Among Schumann’s inspired late chamber works is a collection of music for more unusual instruments, composed in a concentrated flurry of creativity between 1849 and 1853 and written specifically for particular players, and it is to these exquisite short works that the world-famous Nash Ensemble turns its impeccable collective musicianship.
While Schumann modelled his music specifically to the timbres of the instruments he wrote for—piano, violin, horn, clarinet and oboe—he also arranged these pieces for alternative instruments with an eye to maximizing sales. Here, however, the soloists from The Nash Ensemble present the works in their original scoring in what are bound to be definitive performances—the delicious Fantasiestücke for clarinet, and the fiery and lyrical Märchenbilder, which feature star British viola player Lawrence Power. Other delights include the Adagio and Allegro for horn, a brilliant showpiece, the Violin Sonata No 1, Drei Romanzen for oboe and piano and the Märchenerzählungen for clarinet, viola and piano.
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‘Political freedom is what nurtures true literature, and what poetry most needs for its unfolding’, wrote the seventeen-year-old Robert Schumann in his diary. Many years later he noted that ‘everything that goes on in the world—politics, literature, people—concerns me’. During the 1848 March Revolution he and Clara engaged in heated political debate with their friends and acquaintances, shocking many with their progressive liberal views. In April he penned three patriotic Freiheitsgesänge (‘Freedom Songs’) for male-voice choir and wind band. Yet by temperament he was anything but a revolutionary hero. When the violent uprisings that had been sweeping Europe spread to Dresden on 3 May 1849, his neighbour Richard Wagner manned the barricades. Schumann’s sympathies were with the insurrectionists. But his reaction was first to hide, terrified of being conscripted into the militia, then escape by rail with his wife Clara and eldest daughter Marie, finally ending up in the little town of Kreischa, south-east of the city.
Amid these turbulent events that would leave two hundred citizens dead and many more injured, Schumann showed an extraordinary capacity for creative detachment. In her diary Clara expressed her surprise that ‘the horrors of the outside world have awakened his inner poetic feelings in such a contrary manner’. On the very day he fled Dresden Robert noted in his Haushaltbuch (household book) that he was working on the duet ‘Frühlingslied’ for his Lieder-Album für die Jugend. A month earlier he had explained to his friend, the composer and conductor Ferdinand Hiller, how the European revolutions of 1848–9 had, perversely, inspired rather impaired his creativity: ‘[This has been] my most fruitful year—as if the outer storms have driven me more into myself. Thus I have found a counterweight to the terrible things which have broken in from the outside.’
The year 1849 was indeed one of astonishing fertility that produced, inter alia, the Waldscenen (Schumann’s first solo piano music for a decade), Part One of the Faust scenes, the Requiem für Mignon, the Lieder-Album für die Jugend, shorter choral works and a substantial tally of songs, several inspired by the Goethe centenary. There was also a whole series of miniatures for piano and assorted solo instruments, including the Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano and the Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano, both composed in February, and, in December, the three Romanzen for oboe and piano. ‘All the instruments are having their chance’, noted Clara in her diary in February. As so often, she was the initial inspiration behind these short chamber pieces. With her concert career restricted by family commitments, she delighted in playing music at home with friends from the Dresden Court Orchestra. But these miniatures, readily saleable in the flourishing amateur domestic market, were also a much-needed source of income from publishers at a time when the Schumanns’ expenditure regularly exceeded their earnings.
Setting the pattern for other similar works, to maximize potential sales Schumann simultaneously published the Fantasiestücke, Op 73 for clarinet and piano in versions for violin and for cello. The three ‘Fantasy Pieces’ form a compact suite, with the contrasting movements unified to create a cyclic structure. In the nostalgic A minor opening piece, Zart und mit Ausdruck (‘Tenderly and expressively’), the piano and clarinet present a pair of themes in free counterpoint. The piano’s theme then morphs into a skittish major-keyed dance in the scherzo-like second movement, Lebhaft, leicht (‘Lively, light’). The boisterous final Rasch und mit Feuer (‘Fast and fiery’) nonchalantly incorporates both ideas from the first movement, ending with a jubilant transformation of the once-soulful piano theme.
