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No 1 in F major: Markiert und kräftig
No 2 in D major: Ausserst rasch und mit Bravour
No 2 in D major: Äusserst rasch und mit Bravour
No 3 in D major: Leicht und mit Humor
No 4 in D major: Ballmässig, sehr munter
No 5 in D major: Rauschend und festlich
No 6 in A major: Sehr lebhaft, mit vielem Humor
No 7 in E major: Äusserst rasch
No 8 in F sharp minor: Sehr lebhaft
I have composed a frightful amount for you in the last three weeks: light-hearted things, Egmont stories, family scenes with fathers, a wedding—in short, the most amiable things; and have named the whole work ‘Novelletten’, because you are called Clara and ‘Wiecketten’ doesn’t have a good enough ring to it.
In the end, to avoid any friction on the home front, Schumann dedicated the Novelletten to neither Clara, but instead to the pianist Adolph Henselt, with whom he had spent an agreeable Christmas Eve the previous year. Henselt subsequently moved to St Petersburg, where the Schumanns met him during their Russian tour in 1844. But by then they found he had become ‘impossibly pedantic’.
The Novelletten form what is at once the largest and the least known among Schumann’s major piano cycles. The music itself is of consistently high quality (years later, Schumann himself still regarded this among his most successful works), and clearly written in an exultant mood. Its main key is D major, though, as he so often liked to do, Schumann begins away from that basic key, with a piece that provides no hint of the tonal focus to come. That first number, indeed, modulates so relentlessly that no single key is established at all until the onset of its F major trio section. The opening march-like idea encapsulates the tonal plan of the piece as a whole: although the music progresses in a single sweep, it cadences firmly three times—first into F major, then into D flat major, and finally A major. These are the keys in which the contrasting episodes are set: first, a soaring F major melody above an accompaniment in smooth triplets; then a densely contrapuntal passage based on descending scale patterns (following this episode, the initial march theme makes the briefest of returns with the music still in D flat major); and finally a reprise of the first episode, this time in A major.
Schumann’s sketch for the second Novellette describes it as ‘Sarazene und Suleika’—a reference to the two central characters of Goethe’s collection of poems called the West-östlicher Divan. The Saracen is the singer and poet Hatem, depicted in the outer sections of Schumann’s piece with their virtuoso staccato arpeggio figures. Suleika appears in the slower middle section, and her calming influence clearly exerts its pull over Hatem: the return to his agitated material unfolds at first in a sustained pianissimo. Schumann sent this piece to Liszt, whose flamboyant keyboard manner may perhaps have prompted the tempo marking of the outer sections in the first place: Äusserst rasch und mit Bravour. Schumann heard Liszt play the Novellette in Leipzig, in March 1840, and reported to Clara: ‘The 2nd Novellette gave me great joy; you can scarcely believe what an effect it makes. He [Liszt] wants to play it in his third concert here, too.’
No less of a virtuoso piece is the third number of the cycle (for Schumann, this was a ‘Macbeth-Novellette’), with the light, staccato sonority of its outer sections bringing with them a hint of the Mendelssohnian scherzo style. The music begins momentarily as though it is to be in B minor—a suggestion that is strengthened by the actual use of that key in the wildly agitated, syncopated intermezzo which forms the central portion of the piece.
The fourth Novellette takes us straight into the ballroom, where a waltz of almost manic cheerfulness is unfolding. Gradually the pace of the swirling music increases—first, through an intensifying of its rate of harmonic change, until we reach a splendidly uplifting shift of key taking us from D into C major; and then through an actual acceleration of tempo leading ultimately to a series of crashing chords which momentarily subverts the waltz rhythm.
It is tempting to discern a barely disguised expression of anger in the ‘noisy’ polonaise (Rauschend und festlich is Schumann’s marking), with its stamping rhythm, that forms the fifth of the Novelletten. The music, with its off-beat accents, is agitated and restless, and its central episode expounds on the stamping rhythm with wrist-breaking obstinacy. At the end, the rhythmic motif, with its characteristic minor-major alternation, recedes into the distance, as though with a deep sigh of regret.
The sixth Novellette is a piece that presents a continual acceleration. Characteristically opening on a dissonance, it is a whirlwind kaleidoscope of contrasting moods coupled with a bewildering succession of keys. At the end, as the music threatens to spiral out of control, Schumann sounds the notes of the violin’s ‘open’ strings, as though in an attempt to bring some order into the tonal chaos. But before he can do so, the piece abruptly disappears in a puff of smoke.
The beautiful floating melody of the middle section in the cycle’s penultimate piece offers brief respite from all the frenetic activity, but this is otherwise another scherzo which rushes past without pausing to draw breath.
As for the last of the Novelletten, it is at once the longest and formally the most complex piece in the collection. It sets out as a passionately agitated piece in F sharp minor, with two trios—the first of them in D flat major; the second, with its imitation of hunting horns, in a bright D major. However, the second trio does not lead, as had the first, to a return of the opening material. Instead, the mood changes to one of intimacy, and above the pervasive dotted rhythm Schumann introduces a smooth melody which he describes as a ‘voice from afar’. The distant voice quotes the ‘Notturno’ from Clara Wieck’s Soirées musicales, Op 6, and at this point the music sinks as though towards a resigned D major conclusion. But instead, Schumann embarks on what appears to be an entirely fresh departure—one that is, however, significantly marked Fortsetzung und Schluss (continuation and ending). Its integration with the earlier, apparently self-contained, portion of the piece is assured by the reintroduction of the ‘voice from afar’ in a more emphatic form during the closing pages. Nevertheless, in a remarkable instance of ‘progressive’ tonality, the music ends not in the key of its beginning, but in D major—the principal key of the cycle as a whole.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2014