Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 4:00 pm
Toccata in C Major, Op. 7 Robert Schumann
Ya-Fei Chuang, piano
Wilhelm Meister Lieder, Op. 98a
Kendra Colton, soprano
Mark McSweeney, bass
Ya-Fei Chuang, piano
Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63
Rose Mary Harbison, violin
Rhonda Rider, cello
Robert Levin, piano
In October of 1853 the French musician and painter J.B. Laurens visited the Schumanns in Dusseldorf and sketched what turned out to be the last image of the composer (This expression – melancholy, courageous, confused – is unforgettable). Within a year Schumann would attempt suicide, and commit himself to a mental institution where he died two years later. The visiting artist apparently invited the composer to append a short quotation from his music to the portrait. Schumann chose the opening violin melody from the second movement of the D minor Trio. It is hardly a melody – more a kind of eloquent stammer, with pauses, a curious indefinite shape. And yet Schumann, when the ‘cello enters, assigns the same melody as a hidden code to the left hand of the piano, there as before sounding like a strange half-formed improvisation.
Don’t worry if you don’t hear the connection. So much of late Schumann structure is embedded, semi-secret, the surface still retaining the passionate impulsive gestures of his youth. Does anyone hear, or care, that the first measures of the first movement contain a fancy motivic trade between violin and left-hand piano? The composer, imbued with his reverence for Bach and his sense of the high calling of “absolute” music, fills his later compositions with sinew of this kind, satisfying his growing need for order beneath the ardent impulse which remains forever his calling card (in music both robust and intimate).
In this D minor Trio of 1847 we could even sense that after one of his most rumbustious scherzo movements he feels the need for a restored decorum. The beginning of the Finale is an obvious tip of the hat to Mendelssohn, the Leipzig colleague for whom he felt alternately public admiration and private jealousy. But the subsidiary episodes, full of ingenuity and character, totally Schumann, somewhat indecorously manage to subvert (and redeem?) the movement.
A year later, 1849, Germany was in the midst of revolutionary upheaval. Whether the song cycle Op. 98 is a response or an escape can be argued, but it is certainly the most magnificent song achievement of his later period, this is in spite of – or because – they are not exactly songs. They dissolve occasionally into (operatic) recitative, they interrupt themselves to deal with detours in the text, they seldom shape themselves into memorable ear-worm periods. And most importantly, the cycle is really two interleaved cycles – four songs for the twelve-year old acrobat actress tomboy slave-to-longing Mignon, four songs for the philosophic wandering melancholic Orpheus- prototype Harper, and a little cleanse-the-palate interlude for a lesser character in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Philline.
The four Mignon songs and the four Harper songs each form a sequential motivic and harmonic set of inter-relations. But they are not heard sequentially, these inter-relations are deliberately disturbed for the listener. The result: a constant readjustment of the widely differing voices of these characters. But the biggest problem for this remarkable cycle is the positioning of its most powerful piece (one of the most powerful in the whole song literature) first. Never has a composer left a more unnecessary injunction at the top of his score, “Slowly, the two last verses with intensified expression.” From the first phrase we understand that Schumann is not interested in describing the twelve-year old tomboy acrobat, he has attached to these beautiful words of endless longing an image in flesh and blood, a portrait drawn from life.
Leading off the program is the brilliant Toccata of 1828-32. Does this piece from Schumann’s early twenties have anything to do with the mature masterpieces which will succeed it? It emerges from the burgeoning world of virtuoso keyboard heroism – Kalkbrenner, Hummel, Thalberg – and is determined to do them one better. But, careful, there is already a Bachian thread being woven. Schumann already understood, as did Chopin, that to do a really good virtuoso piece you needed to channel the meticulous voice-leading and harmonic invention of a Bach Prelude or Toccata. That is what we get in this scintillating short piece.
© John Harbison, 2009