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Two works by Robert Schumann (1810-1856); one from the early prime of his career and one a late composition. It is tragic to note that a late work of Schumann, such as Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), is the effort of a man not yet 40. After a life of severe mental instability, Schumann committed himself to an asylum in Endenich in 1854 and would be dead within two years at the age of 46. Still, in the short time allotted to his professional career, he was able to distinguish himself both as a composer and musical journalist.
Battling against cycles of debilitating depression, Schumann completed his Waldszenen in 1848 and early 1849. Don't be fooled by the breezy title, these are not woodland depictions without complications. Clara, Schumann's beloved wife and muse (herself a pianist who achieved wide fame throughout Europe), found some of the individual scenes upsetting and chose not to play them.
Schumann wrote: "The 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 sign-post.' Certainly not, but neither does a title rob it of its value; and the composer, by adding one, at least prevents a complete misunderstanding of the character of his music. What is important is that such a verbal heading should be significant and apt. It may be considered the test of the general level of the composer's education."
With Waldszenen, it had been the composer's intention to head five of the cycle's nine episodes with fragments of poetry in addition to their descriptive and sometimes enigmatic titles. In the event, he removed all but one of these fragments before publication, recognizing that one can be too specific and limiting in an intentionally evocative musical excursion. Schumann's regard for Waldszenen is documented in a letter to his publisher in which he refers to the piece as one which "I have greatly cherished for a long time."
The forest journey begins with "Eintritt" (Entrance) in a bouncy ambulatory mood and is followed by "Jäger auf der Lauer" (Hunter in Ambush), an affectionate depiction of the sinister.
Seemingly clumsy split notes are scattered through "Einsame Blumen" (Lonely Flowers) in a charming way, but the mood changes drastically in "Verrufene Stelle" (Haunted Places). Here, Schumann's quote from a poem by Hebbel is preserved in the printed score. The text reads:
The flowers that grow so high here,
Are pale, like death;
Only one, there in the center
Stands, a dark red.
The color comes not from the sun:
It never met its rays;
It comes from the earth,
Which drank of human blood.
The romantic movement in the arts had turned to the landscape for its language - forests became rich symbols of mystery and the unconscious. Within that context, this sudden chill is not out of place, and the forest of our journey becomes something more than a stroll through a manicured preserve.
"Freundliche Landschaft" (Pleasant Landscape) immediately clears the air and the welcoming friendliness of "Herberge" (Shelter) is almost a caricature of a crackling hearth. There is no preparation for the spookiness that follows. "Vogel als Prophet" (Bird as Prophet), strange and ephemeral, is well-known outside of the cycle and was an immediate favorite with the public. Its timelessness (how can it be pinned to the mid-19th century?) is uncanny, even to a 21st-century audience. The deleted text intended to accompany this episode was from Eichendorff: "Be careful, stay alert and watchful!"
A jolly "Jagdlied" (Hunting Song), replete with the horn calls of the chase, leads into the contemplative and serene "Abschied" (Farewell).
- Annotator Grant Hiroshima is the executive director of a private foundation and the former director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.