SCHUMANN, R.: Davidsbundlertanze, Op. 6 / Fantasiestucke Op. 12 (Benjamin Frith/ Eckhard Steiger) (Naxos: 8.550493)
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Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856)
Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6
Fantasiestücke, Op. 12
Robert Schumann must seem in many ways typical of the age in which he lived, combining both in his music and in his life a number of the characteristics generally associated with Romanticism. Born in Zwickau in 1810, the son of a bookseller, publisher and writer, he showed an early interest in literature, and made a name for himself in later years as a writer and as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a journal launched in 1834.
After a period at university, to satisfy the ambitions of his widowed mother, Schumann, still showing the wide interests of a dilettante, turned more fully to music under the tuition of Friedrich Wieck, a well known teacher, whose energies had been concentrated on the training of his eldest daughter Clara, a pianist of prodigious early talent. Schumann's own ambitions as a pianist were frustrated by a weakness of the fingers, the possible result of mercury treatment for syphilis, which he may have contracted from a servant-girl in the house of his teacher. Nevertheless in the 1830s he wrote a great deal of music for the piano, much of it in the form of shorter, genre pieces, often enough with some extra-musical literary or autobiographical association.
At first when he lodged in Wieck's house in Leipzig, Schumann had shown little interest in Clara, a mere child and nine years his junior, contracting instead a secret engagement with another pupil. It was only in 1835 that he began to turn his attention to Clara Wieck, now a fifteen-year-old, but any question of marriage was strongly opposed by Wieck, who went so far as to appeal to the courts for their support in preventing a match that would harm his daughter's professional career and seemed for a number of other reasons unsuitable. Eventually the courts decided in Schumann's favour and the couple married in 1840, a year of song in his career as a composer. In Dresden and later in Düsseldorf, where he became city director of music in 1850, he turned his attention to orchestral composition on a larger scale.
In health Schumann had long been subject to sudden depressions and had on one occasion attempted to take his own life. This nervous instability had shown itself in other members of his family, in his father and in his sister. In February 1854 he tried to drown himself and spent his final years at a private asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, where he died in the summer of 1856.
The Davidsbündlertänze, Opus 6, and the Fantasiestücke, Opus 12, both belong to the year 1837. Wieck had insisted that Clara should not see Schumann and that letters should be returned. The latter, despairing of success in his pursuit of Clara, turned to drink and conduct that his landlady, at least, found reprehensible. At one point he sought revenge on Clara by publishing a satire mocking both her and a young man who had been brought in by her father to give her singing lessons. He dedicated his Fantasiestücke, written between 22nd May and 4th July, to an attractive eighteen-year-old Scottish pianist, Robena Laidlaw. It was Clara who brought about a reconciliation through an intermediary so that August saw her pledged to him and in September they were able to meet again. The Davidsbündlertänze were written in the late summer and early autumn of 1837, after this reconciliation.
Schumann's League of David was a fictional creation of his, an imagined society into which he enrolled all right-thinking musicians against the enemy, the Philistines. The dedication of the eighteen character-pieces to Walther von Goethe is from Florestan and Eusebius, two literary pseudonyms that Schumann chose to personify the passionate and reflective side of his own character. At the end of each piece the initial of either Florestan or Eusebius, or occasionally, as in the first piece, of both, appears, an indication of the intended mood. At the head of the work is an old proverb:
In all' und jeder Zeit verknüpft sich Lust und Leid: bleibt fromm in Lust und seyd dem Leid mit Muth bereit.
(Always pleasure and sorrow are joined together: be innocent in pleasure and bear sorrow bravely.)
The first dance opens with a quotation from a Mazurka by Clara Wieck and is varied in mood, attributed to both Florestan and Eusebius. The second piece is attributed to the latter and the third, marked With Humour, to Florestan, the author of the fourth, marked Impatient. The simple fifth piece is in the mood of Eusebius, while the sixth, in stormier mood, reverts to Florestan. The opening arpeggiated chords of the seventh piece reintroduce Eusebius, followed by a brusque Florestan. The last piece of the first book, marked Lively, carries an additional explanation: Hierauf schloß Florestan und es zuckte ihm schmerzlich um die Lippen (Hereupon Florestan stopped and his lips quivered sadly). Florestan opens the second set of nine pieces in ballad measure, with a whimsical third piece framing a simple second for Eusebius. The fourth has room for both moods, with the gently singing filth for Eusebius. Both are together again in the sixth piece as they appear to be in the seventh, with its contrasting slower Trio section, which leads at once to the eighth piece, Wie aus der Ferne (As from the Distance). For the final dance Schumann adds the explanation: Ganz zum Überfluss meinte Eusebius noch Folgendes; dabei sprach aberviel Seligkeit aus seinen Augen (Eusebius considered the following quite superfluous; but at the same time he expressed much happiness with his eyes). The last piece adds a gentle C major conclusion to the work.
The Fantasiestücke of earlier in 1837, like the Davidsbündlertänze in two volumes, came at a time of estrangement between Schumann and Clara Wieck. Anna Robena Laidlaw was born at Bretton in Yorkshire in 1819 and educated at her aunt's school in Edinburgh, moving with her family to Königsberg in 1830. She won a considerable reputation and on 2nd July 1837 played at a Gewandhaus Concert in Leipzig, when Schumann made her acquaintance, later dedicating the Fantasy Pieces, Opus 12, to her. She married and retired from the concert platform in 1855 and died in London in 1901.
The gentle D flat major Des Abends (In the Evening) is followed by the well known F minor Aufschwung (Soaring). Warum? (Why?), again in D flat major, is gently brief, to be followed by the capricious Grillen (Whims) in the same key. The second book opens with Schumann's own favourite In der Nacht (In the Night), in F minor with a major central section. Fabel (Story), in G major, is suitably varied in mood as the narrative unfolds, followed by the rapid F major Traumes Wirren (Troubled Dreams). The book ends with an F major piece, Ende vom Lied (End of the Song), marked Mit gutem Humor and moving to a livelier B flat section before the return of the first material and key and a hushed chordal coda.
The young British pianist Benjamin Frith has had a distinguished career. A pupil of Fanny Waterman, he won, at the age of fourteen, the British National Concerto Competition, followed by the award of the Mozart Memorial Prize and joint top prize in 1986 in the Italian Busoni International Piano Competition and in 1989 a Gold Medal and First prize in the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition. Benjamin Frith enjoys a busy internatio