Indeed, even from a composer as emotionally soul-bearing as Schumann, it is difficult to imagine a piece more imbued with passionate and unresolved longing. The Fantasie was composed during a particularly long separation from Clara when their future together was, at best, uncertain.
Dedicated to Franz Liszt, the Fantasie began its life - publicly, at least - as a musical tribute to Beethoven. The first movement includes a quote from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved). The ubiquitous ‘Clara theme’ is heard immediately in descending octaves of the right hand. There are allusions to sonata form - a full recapitulation in the first movement, for example - but the piece pushes the boundaries of the form to the point of irrelevance. Schumann hovers anxiously near and around the key of C major, never really affirming it until the last few bars of the first movement.
The second movement had a visceral effect on Clara: “It makes me hot and cold all over,” she said. The obsessive march-like quality becomes all the more intense (and difficult to play) by its continuous dotted rhythms.
The third movement - timeless and sublime - is like an extended song without words. Interestingly, Schumann abandoned his idea of reintroducing the principal theme of the first movement. There are ravishing diversions to the keys of A-flat and D-flat major (a Neapolitan sixth chord in root position, but still somehow as far from C major as we could be. Beethoven again comes to mind). The final C major chords of the piece - though voiced exactly as they were at the end of the first movement - could not feel more different: if earlier they seemed hopeful (or at least unresolved), they now seem resigned and filled with unbearable sadness.
Schumann changed the titles of the movements as he revised the Fantasie, but eventually as confirmed in a letter to Clara on 16 April, 1838, he quoted them “Ruins, Victory Arch, and Constellation”.
Schumann, the most literary of composers, derived the title of his Kreisleriana from Johannes Kreisler, the mercurial and eccentric figure appearing in three of E. T. A. Hoffman’s novels. Historians now doubt that the piece was composed in the four feverish days originally thought, but one can almost believe it given its wild and manic nature. Unquestionably, it is a composition of extremes. Craig Smith wrote of Kreisleriana: “While there is no real narrative implied, the eight movements are never performed independently and are subtly and inextricably related to each other. Some of the numbers, such as the fourth movement, are the most improvisational work in all of his oeuvre. Others, like the sixth movement, show his fascination with palindromic structures. Each segment is like a Fabergé egg revealing new inner ravishing detail. The manic and mysterious end to the work, when all elements of harmony and melody degenerate into an obsessive rhythmic figure that fades into nothing, is one of the great things in all of Schumann.”.
Schumann’s stay in Vienna (1838-1839) was marked by depression and professional frustration. Nevertheless, he managed some compositions of remarkable lightness and charm, writing (as he put it) in a “lighter more feminine style”. The Arabesque in C majoris one such composition. The title suggests a decorative piece with intertwining, flowing lines. The Arabesque moves lithely between contrasting moods, before appearing to conclude gently with its opening material. The melancholy postlude that follows comes as an exquisite surprise and surely prefigures those of the great song cycles still to come.