Allegro un poco maestoso [12'59]
Zum Beschluß [6'41]
Angela Hewitt’s recent Schumann performances in the concert hall were praised for their ‘urgency, jubilation and introspection’ and ‘power and finesse’. Now for the first time she has recorded two of his greatest piano works for Hyperion. Her clean, thoughtful, incisively musical playing which nevertheless allows a flow of passion to be released is perfectly suited to this music.
The Sonata in F sharp minor Op 11 was described by the composer to his beloved Clara Wieck as ‘a cry from my heart to yours’. From the arresting opening to the bouncing Allegro vivace of the first movement and through to the majestic, orchestral-sounding finale, Clara’s imprints are everywhere in the work and Angela Hewitt traces this influence in her scholarly yet deeply personal booklet notes. Humoreske in B flat major was also written for Clara, and is a study of changing and ambiguous moods, melancholy tempered with tenderness, interspersed with dazzling bravura moments including one of the most difficult passages in all his piano works—a breathtaking emotional tour de force.
'A cry from my heart to yours’ was how Robert Schumann described his Piano Sonata No 1 in F sharp minor, Op 11 to his beloved Clara Wieck. At the time he finished it, she was only sixteen years old; he was twenty-five. She was already one of the most famous pianists in Europe, with countless tours under her belt; he was still trying to make his name as a composer, having been forced to give up the thought of being a pianist after injuring his hand. His parents had wanted him to be a lawyer and had forced him to study law until he was twenty; her father (divorced from the mother when Clara was just five years old) had moulded his daughter into his own special creation of which he was very proud. Robert and Clara had met when she was a girl of nine and he came to study piano with her father. When she was still a child, he would tell her ghost stories which would have her shrieking in horror as well as laughter.
Funnily enough, in 1833 when he began writing this sonata, he was actually in love with somebody else: Ernestine von Fricken was also a pianist, but not of the same stature as Clara. She was a nobleman’s daughter, and also studied piano with Wieck. Before Ernestine and Robert became engaged Clara was packed off on yet another concert tour so as not to get in the way of the budding romance. Clara’s father saw that something might blossom between his pride and joy and the unknown composer, and there was no way he wanted her to be a Hausfrau. But then Schumann discovered the truth: that Ernestine was in fact a bit coarse, not at all well spoken, and illegitimate. That put him off. And probably Clara had never really left his mind anyway. He later said to her, ‘Ernestine had to happen for us to be together’.
By the time the Sonata was finished in 1835, the engagement with Ernestine was over, and Clara was now the woman he loved. Their first kiss in November of that year left Clara reeling: ‘When you gave me that first kiss, I thought I would faint; everything went blank and I could barely hold the lamp that was lighting your way out.’
In the midst of all that, Schumann published his work as Pianoforte Sonata, Dedicated to Clara, By Florestan and Eusebius, Op. 11. That was all he wrote, and most people had no idea who Florestan and Eusebius were. In fact they were one person—he himself, to whose different personalities he had given these names: Florestan, a man full of action and vigour, and Eusebius, the melancholy dreamer. Schumann never really cared what the masses thought anyway. In the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a music journal of which he was editor, he had formed the imaginary league of Davidsbündler to counteract the conservative ‘Philistines’ of the musical world. This was probably just one more way to confuse them.
Even if Clara wasn’t first in his heart when he started writing the sonata, her imprints are all over it, and he completed the quote at the beginning of this programme note with the words, ‘in which your theme appears in every possible form’. That theme has since been identified as a falling scale of five notes which not only appears throughout this sonata, but also in the other two works of the same name (Opp 14 and 22) and in his Op 17 Fantasy.
