Part 1: Einfach – Sehr rasch und leicht – Wie im Anfang
Part 2: Hastig – Nach und nach immer lebhafter und stärker – Adagio
Part 3: Einfach und zart – Intermezzo
Part 4: Innig – Sehr lebhaft – Mit einigem Pomp
Part 5: Zum Beschluß
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.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2007