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Fantasie in C major, Op 17
published in 1839

'Schumann: Piano Music' (CDA67166)
Schumann: Piano Music
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Movement 1: Durchaus phantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen
Movement 2: Mässig: Durchaus energisch
Movement 3: Langsam getragen: Durchaus leise zu halten

Fantasie in C major, Op 17
In a review of the state of sonata composition, Schumann appeared to recede from his earlier championing of the genre: ‘it looks as if this form has run its course, which is indeed in the nature of things[;] we should not repeat the same thing century after century and also have an eye to the new. So, write sonatas, or fantasies (what’s in a name!), only let not music be forgotten meanwhile’. It would be more accurate to understand Schumann as cautioning not against sonata composition per se, but rather against an unthinking, repetitive and formulaic perpetuation of formal convention for its own sake. The implication that the generic terms ‘sonata’ and ‘fantasia’—the one the epitome of premeditated, tightly-constructed music, the other of improvised outpouring of spontaneous feeling—need not be understood as eternally contradictory is particularly telling, in that 1839 also saw the publication of the Fantasie, Op 17, the piano work generally held to exhibit Schumann’s most successful handling of large-scale form and one in which sonata and fantasia elements are held in a fascinating tension.

The compositional history is complex but unavoidable. In June 1836, during a period of enforced separation from Clara, Schumann composed a single-movement Fantaisie [sic] to which he gave the title ‘Ruines’: he was subsequently to tell Clara that it had been a ‘deep lament’ for her. Later in the year, inspired by the idea of raising money for the monument to Beethoven which Liszt (to whom Schumann dedicated the Fantasie) and others proposed to erect in Bonn, he added two further movements, called ‘Trophaeen’ and ‘Palmen’, and proposed to publish the three together as a Grosse Sonate … für Beethovens Denkmal. The second and third movements were subsequently given new titles (‘Siegesbogen’ and ‘Sternbild’), and the complete work was variously entitled Phantasieen, Fata Morgana, and Dichtungen before Schumann eventually decided on the generic, singular Fantasie, stemming from the originally independent first movement. The term aptly suits that rhapsodic and sectionally conceived movement, which nonetheless clearly acknowledges the conventions of sonata form while simultaneously playing against them at almost every turn. On the other hand, the three-movement design of the whole is more characteristic of the sonata, notwithstanding that the sequence of movements here is quite uncharacteristic of the classical sonata.

If we then describe Schumann’s Op 17 as a fantasia quasi una sonata, we remind ourselves of an obvious model for the generic duality displayed in Schumann’s conception of the piece: namely, Beethoven’s two sonatas Op 27, both of which were published in 1802 as sonata quasi una fantasia. (One thinks, too, of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasia, D760, which overlays a four-movement sonata design on the continuous but sectional construction of the work.) And Beethoven’s ‘presence’ in the Fantasie seemingly goes much further than both this and Schumann’s passing idea of a ‘sonata for Beethoven’. Preparing the work for publication during 1838, Schumann decided to preface the score with a quotation from Friedrich Schlegel:

Durch alle Töne tönet
Im bunten Erdentraum
Ein leiser Ton gezogen
Für den, der heimlich lauschet
Through all the notes
In earth’s many-coloured dream
There sounds one soft long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret.

‘Are not you really the “note” in the motto? I almost believe you are’, wrote Schumann to Clara in June 1839—a remark which may have been intended rather less seriously than has usually been assumed. But there is no doubt that, above all in the first movement, a very subtle process of thematic and motivic interrelationship is being employed. Whereas one would normally expect such a process to begin from a clearly identifiable musical idea which subsequently becomes transformed, the beauty of Schumann’s achievement in this movement lies in its seeming reversal of that process. For to the extent that anything can be defined as the thematic or motivic kernel of this music, it seems to be the two-bar phrase which begins the ‘Adagio’ section at the very end of the movement; and this phrase has long been held to be an allusion to the last song of Beethoven’s cycle An die ferne Geliebte, where it sets the words ‘Nimm sie hin, denn, diese Lieder’ (‘So take them, these songs [which I sang to you]’). In June 1836, when Schumann composed this movement under the title ‘Ruines’, Clara was literally his ‘distant beloved’, with whom he could communicate only in his imagination by means of shared music. And Clara did, in the end, sing his song back to him: ‘Yesterday I received your wonderful Fantasy,’ she wrote on 23 May 1839; ‘today I am still half ill with rapture’.

from notes by Nicholas Marston © 2001

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