Clara & Robert Schumann: La traccia della parola [Traces of Words], Lieder and Piano Transcriptions


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    As regards the quick and complex evolution of Lieder within the timeframe of a few decades, the relationship between poetic text (lyrics) and musical composition undergoes some variations which are worth underscoring. The term Lied indicates primarily a literary genre, a strophic composition (leit means precisely “stanza” in German), whose translation as “song” should not be intended literally; it is similar to our speaking of “canto” in Homer or Dante, i.e. to indicate poetic texts which “only putatively could be accompanied by music” (G. Bevilacqua).
    Goethe would remain puzzled by how Beethoven set some of his lines; he found him culpable, in his view, of having betrayed the poetic immediacy in the classical balance of musical form. However, in the bosom of early-nineteenth-century Germany, several composers would observe the change in the poetic imagination which – from Mignon and The Harpist by Goethe – would cross the oeuvre of poets such as Müller, Heine, Novalis and Brentano. They would also feel an intimate call to participate, in turn, in the overcoming of realist idealism, through the opening of a condition of permanent and ontological crisis which would become typical for the Romantics. That identity and that condition would necessarily inhabit the dimension of the fantastic, of the unsayable, since that new voice, that new “I” is the voice of an “unreal lyrical subject” (Marcello Cresti). Then, the grounds will be laid for a renewed alliance between word and music. Indeed, music will be increasingly in charge of this horizon of meaning, of expressing this subtle inner dialogue, even when words will become unable to describe that condition at the same level of profundity.
    Robert Schumann would begin to write Lieder at 30, in 1840, in the year of his wedding with Clara Wieck. The year before, in a letter, he had even theorized the superiority of instrumental over vocal music, but, just in that year 1840, he would write nearly a hundred Lieder. The great cycles by Schumann would take origin from here; they highlight the composer’s particular predilection for collections: this had already been apparent in several piano works written in the preceding years. Lieder cycles such as Myrten, Frauenliebe und -Leben, and Dichterliebe, would importantly mark the history of Lieder literature. In this original discographic project, designed and performed by pianist Valentina Messa and singer Giulia Beatini, we have the opportunity to listen to some of these wonderful pieces, together with piano transcriptions realized by Clara Wieck Schumann. They are performed on a Viennese instrument of 1860, a Streicher like the ones on which she played her acclaimed recitals.
    Clara would transcribe several of her husband’s Lieder. She did this work of transposition throughout the entire compositional parable of Schumann’s output, and drawing in parallel from different cycles.
    In this album, a total of 16 Lieder has been selected, but Clara certainly transcribed at least forty-one. Thirty of them are published in a printed collection, issued by Ries & Erler, whence the pieces contained in this discographic production come.
    By listening first to the piano transcription, and then to the sung Lied, for each pair, we are left free to enjoy the musical content even before listening to the words. We can also wonder which emotions these words have left, as a mark, in the sound texture, in the inflections of the musical phrases, in the affective landscapes which appear, time after time. How, briefly, does music maintain the original verbal meaning, since it was born, in turn, with the purpose of expressing it? Which is the track, the echo, the sign left by the word in its passing; what of the verbal universe remained indissolubly involved – I would even say “caught” – in the sound universe, and what did not? Here lies the heart of a painstaking interpretive work, offered by Valentina Messa and Giulia Beatini through this discographic production.
    Clara’s work of transcription, in fact, follows rather faithfully and with just minor variations Robert’s writing; thus, it is the interpreter’s task to show it as something more than a mere transposition, a copying which does not question the original musical material.

    Let us take as an example Berg’ und Burgen, from Liederkreis, on lyrics by Heine. It is a strophic Lied, where the music repeats itself on each poetic stanza:

    Mountains and castles look down
    Into the mirror-bright Rhine,
    And my little ship sails merrily
    And my little ship sails on her way.

    Calmly I watch the play
    Of golden waves, rippling;
    Silently awake the feelings
    That I cherish deep in my bosom.

    Kindly greeting and promising
    The splendour of the stream beckons;
    But I know it, glistening above,
    In its depths, death and night.

    Lust above, in bosom perils,
    River, thou art my love’s image!
    She too can nod so kindly,
    Smiles also so piously and mildly.

