Sunday, August 26, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856) is one of the most important figures of the first half of the 19th century in music. Apart from his activities as pianist (cut short by an injury to his hand) and composer, he was largely responsible for the creation of an entirely new vocation: the music critic who writes for the non-professional audience. A musical expert who shaped public opinion through the press was rather a new concept on the continent (though it had a longer history in England). In 1833 Schumann founded the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik as a challenge to the more conventional music criticism found elsewhere. The "Davidsbund" were an imaginary league of the musical elite who fought against the Philistines of the popular press and the authoritarianism of the conservatories. Romanticism contained internal tensions, between the desire to appeal to the public, who were, after all, the supporters of the great growth in music consumption of the time, and the contrary desire to support the musical progressives such as Schumann himself and other new figures such as Chopin and later, Brahms. The Davidsbund included imaginary characters - elements in Schumann's personality - such as Florestan (rash and reckless), Eusebius (mild and sociable) and Meister Raro (the reproving master). It has been noted that these characters correspond rather well to the Freudian trinity of id, ego and superego. Not surprising as Freud himself acknowledged that his theory was prefigured in romantic literature.

In 1837 Schumann wrote a set of eighteen pieces for solo piano entitled Davidsbündlertänze which are not really dances, but like a conversation between Florestan and Eusebius, either or both of whom are credited with the individual pieces. Here, from Wikipedia, are the movements with tempi and ascriptions:

  1. Lebhaft (Vivace), G major, Florestan and Eusebius;
  2. Innig (Con intimo sentimento), B minor, Eusebius;
  3. Etwas hahnbüchen (Un poco impetuoso) (1st edition), Mit Humor (Con umore) (2nd edition), G major, Florestan (Hahnbüchen, now usually hahnebüchen (also hanebüchen or hagebüchen), is an untranslatable colloquialism roughly meaning "coarse" or "clumsy." Apparently, it originally meant "made of hornbeam wood." (See the article "Hanebüchen" in the German version of Wikipedia.) Ernest Hutcheson translated it as "cockeyed" in his book The Literature of the Piano.);
  4. Ungeduldig (Con impazienza), B minor, Florestan;
  5. Einfach (Semplice), D major, Eusebius;
  6. Sehr rasch und in sich hinein (Molto vivo, con intimo fervore) (1st edition), Sehr rasch (Molto vivo) (2nd edition), D minor, Florestan;
  7. Nicht schnell mit äußerst starker Empfindung (Non presto profondamente espressivo) (1st edition), Nicht schnell (Non presto) (2nd edition), G minor, Eusebius;
  8. Frisch (Con freschezza), C minor, Florestan;
  9. No tempo indication (metronome mark of 1 crotchet = 126) (1st edition), Lebhaft (Vivace) (2nd edition), C major, Florestan;
  10. Balladenmäßig sehr rasch (Alla ballata molto vivo) (1st edition), ("Sehr" and "Molto" capitalized in 2nd edition), D minor (ends major), Florestan;
  11. Einfach (Semplice), B minor-D major, Eusebius;
  12. Mit Humor (Con umore), B minor-E minor and major, Florestan;
  13. Wild und lustig (Selvaggio e gaio), B minor and major, Florestan and Eusebius;
  14. Zart und singend (Dolce e cantando), E major, Eusebius;
  15. Frisch (Con freschezza), B major - Etwas bewegter (poco piu mosso), E major (return to opening section is optional), Florestan and Eusebius;
  16. Mit gutem Humor (Con buon umore) (in 2nd edition, "Con umore"), G major - Etwas langsamer (Un poco più lento), B minor; leading without a break into
  17. Wie aus der Ferne (Come da lontano), B major and minor (including a full reprise of No. 2), Florestan and Eusebius; and
  18. Nicht schnell (Non presto), C major, Eusebius.

And here is a performance of the complete work:

A measure of just how revolutionary this music is would be a comparison with a late Beethoven piano sonata from a mere decade before. Instead of a unified structure comprising a few, three or four, movements with a very clear tonal structure, there is instead a myriad of short 'characteristic' pieces, each with its own mood and structure.


vp said...

Surely a fairer comparison would be with Beethoven's Bagatelles. Compared with apples, oranges will always appear "revolutionary".

Bryan Townsend said...

Now that is a very pertinent observation! Beethoven's Bagatelles are very similar in terms of being a collection of short pieces and perhaps the Schumann work descends from them. The differences are also manifest: the Beethoven op 126 only has six movements, the Schumann eighteen. The keys of the Beethoven movements fall by major thirds, the Schumann is structured differently and so on. But I take your point gladly! I guess the revolutionary aspect has more to do with the imaginary personas which I can't see Beethoven doing.