Fantasy, Op. 17
Many observers, this one among them, find Schumann’s piano music more expressive even than Chopin’s or Liszt’s, those two composers who, along with Schumann, belong in the very top echelon of 19th-century Romantic composers of music for the keyboard. The Fantasie in C is an expert witness for Schumann’s case, for it was romance, with a small ‘r’, that was in part responsible for the piece he wrote in 1838, and Clara Wieck was its object.
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, 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 Fantasie] is the most passionate I have ever composed; it is a profound lament on your account.” It must also 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. When the Fantasie appeared in 1839, its poetic original 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.”
The Fantasie is superbly expressive and magnificently pianistic (remember that Clara was a virtuoso pianist, probably the first woman to gain fame on the concert platform). Schumann’s reliance on unrestrained temperament was what made him the vital essence of Romanticism. No argument. Schumann had no need even to try to emulate Beethoven; his vitally original creative spirit conquered all.
The opening of the Fantasie 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 ended 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 whis¬pers and aching longing reveal the composer’s soul in its most exquisite, tortured agony and, finally, in noble triumph and peace.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.