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Book 1 No 1: Des Abends
Book 1 No 2: Aufschwung
Book 1 No 3: Warum?
Book 1 No 4: Grillen
Book 2 No 1: In der Nacht
Book 2 No 2: Fabel
Book 2 No 3: Traumes Wirren
Book 2 No 4: Ende vom Lied
The eight Fantasiestücke (there was originally a ninth piece, but Schumann omitted it from the collection and it was not published until 1935) do not form a unified cycle in the sense that Carnaval does. They were designed more for the drawing-room than the concert-hall, though writing to Clara Wieck on 12 February 1838 Schumann recommended individual pieces for public performance—in particular, ‘Des Abends’ and ‘Traumes Wirren’. Curiously enough, he thought ‘In der Nacht’—surely one of the very finest pieces in the series—too long for such a purpose. As for Clara, she confessed that her favourites were ‘Fabel’, ‘Des Abends’, ‘Aufschwung’, ‘Grillen’ and ‘Ende vom Lied’.
Schumann divided the Fantasiestücke into two Books, each having its own tonal centre. Three of the four pieces in Book I are in D flat major. Significantly enough, the exception—‘Aufschwung’—sets off as though it is to be in B flat minor, the closest relative among the minor keys to D flat major; and the first of its two contrasting episodes is actually in D flat. Not until the very end does the main theme at last cadence with deliberate abruptness onto the home chord of F minor.
‘Des Abends’ is among the most perfect and intimate of all Schumann’s piano miniatures. Its smooth melody is syncopated throughout (it is the left-hand accompaniment that maintains the actual beat); and when it passes to the inner voice in the second half of the opening section, it undergoes a further shift in relation to the bar-line. The pianist playing this piece finds his thumbs interlocked virtually throughout.
Following the dramatic intensity of ‘Aufschwung’, with its upward-surging melody, the question posed in ‘Warum?’ seems to be of secretive innocence. The piece is much shorter and simpler than the remaining numbers, and could almost have been designed for Kinderszenen—the collection Schumann composed immediately after completing the Fantasiestücke. The end of its second half links back to its repeat, but it does not provide a real conclusion the second time through. Instead, the circular, repetitive nature of the closing bars leaves the music hanging in mid-air, as though on a genuine question-mark.
The melodic contour of ‘Warum?’ is taken over in the opening bars of the good-natured ‘Grillen’—another piece that begins by approaching its home key obliquely. Schumann wanted it played with humour—a concept he later described (apropos his Humoreske Op 20) as being characteristically German—a happy combination, as he put it, of ‘Gemütlichkeit’ and wit.
Of the pieces in the second Book, both ‘In der Nacht’ and ‘Traumes Wirren’ unfold in a constant swirl of semiquavers—dark and intense in the former (though it has a warmer, more lyrical episode in the major), dazzlingly light in the latter. There are more cascading semiquavers in the middle section of ‘Fabel’, though for the rest this piece alternates a slow, smoothly expressive phrase (the ‘once upon a time’, perhaps, suggested by the piece’s title) and a much quicker staccato idea. The final piece makes a return to the slightly pompous Biedermeier style of ‘Grillen’, and once again the pianist is instructed to play it good-humouredly. But the coda introduces a new element of poetry into the proceedings, and the nostalgic final bars echo the opening melody in slow-motion, and as if from afar.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2005