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Words came easily to Schumann. In his youth he produced unpublished plays and poems and was as well known in his day as an essayist and journalist as he was for his musical compositions. He is still famous for his review of Chopin’s early Variations on ‘La, ci darem la mano’, which contained the often quoted phrase “Hat’s off, gentlemen, a genius.” (As a side note, both composer and reviewer were only just entering their 20s, and Chopin was at the time already famous as a performer, so the conventional understanding that Schumann introduced Chopin to the musical public is inaccurate.)
Given Schumann’s sensitivity to verbal matters, we should pay close attention to the evocative titles Schumann attributed to his compositions. He wrote:
“Titles for pieces of music, since they again have come into favor in our day, have been censured here and there, and it has been said that ‘good music needs no signpost.’ Certainly not, but neither does a title rob it of its value; and the composer, in adding one, at least prevents a complete misunderstanding of the character of his music. If the poet is licensed to explain the whole meaning of his poem by its title, why may not the composer do likewise? What is important is that such a verbal heading should be significant and apt.”
Kinderszenen or as it is usually translated, Scenes from Childhood, was the product of a troubled time in the composer’s life. Schumann’s marriage to his beloved Clara would not take place for more than a year and the couple was busy petitioning the courts for permission to marry, over Clara’s father’s objection to the union. Robert had been courting Clara since 1835 and by the time of their eventual marriage in 1840 (the day before the bride’s 21st birthday), the couple had known each other for more than 10 years.
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. One composition, Kinderszenen, bucked the trend and was a popular best-seller. It remains today an audience favorite.
But we shouldn’t fall under the mistaken impression that this is music for children to play or intended for an audience of children. This is music of emotional maturity and sophistication evoking the emotional world of children. One is reminded of the famous poem of e.e. cummings which begins:
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
An adult looks back upon, but does not inhabit, a past. The vocabulary may be simple, but what is conveyed is not. Please read over the translations of the titles of the individual movements in the program listing, Schumann’s “significant and apt” signposts. And take particular note of the two most obvious intrusions of an adult sensibility into the cycle. The first comes at the emotional and literal heart of the 13 pieces, the seventh and best known, Träumerei, or reverie. And the second comes at the end, when a remarkable shift in tone takes place and the voice of the poet is heard in conclusion, suspended in nostalgia.
Grant Hiroshima is the Executive Director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.