Composed just a week after the Fantasiestücke, the Adagio and Allegro, Op 70 in A flat major, for horn and piano (issued with alternative parts for violin or cello), delighted Schumann when he heard Clara rehearse it with Julius Schlitterlau, first horn in the Dresden Orchestra. Her response was even more euphoric: ‘A magnificent piece, fresh and passionate, and exactly what I like.’ Originally entitled Romanze, the Adagio is a tender colloquy for the two instruments that exploits both the heights and the depths of the new valve-horn. Schumann gives free rein to the horn’s agility in the Allegro, whose rollicking spirits are stilled in a central episode in B major that recalls the yearning melody of the Adagio.
Trading on the success of the Fantasiestücke, the Drei Romanzen, Op 94 for oboe (or violin, or clarinet) and piano are likewise centred on A, major or minor, though here the minor has the last word. While there is no attempt at cyclic unity, all three movements unfold at a similar moderate tempo, with minimal contrast of mood. The peculiarly plangent timbre of the oboe colours the opening piece, a folk lament refined for the drawing room. The A major second movement, marked Einfach, innig (‘Simple, intimate’), contrasts guileless song with a smouldering, dark-textured interlude in F sharp minor (Etwas lebhafter, ‘A little more lively’), while the third movement is memorable above all for its assuaging F major central episode.
On 1 September 1850, some nine months after composing the Romanzen, Schumann moved with his family from Dresden—which Clara, especially, had come to find stultifyingly provincial—to take up his new position as director of the municipal choir and orchestra in the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf. Greeted as a star, he initially felt happy and refreshed in his new surroundings. Despite his duties as conductor and administrator, he still found ample time to compose; and before the year was out he had produced two of his finest orchestral works: the Cello Concerto, and a Symphony (No 3) inspired by the Rhineland he had long loved.
Buoyed by the successful premiere of the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony in February 1851, Schumann composed another of his adaptable chamber-music miniatures early the following month: the Märchenbilder, Op 113 for piano with either viola (the composer’s first choice) or violin. The stimulus for these four ‘Fairy-tale Pictures’ was the virtuoso violinist Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski, whom Schumann had recruited from Leipzig as leader of the Düsseldorf orchestra. Whatever their specific fairy-tale background (the composer left no clues), the four pieces seem to conjure in alternation the twin fictional personas of Schumann’s youth. The wistful musings of the dreamer Eusebius, expressed in delicate interplay between the two instruments, are countered by the impetuous Florestan in the rhythmically insistent second movement. The two personas appear successively in the third movement, whose brilliant outer sections enfold a romantic interlude in an exotically remote key (B major, after D minor). Eusebius has the last word in the finale, a lullaby marked Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck (‘Slowly, with melancholy expression’), and perfectly fashioned for the dusky tones of the viola.
By the summer of 1851 there were already mutterings about Schumann’s suitability for the Düsseldorf post. His personality, always unpredictable, was becoming increasingly withdrawn and remote. And the orchestra and chorus grew more and more frustrated at his absent-mindedness, his tendency to meditate on the music, oblivious to the performers in front of him, rather than direct it. For the moment, though, Schumann’s creative enthusiasm remained undimmed. Indeed, 1851 was a hardly less prolific year than 1849 had been. Between September and early November he composed two violin sonatas for Clara and Wasielewski (‘I am burning with impatience for them’, she wrote in her diary), and the Piano Trio in G minor.
The notion still lingers that Schumann’s music from this period onwards is the product of a tired, sick mind. Yet there is no sign of creative decline in the violin sonatas of 1851, intensely characteristic of the composer in their impassioned restlessness and melancholy, often fractured lyricism. Schumann composed the Violin Sonata in A minor, Op 105 rapidly between 12 and 16 September, when, as he told Wasielewski, he was ‘extremely angry with certain people’. After the first, private, performance at the Schumanns’ Düsseldorf home, Clara was delighted with the first two movements but had reservations about the finale: ‘Only the third movement, rather less graceful and more intractable, didn’t go so well.’ A certain gruffness and intractability in the violin writing are indeed part and parcel of this movement. Wasielewski underestimated this; and it was only when Joseph Joachim played the Sonata while visiting the Schumanns in September 1853 that the composer was fully satisfied, writing that ‘it struck the inmost strings of the heart’.
