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8.571305 - SCHUMANN, R.: Piano Quintet / Symphonic Etudes (Biret Chamber Music Edition, Vol. 1)

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Piano Quintet, Op. 44 • Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13


Born in Zwickau in 1810, the son of a bookseller, publisher and writer, Robert Schumann 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 early career at first followed a 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 widowed 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 daughter Clara, a pianist of prodigious early talent. Schumann’s ambitions as a pianist, however, were eventually abandoned, as he turned to composition, in the 1830s writing a great deal of piano music. By 1835 he had begun to turn his attention, after earlier flirtations, to Clara Wieck, nine years his junior, a relationship that her father did everything possible to prevent. 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, then moving in 1844 to Dresden, where it seemed that Schumann might recover from the bouts of depression that he had suffered in the earlier days of marriage. It was only in 1849 that the prospect of official employment arose, this time in Düsseldorf, where Schumann took up his position as director of music in 1850. Here he proved unable to cope with the concomitant administrative and practical difficulties of the post. The pressures on him led to a complete nervous break-down in 1853 and final years spent in an asylum at Endenich, where he died in 1856.

If 1840, the year of his marriage, was, for Schumann, a Year of Song, as he wrote one song after another. 1842 was a Year of Chamber Music, culminating in his Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44. The work was first performed by Schumann’s wife Clara in Leipzig in 1843 and won immediate success. The quintet was sketched in five days and completed in the following two weeks, and provided a model for later composers such as Brahms. The first subject of the opening movement is proclaimed by all the instruments, and the romantic second subject is later introduced by the cello, followed by the viola. The central development section is dominated by the piano, which returns to open the final section of the movement in a work that has all the brilliance and substance of a piano concerto. The second movement is a sinister C minor March, the sombre atmosphere relieved by a major key second subject. The central F minor episode of this sonata-rondo movement is marked Agitato, with exciting activity in the piano part, which settles into a gentler accompaniment as the viola recalls the march theme. A rapid ascending scale from the piano opens and provides the principal material of the Scherzo. The first of the two Trios has reminiscences of the first subject of the first movement and the second is characterized by agile brilliance before the return of the Scherzo. The last movement opens in C minor with a firmly stated theme, played by the piano, continuing with an adventurous exploration of other keys, as the principal theme re-appears. The first subject of the first movement returns, in augmentation, as a countersubject to the theme, as the movement proceeds to its emphatic conclusion.

Schumann wrote his Symphonic Studies between 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 Fricker, a young pupil of Wieck. His ardour cooled when he discovered that she was the illegitimate daughter of Baron von Fricker, 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 fictitious 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 nine variations, the numbering of which is given in brackets in the present listing. Five more were published sixteen 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. 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 first Anhang Variation brings delicate accompanying tracery, to be followed by the elaborate figuration of the second of the Anhang Variations and the fifth Anhang Variation, in D flat major. The sixth Etude is marked by wide leaps in the left hand, with the melody heard in the upper part. The triplet figuration of the E major seventh Etude leads to the eighth Etude, with a motif of contrapuntal suggestion. The third Anhang Variation in 12/8 metre follows with the fourth Anhang Variation providing an expressive contrast. The ninth Etude is marked Presto possibile, followed by an energetic tenth Etude and an expressive eleventh, 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.

Keith Anderson

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