Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma in Recital

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Emanuel Ax, piano

Yo-Yo Ma, cello


Schumann: Five Pieces in Folk Style

Lieberson: Remembering Schumann (LAPA co-commission)

Chopin: Polonaise brillante

Schumann: Fantasiestuecke, Op. 73

Chopin: Sonata in G minor

About This Performance

Music by SCHUMANN and CHOPIN, plus a new commission by Peter LIEBERSON

About the Program
Notes by J. Anthony McAlister

This year marks the second centenary of the births of both Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856). These towering geniuses, whose work authoritatively defined Western music’s Romantic epoch, were the products of remarkably different aesthetic sensibilities yet alarmingly similar emotional temperaments. They are perhaps best known as composers for the piano who were themselves quite talented pianists, though Schumann’s solo career was cut short by a catastrophic hand injury. Both drew from the piano such nuanced emotions as had seldom before been attempted in piano repertoire. Chopin in particular created bold new sonorities and, in doing so, helped revolutionize the art and technique of piano playing. (Who but Chopin would have dared deploy such strange, exotic chords as minor ninths with such impunity?!)

Both young men were prone to shyness, although Chopin possessed more social savoir-faire than Schumann and could turn on the charm when needed. Both were effusive, sometimes saccharine in their emotional expenditures. They wore their respective hearts on their sleeves; take, for example, the startling frequency with which each fell in and out of love. Both were mercurial spirits and could be alternately petty, generous, malicious, and charming, especially Chopin. Both had immense capacity for memory, nearly eidetic – Chopin had a talent for spot-on mimicry, and Schumann could recall verbatim entire chapters of books. Both were somewhat uneasy with the thought of composing for orchestra. In Schumann’s case a notable shift towards a more reserved compositional style came in the years following his marriage to pianist Clara Wieck, who made clear her belief that a “respectable” composer should write for orchestra. This later style is evident in the works on this program.

Both composers’ lives were touched by considerable tragedy of an almost Shakespearean scale. Chopin, the ardent Polish nationalist, saw his much beloved homeland caught in the throes of the bloody and ill-fated November Uprising of 1830 shortly after he left Warsaw to begin his European recital tour. Chopin eventually settled in Paris, yet, despite having French as well as Polish parentage, he never felt quite at home there. Additionally, his health, which had since birth been very poor, only worsened throughout his too-brief life. His ultimately doomed relationship with the multi-amorous French author and feminist George Sand meant that Chopin’s death at the age of 39 was a lonely one. Schumann’s family had an apparent predisposition to mental illness, as is evidenced by his father August’s “nervous disorder” and his sister Emilia’s suicide. After years of enduring angelic and, later, demonic visions, Schumann unsuccessfully attempted to take his own life in February 1854 when he flung himself from a bridge into the freezing Rhine. It was following this episode that he was famously committed to an insane asylum, at his own request, where he remained until his death two years later.

The similarities are intriguing, but there are also notable differences between the two as in the case of their respective upbringings. Schumann was well-versed in the Classics and literature, especially Shakespeare, Byron, and Goethe. Chopin was not widely read at all, nor was he very interested in other artistic disciplines outside of music. Chopin’s family was extremely musical; both mother and father were talented instrumentalists, and young Frédéric’s musical endeavors were fostered and encouraged. Schumann’s family was anything but, and his musical education, at least in his early years, was largely the product of his own disciplined independent study. His desire to make music his profession was actively discouraged, and he was ultimately sent to study law, first in Leipzig then in Heidelberg.

Musically, the two were perhaps the most formidable compositional minds of their generation. Though he was a leading exponent of a daring new harmonic vocabulary, Chopin considered himself a Classicist and disliked being described as a Romantic; he consciously modeled himself after Bach, Mozart, and Weber – composers he held in much higher regard than he did his own contemporaries. His music, while technically demanding and idiosyncratic, never sacrifices elegance and structure to mere invention. Everything is in perfect balance. Schumann was unkindly regarded by many as unorthodox and reckless, a composer whose music was self-indulgent, lacking much originality or inspiration. Yet, Schumann was anything but reckless given how deliberate he was in communicating the mechanics of his music – note how much more precise and specific Schumann’s piano scores are in their markings and directions than Chopin’s. Schumann, a man of great emotional extremes, infused his music with the most powerful and shocking kind of emotional honesty. Little was filtered.

Still, Schumann the composer was not always well received or respected by his contemporaries. Chopin made no secret of his dislike of Schumann’s style, and neither did Mendelssohn or Liszt. However, Schumann the critic was perhaps one of the best, most highly regarded music journalists of the 19th century. His reviews could be scathing but also warm and generous. He was quick to heap praise and plaudits upon those he felt were particularly talented; he is largely responsible for introducing Chopin’s music to the German public following his review of some variations of Chopin in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zietung in which he enthused, “Hats off, gentleman! [He is] a genius!” Of Chopin’s music Schumann also famously quipped that therein lurked “…cannon buried in flowers.” Johannes Brahms was another who found an enthusiastic champion in Robert Schumann, who extended considerable patronage and support to the young composer.