Uniquely among Schumann’s major chamber works, the A minor Violin Sonata is in three rather than four movements, with the central Allegretto cunningly combining the functions of slow movement and scherzo. The first movement bears the typically Schumannesque heading Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck (‘With passionate expression’), though its passion is smouldering rather than explosive, relieved by moments of wistful delicacy in the second group of themes. Its darkly surging main theme, coloured by the sonority of the violin’s rich, husky G string (time and again in the Sonata Schumann seems to be using the violin as a surrogate viola), is one of the composer’s most memorable inventions, comparable in troubled eloquence to the opening of the Cello Concerto in the same melancholy key of A minor. Throughout the movement Schumann disguises the barlines with syncopations and overlapping phrases: as so often with his music, early or late, the effect is like a picture whose lines are slightly blurred. Schumann’s veiling of clear-cut divisions is most striking at the climax of the development, where the violin twice plays a poignantly broadened version of the opening phrase, the second time an octave lower, before continuing the theme in the original tempo; the recapitulation has begun before we realize it.
With its quizzical, halting phrases and frequent pauses, the Allegretto recaptures something of the whimsical poetry of Schumann’s piano music of the 1830s. It also looks back to the Intermezzo of the Piano Concerto, in the same key of F major. Contrast comes from a doleful melody in F minor, and a scherzo-like episode that uses a frisky little rhythmic figure from the opening section to capricious ends: with its faint Hungarian gypsy flavour, this music is as uninhibitedly extrovert as the Sonata gets.
Opening with a moto perpetuo theme in free canonic imitation (shades here of a Bachian two-part invention), the finale mingles cussed energy with a certain playfulness as the instruments toss fragments of the theme to and fro. After a bout of muscular counterpoint at the start of the development, Schumann introduces a glowing cantabile for the violin in the radiant key of E major, soon underpinned by the main theme’s semiquavers. The recapitulation, breaking through from A minor to A major, seems to promise an optimistic ending. But with a sudden return to A minor the violin softly intones the opening phrase of the first movement against snatches of semiquavers from the piano—one of Schumann’s most subtle, and haunting, instances of thematic reminiscence. The moto perpetuo theme quickly asserts its supremacy, and the final pages make a show of brilliance, albeit tempered to the end by the astringency of the minor key.
The Märchenerzählungen, Op 132, for clarinet, viola and piano, another of Schumann’s miniature suites, is one of the rare works to replicate the combination of instruments found in Mozart’s ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio, K498. This is one of Schumann’s very last works, composed during October 1853, when his increasing mental fragility and proneness to depression were temporarily alleviated by the visits of Joseph Joachim and the twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms. The four ‘fairy tales’ are testimony to Schumann’s fondness for the picturesque and the fanciful, though as with Op 113 he left no clue as to their content. The opening movement alternates march and dream, with a constant exchange of roles between the three instruments. March rhythms, now with a distinct rustic flavour, dominate the second piece, alleviated by a lyrical central episode, while in the third, marked Ruhiges Tempo, mit zartem Ausdruck (‘In reposeful tempo, with tender expression’), clarinet and viola sing a dulcet love duet against the piano’s rippling semiquavers. The fourth ‘fairy tale’, marked, like No 2, Lebhaft, sehr markiert (‘Lively, with strongly stressed rhythms’), mixes truculence and Schumannesque caprice. As in the second piece, too, there is a songful interlude for duetting clarinet and viola in a remote key. With his love of cyclic forms, Schumann then brings the work full circle by quoting a prominent theme (beginning with a rising arpeggio) from the opening piece.
Richard Wigmore © 2012