Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
Carnaval, op. 9 (Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes)
No composer better exemplifies the hallmarks of the romantic spirit — the bold extravagance, poetic delirium, fantastic flights of inspired imagination, intimate personalisation and heroic iconoclasm — than Robert Schumann. And no work of Schumann’s is greater in heralding these qualities than the famous Carnaval, opus 9. To begin with, it redefines what is meant by a “piece” of music: every previous formal convention is abandoned in favour of a sequence of snapshots that simply follow the white heat of inspiration. In compensation, there is a barrage of literary, musical, personal and even political allusions.
Notwithstanding this apparently anarchic disarray, I would claim — without any possibility of proof — that the whole is not arbitrary, but balanced and coherent through unseen and unheard aesthetic bonds that can only be felt. Instinctive, primordial judgements of the heart, not of the mind, determine what fits where. Since these are so personal and intangible, they need to be even more powerful than the more rational elements that bind together pre-romantic music.
The prototype (and longest section) is the final piece, whose very title — The March of the Davidsbündler Against the Phillistines — proclaims the revolutionary spirit of the composer. The Davidsbündler, a group of radical artists determined to fight the forces of tradition, convention and academia, wished to proclaim an artistic freedom comparable to the political freedom which, in theory, had been proclaimed by the revolutionaries of the preceeding generation.
The March is filled with musical symbolism: entitled Non allegro, it is in 3/4, rather than 4/4 as all marches should be! Moreover, a theme that enters shortly after the march has whipped itself into a frenzied dance is quoted and identified as a “Theme from the 17th century”; it is spun around, trampled on and treated with exhilarating disdain. Carnaval is one of the few Schumann pieces which is only marginally connected to Clara Wieck, who later became Schumann’s wife.
At the time of its composition, Schumann was betrothed to Ernestine von Fricken; most of the thematic material is derived from the letters spelling “Asch,” Ernestine’s home town. In German, “S” (“Es”) means E flat, and “H” means B natural, so all four letters can be interpreted as notes. The heroic and tumultuous Préambule was probably written before the creation of this musical letter game. The letters first appear quite surreptitiously in the tenor line of Pierrot, a clown who repeats a loud, rude noise every four bars (he seems to be sticking his tongue out at us) until he mercifully quits the circus ring.
The next five pieces display the theme letters conspicuously as their opening notes, except for Eusebius, in which the four letters are gently hidden in the midst of other notes. Eusebius is one of Schumann’s two famous personae, and represents the tender and poetic dreamer. Florestan is his alter ego, the passionate and daring hero. In Carnaval, Eusebius floats in a fanciful, irregular filigree — exotic groups of seven and contradictory rhythms that prevent the hands from sounding together. Florestan makes a mighty onslaught, and then pauses to present echos of Papillons, an earlier work of Schumann’s and no relation to the piece of the same name in Carnaval. Three tiny “pieces” — each consisting of only three or four low notes — are entitled “Sphinxes,” and they are indeed puzzling.
Many performers believe they are not meant to be played, but are inserted simply to amuse and confuse. The first spells “SCHA,” the “musical” letters in Schumann’s name, and the other two both spell “ASCH” in different ways (one uses A flat — “As” in German — instead of A and E flat to write AS). So starting after Papillons, the new notes from which the themes are derived are A flat, C and B. As before, these notes are most obvious at the beginning of each piece except for Chopin and Pause (in which they are absent) and Paganini, where they can be found, perhaps by coincidence, about halfway through. Coquette flirts charmingly and then slaps, suddenly and impudently; Chiarina is meant to be a spoofing reference to Clara Wieck.
Frédéric Chopin was deeply offended by the inclusion of the piece bearing his name, which he considered to be a parody. Pantalon and Colombine show a marvelous contrast, before melting shyly together; and Paganini is a hair-raising display of devilish violin pyrotechnics. But we should remind ourselves not to attach excessive importance to these names, as in most cases these spectacularly contrasting vignettes were composed prior to being christened.
Almost every human and musical emotion can be found in this collection, as in a real carnival. And as in a carnival ride, the most enjoyment will be found by submitting wholeheartedly, not resisting, and allowing oneself to be tossed and buffeted from one delight to the next.
Humoreske, op. 20
In the delightful Humoreske, Schumann proves once again the unmatchable purity, sincerity and consistency of his musical inspiration. As in Carnaval, he makes no pretense of integrating or connecting this set of superb sketches in more than the most tenuous manner. This should not be perceived as a flaw, but as an unaffected expression of his personality and of the romantic’s general disdain for conventional restraints. His spontaneity needs no proof except in the listening, but it was confirmed in a letter written to an admirer in 1838, the year before the creation of the Humoreske: “Earlier I used to rack my brains, but now I hardly ever cross out a note. Everything comes spontaneously.” The emotional commitment and joy he took from, and gave to, his compositions is demonstrated in a letter to Clara in which he says: “All week I sat at the piano composing, writing, laughing and crying, all at the same time. You will find this beautifully illustrated in my opus 20, the massive Humoreske.”
Fortunately, we can join him, at least in spirit, and need only sit back in amazement as one remarkable musical tale flows into the next. Each seems unsurpassable, only to be followed by something so different that there can be no competition, just gratification.
The piece is full of quizzical, delicious and romantic moments: the sensuous opening piece whose ethereal line pretends to start in a foreign, mysterious key; its extended middle section, full of unexpected twists (one of only two truly humorous parts of the piece) in which he keeps jumping back unsymmetrically to echo the preceeding measure; the next movement, marked “hasty,” which typifies the illusory world of romanticism by writing a hidden “inner voice” (a tune by Clara which is not meant to be played but to be imagined internally, presumably by the audience as well as the performer); the exquisite lyricism of the following movement, interrupted by a brilliant intermezzo that good-naturedly mimics a moron with its incessant and emphatic repetition of one chord; the supreme innocence and sweetness of the fourth movement; and the passionate outburst of the fifth movement leading to the endearing finale. One might contend that the Humoreske is fractionally too long, but is there any moment in it one could bear to miss? Perhaps just one! The last piece, Zum Beschluss (To Conclude), meanders a bit too loosely and indecisively with its countless stops and starts; it is delightful and warm, but here, so late in the piece, one might wish for something less oblivious of time and displaying some hope — beyond the title — that we are indeed approaching the end (beware the speaker who says, many times, “finally…”). Particularly the written out repeat… The written out repeat of a large chunk of this movement is a rather provocative gambit which could antagonize an impatient listener, but it does prepare us for some very magical, suspended moments just before the poignant and triumphant coda.
Theme and Variations in E flat Major
This work was the last real piece completed by Schumann. It was during its composition that he attempted suicide by jumping into the Rhine, and the last variation was actually composed after this incident. He believed that the melody had been dictated to him from heaven by Schubert; wherever it did come from, it has a rare, tranquil yet haunting perfection. It is distinctly other-worldly in character, as is the rest of the piece, especially the extraordinary, hallucinatory colour of the last variation.
Brahms was evidently also obsessed with this theme, and used it for a magnificent set of variations for piano four-hands. Curiously, though, Brahms, who was in charge of the complete Breitkopf and Härtel edition of Schumann’s works, decided to publish only the theme without the variations. He writes cryptically that “Schumann added five variations, which we abstain from publishing,” quite extraordinary for a supposedly “complete” edition. This could not have been for any lack of musical quality or sanity; it must have been because of the intimate connection of this work with the events surrounding the tragic disintegration and demise of Schumann. Brahms, and no doubt Clara as well, presumably felt it was too supremely personal a document to be exposed to public scrutiny. It was finally published in 1941.
© Anton Kuerti