“Abegg” Variations, Op. 1
"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 signpost.' Certainly not, but neither does a title rob it of its value; and the composer, in adding one, at least prevents a complete misunderstanding of the character of his music. If the poet is licensed to explain the whole meaning of his poem by its title, why may not the composer do likewise? What is important is that such a verbal heading should be significant and apt."
- Robert Schumann
All but one of the pieces on this program bear evocative titles. Does this attachment of words to music serve to create expectation, or perhaps to confirm an impression? Does a glance at a title interfere with or heighten our perceptions?
Words came easily to Schumann. In his youth he produced unpublished plays and poems and was as well-known in his day as an essayist and journalist as he was for his musical compositions. His review of Chopin's early Variations on "Là ci darem la mano" contained the often quoted phrase "Hat's off, gentlemen, a genius." Both composer and reviewer were only just entering their 20s, and Chopin was at the time already famous as a performer, so the conventional understanding that the then-unknown Schumann introduced Chopin to the musical public is inaccurate. In fact, the article was signed "Eusebius," one of the imaginary names Schumann used throughout his career.
Since pseudonyms and word-play were a lifelong entertainment for him, did Schumann have anything up his sleeve when he titled his first published piece Variations on the Name "Abegg," dedicated to Countess Pauline d'Abegg? He was obviously pleased with the work. In an 1831 letter to his mother he gushed: "What hopes and prophetic visions fill my soul's heaven…. Is it not a consoling thought that this first leaf of my fancy that flutters into the ether may find its way to some sore heart, bringing balm to soothe its pain and heal its wound?"
The notes of the serene opening phrase A, B-flat, E, G, G, derive from the name Abegg, of course, and the subsequent three variations grow out the motive, alternately energetic and lyrical. But oddly, no one has been able to demonstrate that a Countess Pauline d'Abegg ever actually existed. The likely inspiration was an acquaintance, Meta von Abegg. And in the last section, the Finale alla Fantasia, the phantom Countess performs a musical vanishing act. The scurrying rush comes to a sudden halt and as the ABEG chord is struck, the pianist is instructed to silence each note in order until the G alone remains to drift into silence before the piece moves on to its quiet end.
- Grant Hiroshima is executive director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.