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At-A-Glance

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Composed: 1838; 1850

Length: c. 32 minutes

Orchestration: solo piano

About this Piece

Though incalculably influential during the early days of Romanticism, if the author and critic Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822) is remembered at all today, it is only tangentially. Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann spins a fantastical tale around him. His book The Nutcracker and the Mouse King would be re-imagined in Tchaikovsky’s ballet. And his most famous literary creation, Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, a half-mad musical genius tumbling into insanity, would inspire Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) early masterpiece Kreisleriana.

1838 was a troubled time in the composer’s life. Schumann’s marriage to his beloved Clara Wieck, herself a renowned touring piano virtuoso, would not take place for more than a year, and the couple was busy petitioning the courts for permission to marry over Clara’s father’s objections. Robert had been actively courting Clara since 1835, and by the time of their eventual marriage in 1840 (the day before the bride’s 21st birthday), the couple had known each other for more than 10 years.

During this time of tormented courtship, Schumann’s compositions had become more experimental and complex. Their overt emotionalism and unconventional structures were baffling to the average audiences and even controversial to experts. The C-major Fantasy, the Third Sonata (known as the “Concerto without Orchestra”), and Kreisleriana were all products of this fertile, if fraught, period.

Schumann claimed that the eight sections of Kreisleriana, subtitled Fantasies for Piano, were drafted in just four days in May. This is likely an exaggeration. He would continue to work on the composition as late as September with the intention of dedicating it to Clara, but, wanting to avoid further confrontations with Clara’s father, he eventually dedicated it to his friend Chopin. With the unpredictable Kreisler as his alter ego, Schumann was able to indulge the dualities of his own personality. The music swings violently and suddenly between agitation and lyrical calm, between dread and elation.

Chopin was, in the end, uncomprehending and only commented on the design of the cover of the printed score. And Clara, responding to her first encounters with the music, would write, “Sometimes your music actually frightens me, and I wonder: is it really true that the creator of such things is going to be my husband?” Despite Schumann’s own fondness for Kreisleriana, even the progressive sensibilities of Franz Liszt were tested. He found the work “too difficult for the public to digest.”

Sadly, Schumann’s life with Clara would not end happily. Years of mental instability culminated in a suicide attempt in 1854. Schumann was to spend his final years in an asylum; he was 46 at the time of his death. In hindsight, it is hard for us to resist hearing a foreshadowing of madness and doom in the uncanny lilting march of the concluding section of Kreisleriana. Something worrying and unknowable passes us by and dissolves into the distance.

—Grant Hiroshima