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
Invented by Schumann in the course of his early literary experiments, the ‘Davidsbund,’ or ‘League of David’, hovers between reality and imagination—in perfect analogy to Schumann’s music and, indeed, to the very essence of the romantic spirit. The Davidsbund represented the fiery, radical artists in battle with the sterile, utterly conventional academics, who were thwarting artistic progress. David, the biblical king, and one of the first celebrated musicians in history had also—like Schumann—rallied his kindred spirits to defeat the Philistines, the narrow-minded, reactionary anti-artistic forces. The Davidsbund was to be led by Florestan, the passionate, volatile hero of Beethoven’s Fidelio, condemned for having opposed corruption, and chosen by Schumann as one of his two alter egos, the other being the dreamy and poetic Eusebius. These two, taking turns and even sometimes combining with each other, dominate the pages of all of Schumann’s music, but in no work is this more prominent than in the Davidsbündlertänze. The Davidsbund, however, did not consist only of mythical beings, it also denoted a group of Schumann’s musical friends who met weekly to discuss and advance the new romantic direction of the arts—as well as to provide some merry conviviality (liberally assisted by beer)… In view of its name, it is not surprising that the Davidsbündlertänze (League of David Dances) mark the zenith of Schumann’s daring, extravagant imagination. We witness here Eusebius’ most deeply affecting tenderness, and Florestan’s boldest and wildest dramas, flanked by some of Schumann’s most exotic whimsy. But the most affecting parts are the shimmering poetic pieces that turn the piano into the most songful instrument you could wish for. The differences between the first and second editions of the Davidsbündlertänze is minimal, in contrast to the extensive changes Schumann made in many other works. While in general respecting the second edition, I have felt free to incorporate a few of what I consider the more delicious variants of the first edition. An old German proverb printed on the first page, seems too constrained in its advice, compared to the unbridled emotions of the music: “In every day and every land, Joy and grief go hand in hand; Stay gentle in your joyous days, And, be brave your grief to face.” There is neither need nor space for more than a few words on each dance. Those in quotations are Schumann’s, as are the indications of F. or E. which appeared in the first edition to identify (as if there could be any doubt!) whether Florestan or Eusebius was on stage.  Lebhaft: The opening fanfare motive of this enchanting Waltz—one of the few real dances in the whole set—is by Clara Wieck (see notes to the Sonata). F. E.  Innig: One of the most poignant and important pieces of the set, for it reappears nostalgically in the middle of No. 17, giving a bit of coherence to the work beyond its persuasively intuitive sequence of moods. E.  Mit Humor: “somewhat startling” The humour is Germanic, at first rather heavy, almost grotesque, but soon becoming impetuous. A quote from Schumann’s Carnaval is blended into the middle section. F.  Ungeduldig: Until the last four bars, no melody note of this impatient whirlwind ever sits on a beat. All is syncopated, giving it a floating, urgent feeling typical of Schumann. F.  Einfach: A sensual, delicate meander amongst the most beautiful, simple flowers, whose harmonic scent in the middle section is truly exotic. E.  Sehr rasch: “and speaking to himself” Actually, neither the dynamics nor the character match Schumann’s comment here beyond the first few bars, as the piece has many agitated and forceful climaxes. F.  Nicht schnell; “With extremely strong sensitivity” This somewhat enigmatic piece is the longest in the set. It has no less than 20 ritardandos indicated, and conveys a poised, languid sense of distance and longing. E.  Frisch: A short riding excursion, quite explosive, and concentrating on one short motive. F.  Lebhaft: “Hereupon Florestan stopped, and his lips twitched painfully.” An obsessive, twitching rhythm matches these words and brings the first book of the work to a giddy close.  Balladenmässig. Sehr rasch: A battle between the hands, with the left hand adhering to 3 beats per bar, and the right hand insisting on 2. F.  Einfach: If the previous one was Florestan’s Ballade, this one seems to tell a story too, this time in the haunting language of Eusebius. E.  Mit Humor: A bit of a circus act, catapulting high into the sky, and later rolling down gradually, ending with a final guffaw. F.  Wild und lustig: Tumultuous frenzy in the main section is set off by the sweet, musing introspection of the middle section and the effervescent vanishing act of the coda. F. E.  