Welcome back to my site. This post is about the first piece that opens the second section of the program: Fleeting Landscapes. (You can see the entire program here.)
Robert Schumann, Des Abends, Fantasiestücke, op. 12 (1837)
If Romanticism in music can be defined as “a state of mind that enabled composers to seek individual paths for expressing intense feelings”, Robert Schumann was, with no doubt, a quintessentially Romantic composer.Born as the son of a writer and book dealer in Germany in 1810, Schumann studied law but later decided to pursue a path to become a concert pianist, studying with Friedrich Wieck, the father of his future wife, Clara.Schumann was unfortunately forced to abandon this plan due to a major injury to his right hand, and instead turned to composing and writing as a music critic.His last years were plagued by mental illness, which led to his attempted suicide and admission to an asylum where he spent the last two and a half years of his life.
It is probably odd to find parallels between Schumann and Debussy, given that Romanticism is precisely what Debussy was moving away from. However, one cannot but discover the common spirit between the two composers when reading Schumann’s response to a critic who denounced him for not writing orthodox sonatas:
As if all mental pictures must be shaped to fit one or two forms! As if each idea did not come into existence with its form ready-made! As if each work of art had not its own meaning and consequently its own form!
To the establishment, the music produced by both Schumann and Debussy probably appeared insane. What separated the two composers, however, was the driving force behind their composing. While “pleasure” was the law for Debussy, for Schumann, music existed to “reflect an inner state of mind”, which inevitably resulted in the personal nature of his works.For example, it is nearly impossible to appreciate Schumann’s works (especially piano works) without understanding the products of his imagination such as Davidsbündler, Eusebius, and Florestan. Davidsbündler (League of David) is an imaginary society Schumann invented to write reviews.The members were given pen names such as Florestan, Eusebius, Chiara, and Master Raro who represented real people; Florestan was the “exuberant side” of Schumann’s nature while Eusebius represented his “reflective side”.Chiara was Clara, and Master Raro was Friedrich Wieck, Clara’s father.The society was put together to fight the Philistines, “those unimaginative bourgeois or pedants or musical tricksters who immersed themselves in safe or meretricious music”. (It is fascinating that Debussy also had a pen name, Monsieur Croche, for writing reviews. M. Croche criticized “fashionable music [written] to soothe convalescents in well-to-do neighborhoods” and looked “doggedly for ways to save French music from inferior talents”.)Because of this personal nature, Schumann’s music was (or probably is even today) criticized for being self-indulgent.However, this is exactly what makes him the embodiment of Romanticism. His music even appears awkward sometimes because it is so raw. Nothing captures the essence of Schumann better than Schonberg’s following statement:
Purity is not a word normally used in association with Schumann, but everything about him was pure – his life, his love, his dedication, his integrity, his mind, his music.
Des Abends, the first movement of Fantasiestücke, op. 12, a piano cycle consisting of eight movements, is also one of those works involving Eusebius and Florestan. Schumann borrowed the title Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces) from Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier, a combination of stories and sketches on music and musicians, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German author famous for fantasy stories such as The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which became the basis for the ballet The Nutcracker. Fantasiestücke was the first piano work in which Schumann assigned a descriptive title for each movement, but it is important to note that almost all of his pieces were named after they were composed.
The work was originally published in two volumes of four movements each. The first set mainly in the key of D-flat major represents the real world while the second set mainly with a tonal center of F represents Schumann’s fantasy world.“Eusebiusian introspection and Florestanian impulsiveness” alternate in this piano cycle.
Schumann wrote this set in a very short period of time between the fourth and nineteenth of July in 1837.The composer described the first half of 1837 as the “darkest hour” in his life because Clara was keeping a distance from him while seeking a closer relationship with the composer and critic Carl Banck.Around this time, Schumann also met two important women: the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient and the pianist Robena Ann Laidlaw, to whom Schumann ended up dedicating Fantasiestücke. On the second of July in 1837, Schumann attended Laidlaw’s recital in Leipzig, and the first full draft of Des Abends indicates the date “evening of the fourth of July, 1837”, possibly tied to a meeting with Laidlaw. Unfortunately, it is not possible to confirm that Schumann was in fact inspired to compose Fantasiestücke by the pianist, but the composer did send a presentation copy of the work with the following note to Laidlaw:
This time of your stay here will always remain fondly in my memory; and you will discover the truthfulness of these words with still greater clarity in [my] eight fantasy pieces for the pianoforte… I have, it is true, not specially asked for permission to dedicate them to you, but they belong to you none the less…
Schuman even requested that the work “appear in print on the last day of September”, which was Laidlaw’s birthday, but due to the quality issue with the engraver’s copy, it was delayed until early February of 1838.Once it was published, the work instantly became popular repertoire for the pianists, including Clara who incorporated several pieces from the set into her recital program in March, 1838. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) also wrote to the fellow-composer, sharing his excitement over the work:
The Carnaval and Fantasy Pieces [Fantasiestücke] have captured my interest in an extraordinary way. I play them truly with delight, and Lord knows there are not many things of which I can say the same.
Laidlaw, the dedicatee of the composition, also wrote to Schumann:
Fantasy Pieces [Fantasiestücke] give pleasure everywhere; I have played them in Danzig and Stettin and will play them to the Princess in a couple of evenings.
With the tempo marking Sehr innig zu spielen (Play very intimately), Des Abends definitely expresses the Eusebiusian world, producing the serene atmosphere of the evening. Although the time signature is 2/8, the music sounds in triple (3/8) with the melodic line executed as instructed by the composer. This rhythmic ambiguity and the dreamy atmosphere delicately capture the fleeting colors of the evening sky.
If you are interested in reading the full program notes with more detailed analyses, you can access them here:
 Barbara Russano Hanning, Concise History of Western Music (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2014), 414.
Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997), 169.
François Lesure, “Debussy, (Achille-)Claude,” on Grove Music Online (accessed June 3 2018), http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.; Catherine Kautsky, Debussy’s Paris: Piano Portraits of the Belle Époque (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), xx.
Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rd ed., 179.
Maurice Hinson, “About the Music,” in Schumann: Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), Opus 12 for the Piano, An Alfred Masterwork Edition, ed. Maurice Hinson (Van Nuys: Alfred Publishing, 1992), 4.
Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rded., 179.
Hinson, “Background,” in Schumann: Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), Opus 12 for the Piano, An Alfred Masterwork Edition, ed. Maurice Hinson, 3.
Hinson, “Background,” in Schumann: Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), Opus 12 for the Piano, An Alfred Masterwork Edition, ed. Maurice Hinson, 3.; David Ewen, The Complete Book of Classical Music (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall), 474.
Hinson, “About the Music,” in Schumann: Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), Opus 12 for the Piano, An Alfred Masterwork Edition, ed. Maurice Hinson, 4.
John Daverio and Eric Sams, “Schumann, Robert,” on Grove Music Online (accessed June 3 2018), http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.
Ernst Herttrich, “Preface”, in Robert Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Opus 12, ed. Ernst Herttrich (Munich: G. Henle Verlag, 2004), V.