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8.557673 - SCHUMANN, R.: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 / Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Symphonic Etudes • Phantasie in C major

Robert Schumann is in many ways typical of the age in which he lived, combining in his music a number of the principal characteristics of Romanticism, as he did in his life. Born in Zwickau in 1810, the son of a bookseller, publisher and writer, he showed an early interest in literature and was to make a name for himself in later years as a writer and as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a journal launched in 1834. His father encouraged his literary and musical interests and at one time thought of sending him to study with Weber, a proposal that was abandoned with the death of the latter, closely followed by the death of Schumann’s father.

Schumann’s career now followed a more conventional course. In 1828 he entered the University of Leipzig, where his attention to his studies was as intermittent as it was to be the following year at Heidelberg. He was eventually able to persuade his mother and guardian that he should be allowed to study music under the well- known piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, whose own energies had been directed with some intensity towards the training of his own daughter Clara, a pianist of prodigious early talent. Schumann’s ambitions as a pianist, however, were frustrated by a weakness in the fingers, whatever its true cause, and his other musical studies had, at the very least, lacked application. Nevertheless in the 1830s he wrote a great deal of music for the piano, often in the form of shorter, genre pieces, with some extra-musical literary or autobiographical association. There was an affair with one of Wieck’s pupils, later broken off, but by 1835 he had begun to turn his attention to Clara Wieck, nine years his junior. Wieck had good reason to object to the liaison. His daughter had a career before her as a concert performer and Schumann had shown signs of instability of character, whatever his abilities as a composer might be. Matters were taken to an extreme when resort was had to litigation, in order to prevent what Wieck saw as a disastrous marriage.

It was not until 1840 that Schumann was eventually able to marry Clara, after her father’s legal attempts to oppose the match had finally failed. The couple married in September, remaining first in Leipzig, although journeys took place for concert appearances by Clara, generally accompanied by her husband, whose position was of lesser distinction. In 1844 they moved to Dresden, where it seemed that Schumann might recover from the bouts of depression that he had suffered in the earlier days of marriage. Here again no official position seemed to offer itself and it was only in 1849 that the prospect of employment arose, this time in Düsseldorf, where Schumann took up his position as director of music in 1850.

Mendelssohn had enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Düsseldorf authorities, and Schumann, much less skilled in administration and conducting, proved even less able to cope with the difficulties that arose. The pressures on him led to a complete nervous break-down in 1854 and final years spent in an asylum at Endenich, where he died in 1856.

Schumann wrote his Symphonic Studies during the years from 1834 and 1837, revising the work in 1852, when he dedicated it to his friend William Sterndale Bennett. It was later to appear after his death in variously extended forms. The original composition came at a time when he was concerned with the Neue Zeitschrift and with the writing of piano music.

In 1834, when the Symphonic Studies were first conceived, Schumann was directing his amatory intentions towards Ernestine von Fricken, a young pupil of Wieck. His ardour cooled when he discovered that she was the illegitimate daughter of Baron von Fricken, and not likely to inherit from him. The theme for the studies was designed as a compliment to the Baron and makes use of a melody of his, the basis of a set of variations for flute. At first Schumann brought together a group of twelve variations, out of the original eighteen, under the title 12 Davidsbündler Studien, a reference to the fictititious League of David, banded together against the cultural Philistines of the day. This was later to be changed to Etüden in Orchestercharakter für Pianoforte von Florestan und Eusebius (Studies in Orchestral Style for Piano by Florestan and Eusebius), Florestan and Eusebius being two of the pseudonyms Schumann used in his critical writing, one passionate, the other thoughtful. The publishers, however, provided the simpler XII Etudes symphoniques, issuing the work under this title in 1837. The 1852 edition bore the title Etudes en forme de variations, and included only ten variations. Five more were published seventeen years after Schumann’s death, in 1873, here included and listed under the title Anhang.

The work opens with the solemn C sharp minor theme, followed by ascending imitative entries in the slightly livelier first Etude, here leading to the delicate accompanying tracery of the first Anhang variation. The theme is heard in the bass of the second Etude, while the third brings rapid arpeggios. The solid chords of the fourth Etude are succeeded by a fifth scherzando in which the left hand answers the right. The fourth of the Anhang variations provides an expressive contrast, while the sixth Etude is marked by the wide leaps in the left hand, with the melody heard in the upper part. The triplet figuration of the E major seventh Etude here leads to the third and second of the Anhang variations, the latter with elaborate figuration. The eight Etude uses a motif of contrapuntal suggestion, to be followed by the very rapid ninth and the fifth Anhang variation, written in D flat major. An energetic tenth Etude and an expressive eleventh are capped by the triumphant more extended final treatment of the material, now in D flat major, the enharmonic equivalent of the tonic major of C sharp.

Schumann’s Phantasie in C major, Op.17, originally bore the title Obolen auf Beethovens Monument: Ruinen, Trophäen, Palmen: grosse Sonate für das Pianoforte für Beethovens Denkmal, von Florestan und Eusebius, Op.12 (Small Contribution to Beethoven’s Monument: Ruins, Trophies, Palms: Grand Sonata for the Pianoforte for Beethoven’s Memorial, by Florestan and Eusebius). It had the alternative and briefer title of Ruine, Siegesbogen und Sternbild (Ruinen, Triumphbogen und Sternenkranz: Ruins, Triumphal Arch and Constellation).

The matter of the proposed Beethoven monument in Bonn was one that interested a number of musicians. A statue was eventually erected in 1845, largely as the result of the generosity of Franz Liszt, who provided the greater part of the money needed, while reserving to himself the choice of artist. Schumann, who in the end dedicated his Phantasie to Liszt, suggested that a hundred copies of his Grand Sonata, as it was first envisaged, should be sold for the benefit of the fund. This does not seem to have happened, and in any case, before its publication in 1839, the work underwent some revision. Liszt replied enthusiastically to the dedication to him, while offering his assistance to Schumann in his proposed relationship with Clara Wieck, in answer to Schumann’s implied revelation of the state of his affections.

Whatever changes may have been made, the Phantasie remains something of a sonata. It is in three movements, prefaced by four lines from Friedrich Schlegel:

Durch alle Töne tönet
in bunten Erdentraum
ein leiser Ton gezogen
für den, der heimlich lauschet.
(Through all the notes that sound
in the varied dream of earth,
a gentle sound there is
for the one who listens secretly.)

The first movement, marked Durchaus phantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen (In a fantastic and passionate manner throughout), contains fragments of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), but is dominated by a supremely lyrical melody, while a second melody is to be played im Legenden-Ton (As a legend). This secondary section serves, in fact, as a development. The triumphal march of the second movement, to be played with energy, makes its own technical demands, and is followed by a meditative final section, allowing Eusebius to cap the exertions of Florestan.

Keith Anderson

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