Zart und singend: The quintessence of Eusebianism! As powerful in its profundity of expression as it is intimate in peaceful character, music does not get much more beautiful than this. E.  Frisch: Once more we find two magnificently contrasting characters, the one boisterous and raucous, the second sensuous and warm, but nevertheless propelling itself very fervently. F. E.  Mit gutem Humor: The humour is at first gently teasing, then becomes tumultuous slapstick, and at last is nervously shy. Eventually it drifts away from humour and leads without pause into the next piece.  Wie aus der Ferne: The dreamiest, most hypnotic piece, evoking the distant, hazy meadows of the Rheinland, then revisiting the intimacy of the second piece of the set, and finally surging dramatically, only to subside and extinguish itself graciously. F. E.  Nicht Schnell: “Quite superfluously, Eusebius decided to yet add the following; but herein his eyes radiated great bliss.” A hint of a delicate, slow waltz, sweet and nonchalant on the surface, but overflowing underneath with deep feeling, a joy so pure that it is heartbreakingly sad. Grand Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.11 This giant work was dedicated to Schumann’s future wife, Clara Wieck—who was just 15 years old when the Sonata was completed in 1835! Forbidden to meet Clara, Robert had it delivered to her with a dedication purporting to be from Florestan and Eusebius, the composer’s imaginary heroes (see above notes to the Davidsbündlertänze). To dedicate a work of such depth of feeling and such monumental pianistic demands to so young a person testifies to the extraordinary regard Schumann must already have had for the adolescent Clara, both as a person and as a pianist. Further marking this Sonata as special to the composer’s development is the fact that—with the exception of a few juvenile works like the miserable early Piano Quartet in C minor—it is Schumann’s first attempt to create a large form that does not consist of a garland of short vignettes like Carnaval or the Davidsbündlertänze. He meets this challenge boldly, with a number of daring, original strokes. The heart of the Sonata is its shortest movement, the Aria, which rises phoenix-like from a low note left faintly ringing, as though by accident, after the first movement fades away. Its ethereal, heartbreakingly sweet theme has already been heard during the introduction to the first movement, one of several cyclical elements in the work. This touching theme is based on an early song of Schumann’s, An Anna, whose words are those of a youth, mortally wounded on a battlefield which has already claimed the lives of his comrades. He is thinking of his beloved, and the sweet life he is departing from. The first movement’s slow introduction displays a breathtaking contrast between its initial stark, declamatory pathos, and the distant, haunting premonition of the Aria theme. The wild main part of the movement is labeled a “fandango”, though that Spanish dance is really supposed to have three, not two beats to the bar, as it does here. But this fits in with the feverish, whirling extravagance of the whole movement; nothing else is in line with one’s expectations, so why should the fandango be in the proper meter, as long as it is sufficiently thrilling? The closing theme retreats from all the tumult and gleams with a profound serenity that defines the very essence of Eusebius. The Scherzo, picturesquely calling for an “Allegrissimo” tempo, is full of rhythmic interest, flying leaps, shifting accents and Schumann’s daring, ecstatic harmonies. A breathless, syncopated section flits by, in which no melody note ever coincides with a downbeat, one of Schumann’s favourite means of conveying a floating, magical unworldliness. The Trio interrupts all this suddenly, and we enter an even more fanciful and bizarre world. Marked “alla burla, ma pomposo” (playful, but pompous), its taunting motive is repeated obstinately and provocatively, until it dissolves into a marvelously weird recitativo. The finale has been criticized as being excessively long and repetitive, yet it has such a magnificent and inspired variety of characters that the pulsing, jagged insistence of the five iterations of the main theme (in four different keys!) gives a welcome framework on which to hang the wondrous intervening episodes. The jagged, daring leaps that initiate these contrasting episodes usher in some of Schumann’s most imaginative, soaring pianistic gambits, which contrast in their whimsy with the more stolid, Germanic insistence of the main theme. After spending most of the piece in the minor mode, the frenetic ending dissolves into a blazing, glorious F sharp major conclusion.
© Anton Kuerti