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8.571291 - SCHUMANN, R.: Abegg Variations / Piano Sonata No. 2 / Fantasie, Op. 17 / Toccata (Biret Solo Edition, Vol. 4)

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Abegg Variations, Op 1 • Sonata No 2, Op 22 • Fantasie, Op 17 • Toccata Op 7


The son of a writer and publisher, Robert Schumann, in common with a number of other composers of his generation, had marked literary proclivities. As a musician he must initially have seemed something of a dilettante. With the support of a well known piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, he was able to persuade his mother and guardian, after his father’s death, to allow him to give up university studies to concentrate on music, but his unwillingness to follow a consistent course of technical work and weakness in his fingers, the possible result of mercury treatment for a venereal infection, made his contemplated career as a concert pianist impossible. His marriage to the pianist Clara Wieck, his former teacher’s favourite daughter, came about in 1840, but only after prolonged litigation with his future father-in-law. Schumann’s literary interests are often reflected in his music, and found verbal expression particularly in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he edited from 1835 to 1843. Here he made use of two imaginary characters, the impetuous Florestan and the more contemplative Eusebius, their views and discussions providing a new kind of music journalism. An uneasy decade in which he turned from writing piano music to compositions generally on a larger scale led to an appointment as director of music in Düsseldorf, where he succumbed, in 1854, to final insanity. He died in 1856.

Schumann took youthful pride in 1831 in his first composition to be published, the Abegg Variations, Op 1, to which he gave the imposing French title Thème sur le nom ‘Abegg’ varié pour le pianoforte. He dedicated the work to a non-existent Countess Pauline von Abegg, although he had met Meta Abegg, a pianist, the previous year, and might, for all we know, have intended an allusion to her. From the name ‘Abegg’ Schumann drew a theme, starting with the notes A - B (flat) - E - G - G, using the letters of the name to suggest notes, a practice that he was to use elsewhere. The F major waltz theme is first presented, with a partial inversion of the opening motif. Three variations follow, with an A flat major cantabile passage, leading to a more demanding Finale alla Fantasia.

Schumann’s early attempts at writing piano sonatas were largely unfinished. The Sonata No 2 in G minor, Op 22, was apparently written over a number of years. The second movement Andantino was composed in June 1830, the first and third movements in June 1833 and the original demanding Finale in October 1835. The alternative Finale, written after the objections of Clara Wieck that the original Presto passionato was far too difficult, was composed in Vienna in December 1838. The sonata was published the following year. The first movement, So rasch wie möglich (As fast as possible), has a first subject melody based on the descending scale, with a broken chord left-hand accompaniment. The movement is in the established tripartite sonata-allegro form, with a central development and final recapitulation, ending in a rapid coda.

The gentle Andantino offers a lyrical melody over a repeated chordal accompaniment. The Scherzo has all the energy of Florestan, and the original finale, published posthumously in 1866, represents Florestan at his wildest, calling for the greatest dexterity, agility and passion. The alternative Rondo is not without technical demands, increasing in speed to a prestissimo, a cadenza-like passage, and a conclusion marked immer schneller und schneller (ever faster and faster). It should be added that Clara Wieck expressed the greatest admiration for a work which, for her, expressed so clearly Schumann’s whole being. Her criticisms of the original finale arose from her fear that the public and even connoisseurs would not understand it.

Schumann’s Fantasie 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, Op12 (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 Fantasie 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 Fantasie 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.

The Toccata in C major, Op 7, was published in 1834 and dedicated to Schumann’s close friend Ludwig Schunke, a young pianist, pupil of Kalkbrenner and Herz. Schumann introduced Schunke to Wieck’s circle in Leipzig and nursed him through his final illness in 1834, the year following their first meeting. Schunke’s friendship was of the greatest help to Schumann in his recovery from severe depression and in the foundation of the notional Davidsbund, the League of David, the group imagined to fight against the enemies of true art, the Philistines. Schunke, an infant prodigy, son of a Stuttgart horn-player, mastered this Toccata toccatarum, later an important item in the virtuoso repertoire of the young Clara Wieck, whose technical accomplishment in the Toccata impressed Mendelssohn, when he visited the Wiecks in Leipzig in 1834. It seems that the Toccata had been first devised about 1830, while Schumann was in Heidelberg, offering the composer a technical challenge to his own virtuosity as a pianist. It was later revised, before its final publication.

Keith Anderson

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