The sonata could not open more arrestingly. Over a wave-like accompaniment, trumpet calls cry out for attention. After the parts are reversed and the left hand takes over the melody, we are, without knowing it, immediately presented with the theme of the second movement. The second half of that wonderful melody is presented in this introduction in as exalted a fashion as later on it is restrained. I admit that it is only while writing these notes that I realize that the opening gesture of this entire work—the trumpet call—is indeed also present in the first line of the slow movement, as a short interjection where the right hand crosses over the left. It is inverted, but the rhythm is the same. When the slow introduction comes to a stop over an open fifth, we are presented with the movement proper, an Allegro vivace. Clara’s presence is now hardly disguised. The opening motif, those jumping fifths, comes from one of her own compositions, ‘Le ballet des revenants’ (‘The Ballet of the Ghosts’) from her Four Characteristic Pieces, Op 5. In that piece, she also uses a fandango rhythm that comes from one of Robert’s unfinished compositions of 1831 which bears that dance name as the title. Robert reuses this fandango rhythm in the sonata, and it permeates the whole first movement. So they borrowed from each other in their compositions, thus uniting themselves at least through music. After a feverish but held-back beginning, the Allegro bursts forth with incredible energy, making great demands on the player and requiring huge stamina. Eusebius makes his entrance in the dreamy second subject in A major, not forgetting to include that descending ‘Clara’ theme. The development section is notable for a brief look back to the slow introduction which enters suddenly but doesn’t last long. At the end of the movement, Schumann doesn’t want to let go. In the same way as Mendelssohn did at the end of the first movement of his violin concerto, the last chord is released, but one note hangs on, leading us without a break into the Aria.
This movement originated as the song An Anna which Schumann wrote when he was eighteen years old to a text by Justinus Kerner:
Nicht im Thale der süssen Heimath
Not in the vale of the sweet homeland,
In the sonata, he gives the indication senza passione, ma espressivo (‘without passion, but expressive’). For me it is like a vision that is faraway but intensely affecting—not quite tangible. The words of the poem seem to me far too explicit. How much better it is to have the music without words! The middle section is a long cello solo, providing contrast before the return of the theme. Liszt said of this movement that it was ‘one of the most beautiful pages we know’. For me it is one of the great moments in all the works of my repertoire.
Florestan pushes away Eusebius in the Scherzo, giving us a movement that is, in fact, quite crazy. Already marked Allegrissimo at the beginning, the first trio gets even faster, and is quite impish in its behaviour. Playfulness is halted for a moment when we return to the sterner opening theme. But then another character enters in the Intermezzo, with the indication Alla burla, ma pomposo (‘Like a burlesque, but pompous’). This must be a character from the Davidsbund poking fun at somebody and giving us a caricature of a polonaise. Then the really crazy part breaks out: a sort of recitative, interrupted by exclamatory chords. One character is obviously really being a nuisance. He tries to sneak in the back door (that ascending scale marked Quasi oboe which I love to play with one finger!), but is abruptly stopped. All of this has to be taken very humorously. I have seen it played with total seriousness—which surely completely misses the point.
The last movement is a massive, orchestral-sounding construction which, in the wrong hands, can sound interminable. I love every moment of it. Schumann has come in for some pretty bad criticism here: how dare he not write a development section, but rather just repeat a very long exposition all over again in different keys, and then merely tack on a coda? The material hangs together too loosely. Does it really matter all that much, I say, when the material is so inspired, and there are moments of almost impossibly poignant tenderness? How much better it is to write something like this than a movement that is perfect in form but boring. Clara must have liked it, because she considered this sonata to be among Robert’s finest creations. The opening theme, often played too fast, once more contains those five notes, this time ascending and descending. Moods are changed abruptly—a real combination of Florestan and Eusebius here, and a sure sign of emotional turmoil. When he does get to that coda, all is let loose, but then Schumann can’t refrain from one final moment of doubt, pausing briefly before letting his heart soar in a final upward gesture.
The Humoreske in B flat major, Op 20 is another work that is often given short shrift by critics and musicologists. Maurice Hinson in his Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire says that ‘its numerous themes make it difficult to follow’. Again Schumann is criticized in this work for a lack of unity and structure. (Schumann wrote about critics: ‘They cut up timber, turning the lofty oak into sawdust.’) Perhaps his ‘problem’, if it can be called that, is that he simply had too many ideas all at once. Schumann himself wrote:
I am affected by everything that goes on in the world and think it all over in my own way, politics, literature and people, and then I long to express my feelings and find an outlet for them in music. That is why my compositions are sometimes difficult to understand, because they are connected with different interests; and sometimes striking, because everything extraordinary that happens impresses me, and impels me to express it in music.
