Waldszenen Op. 82
It is not by chance that Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, the founding work of German musical Romanticism, is set in a forest. Nor is it a coincidence that German Romantic poets from Ludwig Tieck to Joseph von Eichendorff and Heinrich Heine extolled the deep spiritual joys of Waldeinsamkeit: ‘alone time’ in a forest.
The Germans, you see, have a thing for forests. In the Teutonic imagination, a forest is a place of primordial re-connection with the restful, wondrous, and sometimes thrillingly spooky elements of Nature, all of which Robert Schumann sets before us in the nine character pieces of his Forest Scenes Op. 82, composed in 1849.
Unfolding as a series of intimate scenes, the set begins with our entry (Eintritt) into a cool and shadow-dappled tree world of murmuring forest sounds, out of which emerges a simple tune suitable for humming, its asymmetrical phrasing evoking the moment-by-moment wandering gaze of the forest stroller.
This idyllic daydream is interrupted by the urgent horn calls and intermittent rifle-fire of Jäger auf der Lauer (hunters lying in wait) who break out into the open to pursue their prey, with echoes of the furious triplets from Schubert’s Erlkönig conveying the excitement of the chase.
The two ‘flower’ pieces that follow are starkly contrasting. The naively simple Einsame Blumen (lonely flowers) proceeds in a gentle, continuous flow of 8th-note melody with a phrase structure as teasingly irregular as that of the opening Eintritt. The eerie double-dotted rhythms of Verrufene Stelle (haunted places) convey the macabre scene described in a poem by Friedrich Hebbel that stands at the head of this piece, describing a dark red flower that draws its colour from earth that has drunk human blood. The Schumann’s wife, the pianist Clara Schumann, refused to play this piece in public, describing it as “haunted music.”
A mood of unfettered delight returns in the rippling triplets and evenly balanced 4-bar phrases of Freundliche Landschaft (friendly landscape) while the comforts of a warm fire and comfy chair are evoked in Herberge (the inn). There is a forthright, almost ‘churchy’ self-confidence in this hymn to hostelry that makes it a perfect representation of Biedermeier coziness.
The most famous piece in the cycle is Vogel als Prophet (bird as prophet), a brilliant piece of sound painting that imitates the flitting of wings as a bird darts from tree to tree. In its chorale-like middle section it sanctifies the mystical powers of aviary prophecy.
There is a triumphal quality to the following Jagdlied (hunting song) that is reminiscent of the finale of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes Op. 13. The hunters in question are obviously in an upbeat mood, returning home with full sacks of game and anticipating the feast to come.
In his song-like farewell (Abschied) to the forest’s flora and fauna Schumann returns to the reflective mood with which the cycle began, enriched, however by numerous references to the melodies and keyboard textures featured in previous scenes.
In the Mists
Janacek’s four-movement piano cycle from 1912 presents us with intimate, personal and emotionally immediate music that stands stylistically on the border between eastern and western Europe. Its sound world is that of the fiddles and cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) of Moravian folk music, as is its use of small melodic fragments, repeated and transformed in various ways. In the composer’s use of harmonic colour, however, there is more than a mist of French impressionism à la Debussy, but an impressionism filtered through Czech ears.
The Andante sets the tone of introspection with its dreamlike repetition of a tonally ambivalent 5-note melody, set against non-committal harmonies in the left-hand ostinato. A contrasting middle section brings in a less troubled chorale melody that alternates with, and then struggles against, a cascade of cimbalom-like runs, before the nostalgic return of the melancholy opening material.
The varied repetition of a 4-note motive dominates the many contrasting sections of the Adagio, as a noble but halting melody engages in conversation with rhythmically and melodically transformed versions of itself.
The Andantino is similarly fixated on a single idea, presenting the gracious opening phrase in a number of different keys until it is interrupted by an impetuous development of its accompaniment figure. It ends, however, exactly as it began.