    In the first stanza, the Rhine River carves a welcoming and friendly natural landscape. In the second, the subject appears, together with its gay feeling in accordance with nature. In the third stanza, this quiet is overturned by a change of perspective: nature reveals itself as possessing a face of death. And in the fourth stanza this face of death becomes a metaphor for love grief.
    In her transcriptions, Clara always included the lyrics above the two piano staves. She realizes a version in just two stanzas, choosing to transcribe just the lyrics of the first and third. She therefore gives a direction to the overall meaning: the reference to love disappears, and narrative focuses on the river’s metamorphosis, which turns from a cradle of sunlight into a bringer of death.
    But what do we perceive in listening? In the version for voice and piano, it is music itself that suggests explicitly the dramatic falls, and the river is a constant, dynamic and disquieting presence.
    The version for solo piano, perhaps due to the subtraction of the dramaturgical elements in the lyrics, is sadder; it seems to be more solitary from the beginning. The chosen tempo has less direction. The first stanza has a melancholic smile, but the second is, from the outset, more thoughtful. At the repetition of the last four measures of the melody (bars 45-49), the river’s double face is revealed through an internal voice. Clara marks it with an accent on every note, different from Robert’s version.

    Another interesting example for observing a meaningful difference between the two version is found in Mit Myrten und Rosen, a very ample and varied Lied. Let us consider the lines of the second stanza:

    On the grave of love grows a little flower of peace,
    There it blossoms, there it is plucked off.
    But I only bloom when I myself am in the grave.

    In the original version there is a great fluency and purity in the vocal line. It progressively gets thicker up to the dramatic climax on the word Grab (grave). On the other hand, in the piano version, it looks as if the goal were to transmit the feeling of precariousness of the “little flower of peace”. This is done by choosing a frail sound and a more hesitating pace, with the consequence that there is a more sudden effect of dramatic opening.

    Piano interpretations, therefore, do not renounce a subtle selective process. They start from a text that, in the relationship between the poetic/verbal dimension and the musical accompaniment, is already very complex. The style of Schumann’s Lieder displays in fact a certain permeability in delineating that boundary. Singing does not possess the entire melodic component, which is also distributed in the piano’s pattern (Just wrote that “Schumann’s singing is perhaps that of a declaiming voice”). The piano is precisely the place of a multidimensional pattern. Even though it is lightened here, we find in it the polyphonic complexity of the solo piano pieces.
    Valentina Messa and Giulia Beatini face the musical text with great rigour and sensitivity, with the purpose of displaying the entire complex expressiveness it possesses. They give us a valuable album, worth listening and relistening.
    Matteo Manzitti © 2023
    Translation: Chiara Bertoglio


    Giulia Beatini approached music thanks to the experience of polyphonic singing in ensembles, participating in competitions, festivals, and shows in Italy and abroad since she was a child. She graduated in Philosophy with honours (110/110) from the University of Genoa and studied vocal music and chamber music at the Conservatories of Genoa and Turin, with Gloria Scalchi and Erik Battaglia. In 2018, she participated in the 16th International Competition for Chamber Singing Seghizzi, winning the 2nd prize and several special awards, including the "best interpretation of a Lied." In 2020, she obtained the Academic Diploma of the Second Level in Lyrical Singing from the Conservatory of Genoa with honours (110/110) and the publication's dignity.
    She has collaborated with Eutopia Ensemble and MDI Ensemble in seasons promoting the spread of contemporary music (Le Strade del Suono, Milano Musica, Musiktheatertage) and has been among the performers of works in the first performances at the International Festival of Contemporary Music of the Biennale di Venezia. She is part of the female vocal quartet Cleantha, with whom she explores the 20th-century polyphonic repertoire, while in a duo with pianist Valentina Messa, she proposes programs that cover chamber music repertoire starting from German Lieder. She deepens the study of early music with Matteo Messori, Alessio Tosi, and Rossana Bertini, and in this field, as a chorister and soloist, she performs with Cappella Augustana, La Compagnia del Madrigale, Cantica Symphonia, La Fonte Musica, Coro Maghini, Coro e Orchestra Ghislieri, Il Pomo d'Oro, Il Canto di Orfeo and Les Musiciens du Prince, Erato Choir, with whom she performs within the most important national and international music seasons and festivals, with artists of the caliber of Cecilia Bartoli and Joyce di Donato, and in some of Europe's most prestigious concert halls, including Teatro alla Scala, Auditorium RAI, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Philharmonie Berlin, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Philharmonie de Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Wiener Konzerthaus, and An der Wien. She has recorded for Glossa, Arcana/Outhere, Deutsche Grammophon, Erato, Brillant, and Apartè.all’interno delle più importanti stagioni e rassegne musicali nazionali e internazionali, con artisti del calibro di Cecilia Bartoli e Joyce di Donato e in alcune delle più prestigiose sale da concerto d’Europa, tra cui Teatro alla Scala, Auditorium RAI, Concertgebow Amsterdam, Philarmonie Berlin, Elbphilarmonie Hamburg, Philarmonie de Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Wiener Konzerthaus, An der Wien.
    Ha inciso per Glossa, Arcana/Outhere, Deutsche Grammophon, Erato, Brillant e Apartè.

