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Some background is required here. In 1830 a 20-year-old Robert Schumann made one of the most fateful moves of his young life by taking up residence in the home of Friedrich Wieck, the piano teacher who, with considerable reluctance, had accepted as a student the aspiring but rather notoriously dissolute musician. At the time, the professor’s gifted pianist daughter Clara was then a mere child of eleven, certainly no romantic interest for the gadabout just-out-of-his-teens Robert. But in just a few years a spark was kindled and grew to full-fledged flame proportions. After a frenetic courtship that had to weather Herr Wieck’s determined designs to keep them apart, the two remained constant in their fidelity. An appeal to the courts for permission to marry was finally made and at last granted, and the two were united in 1840, on the eve of Clara’s 21st birthday.

During one of their enforced separations, Robert wrote to his beloved Clara in March 1838, “The first movement [of the Fantasy] is the most passionate I have ever composed; it is a profound lament on your account.” It must be said of Schumann’s “profound lament” that it was originally conceived, not for Clara, but as his contribution toward the cost of a monument to Beethoven at Bonn, being planned by Franz Liszt. Schumann first envisioned it as a sonata titled “Ruins, Trophies, Palms,” but later alluded to the sections as “three poems called Ruins, Triumphal Arch, and Constellation.” When the work appeared in 1839, the poetic titles were gone and only performance directions remained, along with a dedication to Liszt, and some lines by the poet Schlegel: “Among all the sounds in earth’s many-colored dream/One soft note calls to the secret listener.” “You,” Schumann suggested to Clara, “must be the note.”

Notwithstanding his obsessive thoughts about Clara, Schumann must have kept Beethoven in mind during the creative period of the piece, for there is in the first movement a quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved). But here Beethoven and Clara merge, for the song’s sentiments could have been Schumann’s own: “Take them, then, these songs I sang thee/Songs of passion, songs of pain/Let them like a tender echo/Call back again all our love.”

Clara, however, was clearly the dominant force in turning his creative energies toward a large-scale work. Which is to say, the Fantasy is superbly expressive and magnificently pianistic (remember that Clara was a virtuoso pianist, probably the first woman to gain fame on the concert platform), but it does not attain Beethovenian structural sonata strength. Schumann had no need even to try to emulate Beethoven; his vitally original creative spirit conquered all.

The opening of the Fantasy epitomizes this spirit. A furious figuration in the left hand prepares for an impassioned motto theme in octaves – a descending figure with which later lyric ideas are directly related. The unity enforced by this thematic singularity is further cemented through the continuation of the tempestuous accompaniment. The many and violent changes of mood are heightened by a middle section, headed “In the Character of a Legend,” which conjures nostalgic visions of knighthood and the epic past. But even here the descending line of the motto theme is alluded to – Clara is never far from thought.

The middle movement is Schumann in one of his most characteristic stances, sending the Davidsbündler (the composer’s imaginary League of David) marching against the Philistines. A grandiose theme supported by comparably grand chords, most of them covering a two-octave range, sets the pace for a dotted rhythm that continues in the obsessive way that hints strongly at Schumann’s fragile emotional condition, which was to end a dozen years later in insanity. Contrasting episodes and a return of the march culminate in a breathless coda in which the wildly leaping melodic line, again in the dotted rhythm, challenges pianistic marksmanship to the utmost.

This virtuosic derring-do leads to the heart of the Schumann matter in a slow final movement: an ineffably beautiful poetic utterance whose sighs and whispers and aching longing reveal the composer’s soul in its most exquisite, tortured agony and, finally, in noble triumph and peace.

— Orrin Howard, who served the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Director of Publications and Archives for more than 20 years, continues to contribute to the Philharmonic’s program book.