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“All week I’ve been sitting at the piano and composing and writing and laughing and crying, all at the same time,” wrote Schumann to his beloved Clara Wieck from Vienna in March 1839. “You will find this beautifully illustrated in my Opus 20, the great Humoreske.”
Schumann needed some happy diversion in his life at that particular time: he was very unhappy being separated from Clara but somehow she wasn’t able to heed Robert’s plea for her to come to Vienna to join him. Further, his reason for being in Vienna was to be able to establish in the Austrian capital his journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he had founded in Leipzig in 1833. But the city fathers said a resounding “No.” So, what to do other than compose a new keyboard masterwork.
In fact, Schumann in 1839 was close to the end of the line of works for the keyboard, master or otherwise. His creative life had centered virtually exclusively on music for the piano, the instrument on which he envisioned becoming a virtuoso. This dream, however, was shattered when he injured his fingers by way of a contraption he used to strengthen those digits that might have been his means for attaining performing fame. But thank the musical gods for his catalog of magnificent keyboard pieces; after his marriage to Clara in 1840 he turned to songs and then symphonies and chamber music, all contributing to his immortality.
The Humoreske may be one of the most difficult of Schumann’s piano works to love unreservedly. The lengthy piece is episodic in a way that doesn’t provide a characterful centrality. The lovely simplicity of the opening section (which is repeated only once, after the playfully brilliant ensuing pages) does set a mood that recurs intermittently. There is typical Schumannesque rhythmic verve, harmonic ingenuity, and tender songfulness throughout the work, all of which has strong appeal. And apparently the main theme at the beginning of the concluding section had strong appeal to Schumann, who recalled it some ten years later when writing incidental music for Byron’s Manfred.
Of whimsy, which is one of the meanings of the word humoresque, there is far more implied than real playfulness in the humoresque according to Schumann. Of the real, in one section a five-note idea is repeated as if it were a stutter before the phrase is continued. In appreciation of the work, one must rely on the composer’s explanation of humor as “a way of looking on the emotions with ironic detachment.” Thus the irony of music that continually changes outlook, that glories in the imposition of mood changes that seem so often to assault an emotional thread. This is a large-scale work without conscious formalism, musical thoughts streaming without inhibition: “laughing and crying.”
Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.