The Humoreske, is, I admit, not easy to follow on a first hearing. But surely the greatest things are not so readily appreciated? A bit of extra effort always turns out to be rewarding. Schumann wrote it while in Vienna in 1839. Clara was in Paris for six months that year (this time without her father), and they would have to wait until September 1840 to be allowed to marry. He wrote to her on 11 March 1839:
Not to have written to you for more than a week, is that right? But I have dreamed about you, and have thought of you with a love such as I have never experienced before. I’ve been sitting at the piano all week, composing and writing, laughing and crying all at once. All this you will find beautifully depicted in my Opus 20, the Grand Humoreske, which is already in the engraver’s hands.
Schumann admitted that the piece was ‘rather melancholy’. It is certainly not ‘humorous’ as the title might suggest; the implication is rather of ‘moods’, of which there are many in this work. When explaining the title to a friend, he complained of the lack of a suitable translation into French, saying: ‘It is a pity that no good and apt words exist in the French language for those two most characteristic and deeply rooted of German conceptions, das Gemütliche (Schwärmerische) and Humor, the latter of which is a happy combination of Gemütlichkeit and wit.’
The piece opens as though it had already started, and in a mood not unlike the opening of the Scenes from Childhood (Kinderszenen, Op 15). After only eight bars, we are thrown into G flat major, having begun in B flat, and the colour darkens. These rapid shifts will happen throughout the Humoreske. Then comes a section marked ‘very fast and light’ where Schumann has fun getting stuck on one skipping motive. The tempo accelerates even more before a short pompous passage. Then all of a sudden we find ourselves in the midst of a type of tarantella of exceedingly high spirits. This whole section is masterfully brought to a close by returning to the previous material, ending in pensive mood.
If movements were specified in the Humoreske (which they aren’t), then we would come to the second with the section marked Hastig (‘Hastily’). Again we have a type of ABA form: the opening is both lyrical and breathless, with a curious ‘inner voice’ that is not intended to be played but rather kept in mind. Then we are off again with some more bravura writing in which Schumann instructs the performer to play ‘faster and faster’. In order to get back to the opening material, he uses a marvellous bridge passage which just has its harmonic outline in a series of broken chords that are beautifully ecstatic and calming. A short coda, marked Adagio, is pure Schumann.
The third section, marked Einfach und zart (‘Simply and tenderly’) is a ballad-like tune with two brief episodes. This section would be quite easy to play if Schumann didn’t then go and insert one of the most difficult passages in all of his piano works: an Intermezzo which is pure show. Under something resembling a horn call, the fingers get a good work-out. The short passage in octaves needs some re-arranging between the hands to be playable at all. It’s always a bit of a relief to get back to the simple tune when it’s over!
One of my favourite parts comes next. The indication Innig in Schumann usually means something special is about to happen. A tender melody which reaches out with its ascending octaves is interrupted twice by episodes of totally contrasting natures—the first impish and faster, the second dreamy and loving. Florestan then enters, booting out Eusebius, and starts to prepare for the big build-up of the piece. Schumann loves to find a rhythmic motif and work it to death—in this case a dotted figure that flits from bottom to top of the right hand in the most wonderful of ways—at first in a hushed pianissimo, but with a twinkle in his eye, and then gradually leading to the big climax. He could have ended the Humoreske here and given pianists the kind of ending they like when applause is all that matters (in fact, I have had audiences applaud here on more than one occasion, before realizing their mistake!). But no: he hasn’t finished yet. Instead we get a section marked Mit einigem Pomp (‘With a certain pomposity’) that leads us, by means of a gradual tailing off, into the final Zum Beschluss (‘Towards a resolution’). It is hard to explain what makes this final section (at least for me) very moving. Perhaps it is the lovely breadth and reflection it solicits after all the action that has come before. I don’t think the Humoreske would be at all the same without it. It is quite long, and half of it is a repetition of itself, but it also has this sense of yearning and longing which was what Schumann was feeling at the time. He is happy in his melancholy. But then he startlingly awakes us from our dream with the briefest of codas, hardly giving the listener time to realize that the piece is now finished. Thus he brings the Humoreske to a close, not with some bang-up ending, but rather leaving us to contemplate all the beauties contained within.
Angela Hewitt © 2007