Robert Schumann, the central figure of the German Romantic movement in music, was a great admirer of Haydn’s keyboard music. Besides the natural reverence of one great composer for another, we might perceive a certain affinity in their shared love of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions, and what one might call the narrative element of music.
Unlike Haydn however, Schumann was a literary man – his first ambition was to become a writer, and in fact he was the most ardent and perceptive of writers on music. Kreisleriana takes its name from the bizarrely eccentric violinist Johannes Kreisler, the creation of one of Schumann’s favorite writers, E. T. A. Hoffmann. (Most famous for his fantastic tales, Hoffmann was also a poet, a theater director, a competent composer, and a music critic who won the praise of no less than Beethoven.)
“One hardly dares to breathe while reading Hoffmann… new worlds,” runs Schumann’s diary entry in June 1831, and we can hear some of these worlds in these pieces, which the 28-year-old composer claimed to have written in four days. The sharply contrasting sides of his nature – lyrical reflection and passionate impetuosity – to which Schumann gave the names Eusebius and Florestan – here alternate in a dizzying way; there is a gulf between the dead stillness of No. 6 and the mad frenzy of the piece that follows. Often, opposites contend within a single movement, as in No. 2 with its two Intermezzi. In the opening one hears Johannes Kreisler himself, fiddling madly, though transformed into a pianist. One can feel throughout the influence of Bach; Schumann was a devoted student of The Well-Tempered Clavier (as was the fictional Kreisler!). And in the ghostly flitting of the final piece, the dualism that haunts this music is expressed in the separation of the two hands, the left seemingly uncoordinated with the right, moving stealthily, unexpectedly, as if in its own separate world.