    Valentina Messa graduated from the Conservatory of Venice with the highest marks, honors, and a special mention in 1999. In 2007, she obtained a second-level academic diploma at the Conservatory of Genoa with 110, honors, and a special mention. She refined her skills with P. Rattalino in the three-year courses at the Portogruaro School of Advanced Musical Studies and later with L. B. Arcuri, P. Masi, and E. Pace, following masterclasses with renowned pianists such as B. Petrushanski, S. Pedroni, A. Specchi, K. Helvigg, J. Achucarro, M. Damerini, and B. Canino.
    She has won several scholarships and awards in national and international competitions, including the Premio Venezia, the Gante Competition in Pordenone, and the Societa' Umanitaria Competition in Milan, and has performed concerts both in Italy and abroad since the age of thirteen. Her performances have taken place in prestigious contexts such as the Concerts of the Normale of Pisa, the Trier Theatre, the Carlo Felice and Gog Theatres in Genoa, the Unione Musicale in Turin, the Chigiana Academy in Siena, the Grande Theatre in Brescia, the Cervo Festival, the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival, the Logan Centre for the Performing Arts in Chicago, and Harvard University in Boston. As a soloist, she has collaborated with the Orchestra of Padua and the Veneto, the Philharmonic of Udine, and the Philharmonische Orchester der Stadt Trier.
    Her main activities are chamber music with instrumentalists and singers and contemporary music, as a stable pianist for Eutopia Ensemble, a group dedicated to contemporary music, and as a frequent collaborator with Sentieri Selvaggi, conducted by Carlo Boccadoro. She has worked with numerous chamber musicians, including L. Borrani, J. I. Murakami, M. Damerini, R. Agosti, E. Abeshi, A. Rebaudengo, M. Ben Omar, R. Crocilla, A. Berovsky, A. Pinzaru, Dami Kim, K. Nagaoka, M. Milstein, In Mo Young, Albrecht Menzel, Kevin Zhu, Mirella Di Vita, and Giulia Beatini. For years, she has played the role of collaborative pianist, particularly for string instrument players, in numerous masterclasses and annual courses, working also at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and the Accademia di Musica di Pinerolo, and as an official pianist in competitions such as the Postacchini in Fermo, the Paganini Prize in Genoa, and the Mazzacurati in Turin. She is currently a principal piano teacher at the Ghedini Conservatory in Cuneo.


    Clara Schumann (b Leipzig, 13 Sept 1819; d Frankfurt, 20 May 1896). German pianist, composer and teacher. One of the foremost European pianists of the 19th century and the wife and champion of the music of Robert Schumann, she was also a respected composer and influential teacher.

    Robert Schumann: (b Zwickau, Saxony, 8 June 1810; d Endenich, nr Bonn, 29 July 1856). German composer and music critic. While best remembered for his piano music and songs, and some of his symphonic and chamber works, Schumann made significant contributions to all the musical genres of his day and cultivated a number of new ones as well. His dual interest in music and literature led him to develop a historically informed music criticism and a compositional style deeply indebted to literary models. A leading exponent of musical Romanticism, he had a powerful impact on succeeding generations of European composers.


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