SCHUMANN, R.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 3
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Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 11
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 14 (Concert sans orchestre)
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.
The two Grand Sonatas, Opus 11 and Opus 14, are both intimately connected with Clara Wieck. The former, in F sharp minor, completed in August 1835, was dedicated to Clara Wieck by Schumann under the names of Florestan and Eusebius, for some years now his imaginary friends, figures that respectively represented the more turbulent and more reflective sides of his character. The two suggest, as so often, the influence of the writer Jean Paul, whose Walt, in the admired novel Flegeljahre, is paired with his long-lost brother, Vult. The work was sent to Clara in May 1836, but her father forbade acknowledgement of it, putting an end to any open correspondence between Schumann and his daughter, who soon found means to resume secret contact with the composer. The sonata opens with an Introduction, marked Un poco adagio. Here the right hand offers a melody above an accompanying triplet bass, with rôles reversed, as a thematic element is introduced that will return in the second movement. The following Allegro vivace begins with a version of Claras Scène fantastique: Le ballet des revenants, Opus 5, No. 4, leading to Schumanns own Fandango of 1832, the two themes on which the sonata-form movement is based. The second movement, Aria, in A major, has the added direction senza passione, ma espressivo. This is taken from Schumanns An Anna II, one of a group of settings of poems by Justinus Kerner from 1828. The Scherzo follows the uneven rhythmic figuration of the opening bars with chords characteristic of Schumanns piano writing. In contrast to this F sharp minor section is the D major Intermezzo, which has the direction alla burla, ma pomposo. The transition back to the Scherzo is achieved through a recitative in the lower register and a melodic fragment marked quasi Oboe. The last movement is in sonata-rondo form, with a multiplicity of ideas in which Eusebius can occasionally interrupt Florestan, until the final Paganinian virtuosity of the coda.
The Dritte grosse Sonate, Opus 14, described, presumably at the instigation of its publisher Haslinger, as Concert sans orchestre, was completed a year later, in June 1836, and dedicated to the pianist Ignaz Moscheles, in the presumable hope of wider publicity in performances. In F minor, the work was first published with only three of its original five movements, which had first included two scherzos and a different finale. Schumann revised the sonata in 1853, including the second of the two scherzos and revising the first movement. At the heart of the work, in its first and later forms, is the present third movement, Quasi variazioni, a set of four variations, two others having been omitted, on an Andantino by Clara Wieck, a theme which suggests the very opening bars of the first movement. The period was a difficult one for Schumann, now separated from Clara, at her fathers insistence, and the work itself was given its first public performance six years after Schumanns death by Brahms, while no listing of the sonata is found in any of the programmes of Claras own concerts. The first movement relies largely on two contrasting thematic elements, the second with a brusquer rhythm, on its return in recapitulation marked un poco scherzo. The D flat major Scherzo, characterized by a similar descending opening figure, has moments of contrast of key and mood, but it is in the third movement that Eusebius makes his true appearance, in league with Clara. The first variation has a moving bass line, the second triplet figuration and the third, Passionato, allows Florestan syncopated figuration, before the fourth brings the movement to an end. In the 1853 revision of the last movement Schumann changed the time signature from 6/16, expressing the figuration of much of the movement, to a simpler 2/4. Marked Prestissimo possibile, a virtual moto perpetuo, the performer is urged on to ever more spectacular feats of virtuosity and pace in music that offers a considerable technical challenge.