• Features

Schumann: Passions, dreams, memories (CD Decca, 2010)

All the tones that sound in earth’s multicoloured dream contain one soft sound for the secret listener.
Friedrich Schlegel

Passions, dreams, memories

“In order to understand the Fantasy you must think back to that unhappy summer of 1836 when I renounced you. The first movement is undoubtedly the most passionate piece that I have ever written: it is a profound lament for you.” These words were written by Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck, referring to the enforced separation imposed on them by her father, Friedrich Wieck, who was strongly opposed to their betrothal. Passion and renunciation and unappeased yet inexhaustible love are the feelings expressed in the Fantasy in C major Op. 17 with greater intensity than in any other work by Schumann. The structure is unprecedented, taking shape directly from the initial impulse and soaring away from there: the first chord of C major in its root position does not appear until the final page of the movement. All the thematic ideas seem to well up spontaneously from this flow of energy, so that each subject is already “secretly” contained in the preceding themes before appearing in its complete form. The “soft sound” of which Schlegel speaks in the quotation at the beginning of the Fantasy may be precisely this ceaseless but latent passion, expressed in a great variety of forms but all derived from the same cell: the theme from Beethoven’s Lied An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved). It does not appear explicitly until the end of the first movement, ringing out as the most Schumannesque of the subjects in this context. It is immediately repeated twice, in a gradually more subdued, intimate tone, like a declaration of love uttered with increasing rapture and emotion.

The second movement of the Fantasy is also animated by a constant driving force, but in a more regular form with a dotted rhythm. With this heroic, supremely self-confident tone, Schumann renders homage to the glory of Beethoven (the Fantasy was written to raise money for a monument to the great composer), and at the same time shows a desire to fight against all his enemies – real, imaginary or symbolic – with the utmost energy.

In the third movement the thrust of passion is sublimated into a still, absorbed contemplation. Love reaches out to humanity, to all existence. For Schumann it is a way of resigning himself to the – temporary – renunciation of Clara. Yet passion emerges once again, with gradual but relentless tension, especially in the two great climaxes, only to be diluted in the resonances of the final broad arpeggios in C major.

The Arabeske Op. 18 takes us back to the bright colour of the key of C major, giving life to a polyphonic mesh of delicate, transparent ornamentation frequently interspersed with the emergence of a single voice or an unexpected chromatic harmony. A lacework pattern pleasurably repeated to the limits of obsession, sustained by a tireless search for purity. The dreamy, contemplative, inconclusive coda represents the apotheosis of this aesthetic.

In the 13 pieces that make up Kinderszenen Op. 15, Schumann tries to identify with his own past as a child, or rather to express in music the fantasies and feelings of wonder, doubt and hope that enlivened the reality of his childhood world.

Of Foreign Lands and Peoples recreates the fancifulness with which a child may imagine places and people that belong to distant worlds of which he has only heard others speak, having no idea what they are really like. It is a fancifulness that softens outlines and stimulates the imagination towards images (ideas, intuitions) that are sometimes more truthful than reality. Something that only children and poets are capable of accomplishing.

A Curious Story explores the humour of children, who often laugh at insignificant aspects of the adult world. Here the story is made “curious” by the shift of stress onto the weak beats and by the halting rhythm.

Blind Man’s Buff evokes the giddy feeling of being chased, of running aimlessly, constantly changing direction and emotional state.

There is a similar uncertainty in Pleading Child. The youngster does not really know what to ask for but feels a need to want and obtain something that is not very clearly defined and therefore all the more attractive.

Happy Enough describes the (partial) satisfaction of that desire. Complete happiness is not a prerogative of childhood, but this sense of unsatisfaction is almost enough to make one happy.

An Important Event may represent the enactment of a solemn ceremony or the passing of a military parade. At any rate, it is something that arouses astonishment and wonder and that has an inexplicable, imperturbable je ne sais quoi which is what makes it so important.

Träumerei is the poetic pinnacle of the cycle. It is often referred to as “Dreaming”, but a more appropriate translation of the title would be “Vision”. Indeed, this might be an apparition of fairies, perhaps at dawn, glimpsed in a dim, glancing light. The child is not dreaming: the vision appears when he is awake, so that the magic (and silent wonder) is all the greater.

