Monday, August 27, 2012

Robert Schumann: Carnaval, Scenes from Childhood, Arabesque

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was one of the foremost composers of the so-called Romantic Age.  He was born at Zwickau, Saxony and showed great musical talent at a young age, as most composers tend to do, but he was also highly educated in literature and wrote two boyhood novels, due to the influence of his bookseller-publisher-author father, who, however, also encouraged his musical talent.  Schumann also pursued legal studies after his father's death and studies in Leipzig and Heidelberg.

After hearing the legendary Italian violinist, Niccolo Paganini, in 1830, however, Schumann decided to forego the law and studied piano with Frederich Wieck, who believed that his pupil would be a top-notch concert pianist.  During a rigorous period of study, though, Schumann permanently damaged his right hand and had to abandon his performance plans.  Instead, he delved deeply into composition.

By 1832, he was creating his earliest important works, but Schumann's highly sensitive nature, however, led to a suicide attempt the following year after he lost his brother and the brother's wife in a cholera epidemic.  Periodic emotional and mental problems, compounded by health issues, plagued the composer for the remaining decade and more of his life.

Engaged for a time to Ernestine von Fricken, the adopted daughter of a nobleman, Schumann began developing feelings, soon reciprocated, for his piano teacher's young daughter, Clara Wieck, who was becoming well known for her piano performances.  When the composer learned that Ernesting was illegitimate, he ended their relationship and then found that Clara's father steadfastly refused to accept his intentions towards Clara.  Waiting until 1840, when she was of legal age and not subject to the consent of her father, the two married and bore eight children.

Meantime, some of his earlier piano works form the basis for this album released by the Infinity imprint of Sony Music Entertainment in 1993 and which was purchased new by YHB as his first Schumann CD.  It features the 21-piece Carnaval, composed in 1834-35, and subtitled "Little Scenes on Four Notes."  This refers to the fact that the four notes referred to were musical cryptograms embedded in the music, which deals with masked participants of the festival that falls before Lent and characters associated with the Italian masked theater of commedia dell'arte.

The notes are A, B, C and E-flat, but are represented by the German letters A, C, H and S, with three combinations of these notes forming the musical puzzles.  The A and S symbolize the town of Asch, now in the Czech Republic and which was the hometown of Ernestine von Fricken, while the four letters A-C-S-H represent the German word for "carnival," which is Fasching.  Moreover, "asch" is Ash Wednesday.  And, these letters represent the name Robert Alexander Schumann, with the "A" from his middle name and the others from his surname.  Then, there is the S-C-H-A in his surname, as well.

Schumann's debt to the great Franz Schubert echoes throughout the piece, which are largely variations on themes from the earlier composer.  Carnaval was so demanding technically that it was little played during the composer's lifetime and for years afterward, though Franz Liszt did perform portions in 1840.  There are sections named for one of his inspiration, Paganini, and another for his close friend, Chopin.  Others refer to his then-fiancee Ernestine, another to Clara Wieck, and two divergent sides of Schumann's character, the more emotional and more rational elements.  As performed by Russian pianist and Schumann specialist, Pavel Jegorov (Egerov), the Carnaval is a wonder of emotional and highly inventive performance.

Considered "droll little things" by Schumann, the "Scenes from Childhood" became a major piano work of the composer.  These thirteen pieces (there had been thirty originally) reflect Schumann's reminiscences of his childhood and bear such titles as "From Foreign Lands and Peoples," referring evidently to his voracious reading habits; "Blind Man's Buff," being the time-honored children's game; "Dreaming," an obviously reflective and airy work; "Knight of the Hobbyhorse," another famed piece with a rollicking tempo;  and "Child Falling Asleep."  Of all, though, it is "Dreaming" (or Tr√§umerei) that remains one the landmark Schumann pieces, a slow, hauntingly gorgeous melody that is instantly enjoyable and affecting and "Almost Too Serious" is not far behind in its beauty.  Indeed, his declaration to Clara that the pieces were "peaceful, tender, and happy, like our future" is   Throughout, these pieces are simpler in structure, but they also feature a melodic beauty that has made them favorites of listeners ever since.  They also embody the important, but often ignored, premise the "less is more."

Lastly, there is the sublime Arabesque, which Schumann claimed he wrote in 1839 simply to stir the emotions of the women of Vienna.  Technically, the key of C was considered more delicate and feminine as opposed to the sharper keys.  It has also been said that its emotional weight was derived from the composer's then-unrequited love for Clara and that he poured his soul's torment into these pieces.  The 6-plus minutes of this piece have certainly transcended their ephemeral origins and have been another mainstay of Schumann's repertoire.

As a sampler of some of Schumann's most enduring piano work, this CD is an excellent one and Jegorov/Egorov's playing is beautiful.

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