No 1 in C major: Mehr langsam, oft zurückhaltend
No 2 in F major: Markiert und lebhaft
No 3 in D flat major: Mit grosser Lebhaftigkeit
No 4 in F major: Einfach
I wrote to you about a premonition. I had it in the days from 24th to 27th March, during my new composition. There is a passage which keeps coming back, to which I kept returning. It is as though someone were sighing with a heavy heart: ‘Oh God!’ While composing, I kept seeing funeral processions, coffins, unhappy, despairing people, and when I had finished and had long sought a title I kept coming to Leichenphantasie [corpse-fantasy]. Isn’t that curious? While I was composing I was often so overcome that tears came forth and I really didn’t know why and had no reason for them. Then Therese’s letter arrived, and it stood clearly before me.
Therese was Schumann’s sister-in-law. Her letter informed him that his brother Eduard was seriously ill. Convinced that he would never see Eduard again, Schumann hurried away from Vienna. On the way home, he distinctly heard in his mind the sound of a funeral chorale played by trombones. As he later found out, that was the precise moment when his brother had died.
Schumann eventually called his new pieces Nachtstücke, borrowing his title, not for the first time, from ETA Hoffmann. He originally gave a separate heading to each of the four pieces in the cycle, though these were suppressed in the first edition: ‘Trauerzug’ (Funeral procession), ‘Kuriose Gesellschaft’ (Strange company), ‘Nächtliche Gelage’ (Nocturnal revelries) and ‘Rundgesang mit Solostimmen’ (Round with solo voices).
The funeral procession of Schumann’s opening piece is one that advances with hesitant steps. The cortège seems, moreover, to have started out of earshot, with the music beginning as though midstream. During the course of the piece it draws gradually nearer, until shortly before the close it is heard fortissimo, in chords whose widely spaced keyboard layout anticipates the texture of the final piece in Schumann’s collection. At the end, the procession recedes once more into the distance—so much so that we cannot be quite sure of having caught the sound of the delayed final chord.
The main subject of the second piece seems to bring with it the sound of laughter in the chortling accents of the main theme. The entire number is based on the descending scale pattern of this theme, which itself is like an accelerated parody of the funeral procession we have just heard. During the course of the piece Schumann manages to transform the motif into an elegant, lyrical interlude, into a recitative and—in inverted form—into a chuckling intermezzo, before the whole thing is finally brushed aside with a dismissive gesture.
The penultimate piece, with its first episode in an agitated minor key, seems to rush past us like the wind; and having begun in a tempo of great liveliness, the music’s pace increases for a second episode whose sweeping gestures soon give way to two-note phrases which cut across the triple-time beat, introducing an atmosphere of still greater breathlessness.
If the title Schumann at one stage thought of giving the first of his Nachtstücke had distinctly Mahlerian undertones, then the final piece in the collection is one that Mahler may actually have known. Its opening bars are strikingly similar to the refrain which punctuates the second of the two ‘Nachtmusik’ movements in the later composer’s Seventh Symphony. The inspired melody that follows begins with a yearning ascending interval in a rhythm that later forms the springboard for a sensuous middle section; until, with great subtlety, the closing notes of that middle section overlap with the return of the sighing initial phrase of the piece. In the final bars, as the gentle pizzicato of the opening theme becomes progressively smoother, the poet speaks, allowing the music to sink to a subdued close at the bottom of the keyboard.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2014