At the Fireside returns to the harmonies and key of Träumerei, but in a completely new context. The tone is now more “domestic”, though there is a good deal of rhythmic displacement between the two hands and stress on weak beats. These features represent the exaggerated complexity with which the child often perceives reality, recreating it in his imagination and adding details of which adults are unaware.

Knight of the Hobby Horse brings back the giddy feeling of Blind Man’s Buff, but now in a steadier harmonic setting. There is no rest or respite until the abrupt ending.

Almost Too Serious explores the particular feeling of profound melancholy combined with anxiety and latent hope that often characterises the mood of a child. The frequent illogical pauses resound like the existential questions that are already creating profound divisions in the child’s personality.

In Frightening Schumann explores his memories of fear as a child. Not the fright that is expressed in shrieks but fear that is felt inside. Often not connected with real, identifiable things and therefore all the more disturbing and unpredictable.

Child Falling Asleep recreates the very gradual, almost imperceptible, transition from wakefulness to sleep (and dreams). A supremely poetic, visionary moment. When the child finally enters the dream state there is a shift from E minor to E major and the music soars up into the air. This is one of the very few pieces by Schumann (together with Pleading Child) that do not end with a tonic chord: instead it remains suspended on the subdominant. As if to say that the dream has no logical conclusion and does not develop in linear time.

The dream merges into The Poet Speaks. But the poet’s language reflects the beauty of nature, and that is because he has the eyes of a child. This is the simplest and most disarming piece in the set, for poetry has no need of complexity when it describes true beauty.

The Waldszenen Op. 82 are also a journey into memory, expressing, as Charles Rosen says, a “nostalgia for a nonexistent present”.

The first piece, Entrance, describes entering the forest, a place which belongs to us but is full of mysterious, disquieting sensations. It is entered in a state of readiness to be surprised and to discover oneself through the contemplation of nature.

In Hunter on the Lookout the tension expressed by pauses and crescendos on sustained notes conveys the fatality of the events with which existence is strewn.

There is a complete change of atmosphere in Lonely Flowers. The title is in the plural: various states of loneliness overlap and are interwoven (in a canon). But it is not at all a sad piece, for there is a kind of consolation in knowing that others also are alone. The ability to derive enjoyment from one’s circumstances, in harmony with nature, is a way of achieving happiness and satisfaction. Significantly, there is a quotation from Schubert’s Valse Sentimentale, D779 No. 13, which expresses a similar sense of melancholy serenity.

The melodic parenthesis of Lonely Flowers reappears in the following piece, Haunted Spot, but in a very different atmosphere, almost one of “horror”, as we might say today. Vestiges of ancient styles, such as the dotted rhythms of Baroque origin, provide a spellbound landscape for a song – the same as for the lonely flowers, but in the minor mode – which has an inescapably disquieting solitariness. The key is D minor, often used by Schumann – and also later, perhaps intentionally, by Brahms – to express legendary and epically tragic passages.

Pleasant Landscape brings us to a lighter, more carefree contemplation, revealing a love of life and nature that sets aside any thought of possible misfortune.

We remain in a welcoming atmosphere with Wayside Inn, a typically Germanic piece full of references to popular songs, which recreates the warm, youthful atmosphere of mountain hostels reached after long adventurous exertions.

Bird as Prophet is by far the most modern composition that Schumann ever wrote. It takes us to the limit of atonality, yet the dissonances here are not aggressive but form an inevitable part of the context. A context in which, through the prophet bird, nature tells us of things that are devoid of human logic, inexorably true beyond any question of good and evil or joy and sorrow.

This supernatural stillness is followed by the most lively, driving piece of the set, Hunting Song. Another example of Schumann’s fierce attachment to the tradition of German folk music, it is not without moments of poetry in the middle part, where the strict 6/8 rhythm is made almost tender by chromatic harmonies.

The cycle ends with Farewell: taking leave not only of the forest but also, perhaps, of the composer himself. Here he is deeply moved as he gazes into himself and says farewell consciously but not sadly – rather, with love – to the forest and to life. His leave-taking is both moving and serene. The music dies away, without rhetorical flourishes, in a natural sunset, as described in the lines by Gustav Pfarrius which Schumann quotes in the first version of this piece:

Now the shadows softly lengthen,
The evening breeze drifts through the vale,

Only the highest peaks still gladly greet
The last ray of the setting sun.


Roberto Prosseda