Ah, Schumann. You never get tired of tricking people into thinking there’s an extra stair at the bottom when there really isn’t, do you? Even though I knew that cadence was coming, I still fell for it. Well played… er, well written.
The first variation’s triplets seemed breathless – they reminded me of Rachmaninoff. Swirling, demonic, frantic, tense. Then came the middle section. They were still there, but transformed. They were water, bubbling, bouncing, contented, relaxed. Even though the two sections are built of the same very basic pieces, they are of completely different characters.
Second variation – as soon as I heard the opening I was reminded of Schubert’s Das Wandern from Die Schöne Müllerin. The simplicity of the melody, combined with the pastoral harmonies (horn fifths), and set in Bb, I remembered it immediately. In fact, the whole variation suggests a song. Slipping into and out of various characters, dipping into colorful new keys (like Db and g minor) to emphasize new emotions – even though it had no words, and wasn’t particularly song-like in its writing, I felt there was a definite story in this. This ABACA’ form was used by Schumann to great emotional effect in his songs, with crises and contrasting emotions interjecting, and a transformation of the original idea at the end. (Also, the C section sounded like Brahms.)
Third variation: I love the rhythms. I think they are what make this variation work. Very sneaky opening! Malicious and trouble-making. The middle section is a complete contrast. It sounds lazy, like a dream – its rhythms don’t line up, they aren’t crisp and clean like the outer sections.
Fourth: Did anybody else hear the quote from Beethoven’s Appassionata? Anyway, this is the first song-movement I’ve heard. The suspensions really underline the plaintive, longing of the song. And the ending is just beautiful, after all that g minor.
Rhythms again! In this variation (fifth) I hear the rhythms as being more playful than in the third. Still sneaky, but not going to cause any serious trouble: definitely a scherzo. Here we also get a little bit of counterpoint! While I was listening, I couldn’t for the life of me follow the rhythms of the second section, but I believe it was because of the pianist, as the rhythms are written out quite clearly and he compressed the eighth notes from three beats into roughly two.
Sixth: Another beautiful song, a lullaby. I could swear I’ve heard this song somewhere else before, but can’t place it. It’s interesting how it starts on F – as if we’re checking in on a mother singing to her child who is just about to fall asleep. The runs provide a moment of inner tension, as if the mother is struggling with her own emotions and is trying to regain control and finish singing.
And now for something completely different. This seventh variation is the first that does not have a structural section in g minor or Bb major, counterpoint that threatens to look like an Invention, and a chorale. And for all this, it is comparatively short.
Eighth (Final) variation: ending with a LH that does its own thing. It acts like a stubborn child: “I know when I’m supposed to play. But I’m not gonna. You can’t make me.” So it doesn’t, just to make things interesting. Then, it proceeds in its wanton ways, changing over to 2/4 as the RH continues in 6/8, not really wanting to cause trouble and derail the whole dance, but just wanting to shake things up a bit.
What held the whole piece together, for me, was the alternation between quick rhythmic movements and lyric ones, the constant use of g minor and Bb major, the quirky rhythms, and the beautiful romantic harmonies for the occasional heartbreaker.
I have a confession: I have always loved the Symphonic Etudes. This is strange, as I do not necessarily like Schumann’s piano music on the first, second, or even eighth hearing. (Vocal music is quite another story.) But from the very first time I heard these, I have never ceased to enjoy them.
Aaaand they’re off! It starts simply enough, with a c#-minor chorale, in rounded binary form. Its sighing arpeggios, deep bass, and lack of real harmonic surprises are a solidly dark opening, something I’d expect from a slow movement of a sonata. However, it ends on dominant, leading straight into…
Counterpoint! A quirky, cheeky phrase picks its way from and back to c# minor, where the main theme is reintroduced over top of it. The dotted rhythms eventually give way to lush sighing phrases and the first real harmonic surprises of the piece, but they return to close out the variation.
Liszt would be proud of the texture in this second etude. The original melody is in the bass, with a new dotted melody in the soprano, and thick, repeated triplet chords filling out the harmony. The theme disappears after the first phrase, but returns in the tenor (instead of the bass) for the middle section. After this, it gives way entirely to the new dotted theme.
Variation three includes no overt instances of the main theme, but the chord progression is the same. In addition, the constant arpeggiations are a reference to the opening arpeggio – both in the violin-inspired arpeggios (Paganini!) of the main section and in the sweeping diminished arpeggios of the second.
Next is a canon on the main theme. Full chords are used in each hand, not just the melody. (Here I am reminded of Brahms’s Op. 118 No. 2). The canon is at the octave, but the chords in the LH are harmonized to complement the RH instead of maintaining their own independent (and probably dissonant) integrity.
The fifth is counterpoint again – imitation of each hand. The original theme can be heard in the falling fourth between the opening RH gestures and in the harmonic structure. This is such a playful etude, always skipping and enjoying itself, especially in the accented chromatic notes in the middle section.
Here in Etude Six we find the melody in the thumb of the left hand – one 32nd note before the written beat. Besides that, the hands are always getting in each other’s way. Thankfully for the pianist, it’s fairly short.
Etude Seven marks the first excursion out of c# minor – and into E major! This lively, jumpy variation only brings in the original theme in the middle section – a structural play! (If you’re going to turn the key inside out, turn the form inside out too, and put the main idea in the middle.)
And back to c# minor. Here we have a Baroque overture. (Nod to the Goldbergs? Probably.) The main theme can’t be found, but its melodic fragments occur throughout the movement.
Number Nine is a scherzo, again in c# minor. Like the previous etude, it is harmonically based on the original theme but not necessarily melodically. Only small fragments of the melody occur, like the falling fourth and fifth, and the sighing A-G#.
The tenth Etude is a departure in several ways. One, it brings back the most recognizable part of the main theme – the opening falling arpeggio. Two, its dotted rhythms are underwritten by constant sixteenths that drive toward the beat. Three, the first section cadences on E – not c#, as the previous ones have. Four, the final cadence is Plagal, not authentic. This cadence is a setup for the next Etude:
The Eleventh, in g# minor. The LH provides a beautifully colored, murmuring harmonic accompaniment to a solo voice, which enters with a falling fourth followed by the rest of the scale, descending (5-note descent: Clara.) A second, lower voice enters, and it becomes a genuine duet, trading motives back and forth until the climax where both are singing the main theme at the octave. They break into parts again, and both end with falling fifths over the murmuring LH.
The twelfth, and final! In Db (enharmonic to C#), it is a triumphant march. It is the longest of the variations, and it is also the most developmental. It modulates through both Ab and Gb, and spends a good deal of time in Bb minor. The arpeggio from the main theme is presented in its original form in the developmental sections, but the opening upward joyful arpeggio is a more significant triumphant nod to its original form. Now it is inverted, and in major! In addition, the five-note Clara motive is everywhere. At times the march settles into a more introverted joy. I immediately think of the processional parade through the streets at a king’s coronation, or (as is more likely in Schumann’s case) the bride and groom walking down the aisle just after the ceremony. It is certainly a joy to be shared, but there is also a private joy that none of the guests can know.