The Arabeske, Op. 18, was written in early 1839, perhaps as an act of appeasement in a troubled time. Schumann's marriage to his beloved Clara would not take place for more than a year and the couple were busy petitioning the courts for permission to marry, over Clara's father's objection to the union. Robert had been courting Clara since 1835 after a previous romance came to an end; more on this later.
During this time of courtship, Schumann's compositions had become more experimental and complex; their overt emotionalism and unconventional structures were baffling to the average audiences and even controversial to experts. The C-major Fantasy, the Third Sonata - known as the "Concerto without Orchestra" - and Kreisleriana were all products of this fertile period. Clara, herself not yet 21 and already a widely famed touring virtuoso pianist, with what can be interpreted as a keen sense for what the future might hold for them should they indeed become a couple, began suggesting simplifications and reconsiderations in his music. Put plainly, these things weren't selling, and they had to address financial insecurities.
To reconnect with the music-buying public in the way that his previous bestseller (Kinderszenen, the amiable Scenes from Childhood) had, Schumann published the Arabeske and Blumenstück (Flower Piece) as Opp. 18 and 19. Schumann was himself somewhat dismissive of the Arabeske and thought it "feeble," but this sounds like the immediate grousing of an artist obliged to work under the dictates of finances rather than imagination. There is magic in this short work.
The title is informative: an Arabeske or arabesque is an ornament or style of figural, floral, or animal outlines used to create intricate patterns, inspired by Arab architecure. It is also a dance term, a ballet position. A simple ambling tune makes three appearances, interrupted by two minor-key passages. The tune itself is unchanged in each occurrence, but notice how Schumann obliges us to reassess the figure, as though our view changes when seen through the differing shadows cast by the intervening passages.
- Annotator Grant Hiroshima is the executive director of a private foundation and the former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.