Robert Schumann’s popular Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70 (1849) was originally conceived as a work for horn and piano. It was Schumann’s answer to the advances made years earlier in the development of the Ventilhorn, or valve horn, which, unlike the horn known to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, allowed the playing of more exact pitches and precise half-steps. The Adagio begins with an earnest, plaintive musical entreaty drawn out gently by the cello and answered by the piano. This opening theme gradually builds upon itself, undergoes several harmonic modulations, then quietly retreats from its anxious crest to a restful, resigned close. The pensive mood of the Adagio is readily cast off by the boisterous Allegro, with its sudden rise in dynamic and its explosions of triplets in both the cello and piano parts. The wistful melodies of the Adagio give way to the mature and tempestuous themes of the Allegro. The quieter, more introspective moments recall some of the Adagio’s rhythmic and melodic ideas before the piece rushes to an exuberant close.

Schumann’s Phantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces) for Cello and Piano, Op. 73 were originally composed for clarinet and piano in 1849. The Five Pieces in Folk Style, Op. 102 were written at around the same time (along with the Three Romantic Pieces for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94). Interestingly, Schumann composed each of these works with solo parts that could be performed on other instruments. The Phantasiestücke and the Five Pieces are comprised of several short movements meant to be played consecutively without pause, thus giving the works a thematic, structural, and emotional cohesiveness.

American composer Peter Lieberson (b. 1946) has taken Robert Schumann’s legacy as the inspiration for his new work Remembering Schumann for cello and piano. Co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and Carnegie Hall, it was written specifically for the Ma/Ax duo. Lieberson, who is perhaps best known for his breath-taking vocal settings of poetry by Pablo Neruda and Rainer Maria Rilke, has also written extensively for the cello: Concerto for Cello with Accompanying Trios (1974), Three Variations for Cello and Piano (1996), the cello concerto Six Realms (2000), as well as several chamber works. In 2008 he won the Grawemeyer Award for his Neruda Songs. Lieberson holds a PhD from Brandeis and is a former Harvard professor. His Neruda Songs, composed for his wife, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and given their world premiere with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in May 2005, will be performed by mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor with Gustavo Dudamel conducting in April.

“I have always had a special feeling for Schumann. Even as a young man I loved the sensibility of his piano music, but I was also somewhat scared by how unhinged his music could be,” Lieberson has written. “When I was trying to compose this work a Schumann piece kept going through my head. I had trouble placing it but eventually realized it was the third variation of his Symphonic Etudes — some funny march music that is evoked in my first movement, Variations on Simple Chords. The second movement is Variations on a Simple Melody, which might suggest more connection to a song style. The third movement is Variations on A-S-C-H, but for some reason the motif insisted on coming out as S-A-C-H in my piece. Although all three movements involve variations, the variations aren’t so clearly demarcated as they would be in a classical variations form. But of course my goal was to write an original piece rather than to specifically evoke the sound of Schumann.”

(A-S-C-H are the German references for the notes A, E-flat, C, and B. Schumann used this motif – which refers to the German town of Asch, where his first love lived, as well as his own name – in his Carnaval suite.)

The Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3 (1829/1830) was young Frédéric Chopin’s first composition for cello and piano, though the cello part was later heavily revised by the virtuoso French cellist August Franchomme. Chopin composed the work for Prince Antoni Radziwill and his young daughter Wanda, cellist and pianist respectively. Though Chopin never intended the piece as a serious concert work but rather a showpiece for both piano and cello, the result is a work of great charm, energy, and youthful virtuosity.

Chopin’s G-minor Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65 (1845-1848) was the fruit of a long and frustrating cultivation; it took him well over a year and multiple drafts and revisions to produce what we know today. Chopin was pre-occupied by the question of balance, not wishing the piano to overwhelm and obscure the cello. Matters were also complicated by the fact that he was a guest at the home of George Sand (née Amadine Dupin), his sometime-lover-turned-grudging-nurse. The increasingly fractious nature of the Sand household proved neither an ideal nor healthy working environment for Chopin (whose already fragile health continued to decline). “I don’t play much, for my piano is out-of-tune, and I compose even less,” he wrote to his family at the height of his creative impotence. Despite his myriad aggravations, by February of 1848 Chopin finally premiered the work with his friend, Franchomme.

Chopin wrote precious little for instruments other than the piano. This is unfortunate, especially given that Chopin’s fear of smothering the cello seems to be for naught: the Sonata is perfectly balanced between cello and piano, both texturally and dynamically. The first movement Allegro moderato is full of rich counterpoint and quiet resolutions. The playful second movement Scherzo is marked Allegro con brio and follows the same pattern of development as the first movement. The third movement Largo exudes graceful, song-like simplicity as the cello opens with a lush first theme which the piano soon takes up against the cello’s gentle, low-register accompaniment. The movement has the feel of an intimate dialogue between friends as the two instruments are slightly less integrated here than in the opening movement. The Allegro finale movement is a tarantella and contains some of the Sonata’s more uninhibited piano writing. It is infused with a sort of Teutonic intensity the style of which would be mimicked by composers soon to follow.

J. Anthony McAlister is a 27 year-old writer and cellist. His arts and culture blog may be found at www.anthonymcalister.blogspot.com.

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