The 4th movement, Presto, with its many changes of metre, is reminiscent of the rhapsodic improvisational style of the gypsy violin. The cimbalom of Moravian folk music can be heard most clearly in the thrumming drones of the left-hand accompaniment and in the occasional washes of metallic tone colour in the right hand.
Out of Doors
In Bartók’s Out of Doors suite of 1926, the sound world of Hungarian village life is projected through a thick lens of aesthetic primitivism in which rhythm and melody alone engage the ear. Traditional harmony, dependent on chord spacing that parallels the layout of the overtone series, has no place in keyboard textures so richly encrusted with tone clusters and bristling with dissonances.
Radical simplification is the modus operandi of these textures. Rhythm is often reduced to a steady beat or ostinato, providing a background pulse to an irregular overlay of melodic fragments of small range and short duration. Notes repeated on the same pitch are a major constituent element in both background and foreground layers of sound. This is chunky, ‘Lego’ music built up from simple rough-hewn elements, but assembled in patterns of considerable sophistication.
The opening With Drums and Pipes divides the piano into two distinct registers. In the deep bass, a loud stuttering volley of sounds, both muffled and clearly-pitched, represents an echoing pair of drums while the mid-range offers up the pipes (i.e., low wind instruments) in a similar imitative interplay of overlapping short motives.
The Barcarolla features the same continuous 8th-note motion, but in a constantly wandering two-voice texture that imitates the rocking motion of a Venetian gondola, over which a plaintive gondolier’s melody struggles to be heard.
The creak and skirl of village bagpipes is portrayed with astonishing accuracy in Musettes, with quicksilver trill figures representing the typical ornamentation patterns of traditional pipe-playing. The questionable tuning of these instruments is conveyed through pungently dissonant drone patterns in the bass.
A heightened awareness of stillness in the night is the principal characteristic of The Night’s Music, with its tightly-packed tone clusters imitative of the eerie nocturnal musings of crickets, cicadas and frogs.
The suite closes with The Chase, a toccata-like romp over hill and dale with a furiously churning ostinato in the left hand that surely must count among the most extreme technical challenges of Bartók’s entire piano output.
Fantasie in C major Op. 17
Schumann’s love life and his admiration for Ludwig van Beethoven interacted in a curious way in the composition of his C major Fantasie Op. 17, his largest and perhaps greatest work for solo piano. In 1836 the path of true love was not running smooth for young Robert as he pined in vain for his beloved Clara, the teenaged daughter of his teacher Friedrich Wieck. The Fantasie’s first movement was composed under the stimulus of these strong emotions and expresses them in a spontaneous flow of soaring melodies and swirling rhapsodic accompaniments that only finds temporary respite in its mysterious middle section Im Legenden-Ton (‘in the character of a legend’).
That same year a civic project was launched to raise a memorial to Beethoven in Bonn, the city of his birth, and Schumann offered to raise funds with the publication of a ‘grand sonata’ in three movements. The tribute to Beethoven may well have been conceived before the first movement was completed, however, as its Adagio coda features a melodic quote from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, which could easily have been intended for Clara: “Take, then, these songs [which I have sung for you].”
The second movement is a stirring march of nostril-flaring patriotic fervour that alternates, in rondo fashion, its forthright opening theme with contrasting material in a pervasive dotted rhythm. This movement’s coda features a sustained sequence of hair-raising leaps in opposite directions that test the pianist’s nerves and virtuoso credentials.
The last movement is a poetic reverie that drifts between the gentle unfolding of evocative harmonies murmuring with intimations of melody in the inner voices and more openly songful patches that create their own swells of passionate climax and subsiding emotion.
Schumann’s three-movement ‘sonata’ was eventually published in 1839 under the title “Phantasie” and the monument to Beethoven in Bonn was indeed built, thanks to a generous top-up of funds on the part of Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s work is dedicated. The unveiling took place in 1845, with Queen Victoria, no less, in attendance.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019