SCHUMANN, R.: Album fÃ¼r die Jugend (Ferhan Onder/ Rico Gulda) (Naxos: 8.555711)
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Robert Schumann is in many ways typical of the age in which he lived, combining in his music a number of the principal characteristics of Romanticism, as he did in his life. Born in Zwickau in 1810, the son of a bookseller, publisher and writer, he showed an early interest in literature and was to make a name for himself in later years as a writer and as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a journal launched in 1834. His father encouraged his literary and musical interests and at one time thought of sending him to study with Weber, a proposal that was abandoned with the death of the latter, closely followed by the death of Schumanns father.
Schumanns career now followed a more conventional course. In 1828 he entered the University of Leipzig, where his attention to his studies was as intermittent as it was to be the following year at Heidelberg. He was eventually able to persuade his mother and guardian that he should be allowed to study music under the well- known piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, whose own energies had been directed with some intensity towards the training of his daughter Clara, a pianist of prodigious early talent. Schumanns ambitions as a pianist, however, were frustrated by a weakness in the fingers, whatever its true cause, and his other musical studies had, at the very least, lacked application. Nevertheless in the 1830s he wrote a great deal of music for the piano, often in the form of shorter, genre pieces, with some extra-musical literary or autobiographical association. There was an affair with one of Wiecks pupils, later broken off, but by 1835 he had begun to turn his attention to Clara Wieck, nine years his junior. Wieck had good reason to object to the liaison. His daughter had a career before her as a concert performer and Schumann had shown signs of instability of character, whatever his abilities as a composer might be. Matters were taken to an extreme when resort was had to litigation, in order to prevent what Wieck saw as a disastrous marriage.
It was not until 1840 that Schumann was eventually able to marry Clara, after her fathers legal attempts to oppose the match had finally failed. The couple married in September, remaining first in Leipzig, although journeys took place for concert appearances by Clara, generally accompanied by her husband, whose position was of lesser distinction. In 1844 they moved to Dresden, where it seemed that Schumann might recover from the bouts of depression that he had suffered in the earlier days of marriage. Here again no official position seemed to offer itself and it was only in 1849 that the prospect of employment arose, this time in Düsseldorf, where Schumann took up his position as director of music in 1850.
Mendelssohn had enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Düsseldorf authorities, and Schumann, much less skilled in administration and conducting, proved even less able to cope with the difficulties that arose. The pressures on him led to a complete nervous break-down in 1853 and final years spent in an asylum at Endenich, where he died in 1856.
As a composer Schumanns early piano pieces had been followed in 1840 by the composition of song after song, some 150 in the space of a year, a period that had brought the pressures of Wiecks law-suit, although all had ended in a measure of final happiness. Clara Schumann now encouraged her husband to tackle larger forms, major orchestral works and operas. This did not prevent Schumann writing more songs and more shorter piano pieces, both of these being forms in which he excelled. His last songs and last significant short piano pieces were written in 1853.
A year after their marriage in 1840 Clara Schumann gave birth to their first child, Marie. A second daughter, christened Elise, followed in 1843, and a third, Julie, in March 1845, after the family had moved to Dresden. Emil, born in 1845, died a little over a year later. Ludwig was born in 1848 and Eugenie and Felix after the final move to Düsseldorf. It was in 1848, however, after the completion of the ambitious opera Genoveva and while contemplating the composition of his music for Byrons Manfred, that Schumann turned his attention to a set of short pieces, intended, in the first instance, for the birthday of his eldest daughter, Marie. The project grew, as Schumann happily enlarged the collection, for which his growing children had a very practical use. The reluctance of his publisher was overcome and the final set of 43 pieces was published to his profit, augmented, in a second edition, by a set of Musikalische Haus- und Lebensregeln (Instructions to Young Musicians). Schumann later added to this educational project a set of songs, Liederalbum für die Jugend, Opus 79, (Song Album for the Young), and in 1853 Drei Clavier-Sonaten für die Jugend, Opus 118 (Three Piano Sonatas for the Young), with a set of duets for children, Kinderball, Opus 130 (Childrens Ball).
The Jugendalbum differs, needless to say, from the familiar Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood) of 1838, which reflect an adult view of childhood. Particularly familiar are the Soldiers March and a little piece, once all too widely heard in emphatic juvenile performance and then generally known as The Merry Peasant. Hunting and riding call for appropriate harmonies and rhythms and Knecht Ruprecht, the traditional servant of St Nicholas, is evoked. Three of the pieces are designated by a triangular arrangement of stars, and include reminiscences of other works with a personal resonance for the composer. The second part of the work also includes a short piece, Erinnerung, in memory of Mendelssohn, whose early and sudden death took place in Leipzig in 1847. The Nordisches Lied (Nordic Song) is a tribute to Mendelssohns successor as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Danish composer Niels W.Gade, whose surname provides the notes that start the theme. The two winter scenes, Winterszeit, present a literary picture of winter, outdoors and indoors, the latter reflected in a hinted reference to a popular German song. The collection, which increases in complexity with its little fugue and ornamented chorale, ends appropriately with an optimistic glance at the New Year, the Sylvesterlied, in a particularly fruitful period of Schumanns creative career, a period that was soon to end in tragedy.