Release date: 27 October 2023
Few CD programmes might compete with that of this album, should one seek a playlist embodying the Romantic spirit in music. This all-Schumann programme, indeed, encompasses some of the most distinctive traits of Romanticism, and does so in a deeply touching and profoundly poetic fashion.
There is the element of the aphorism, one of the Romantics’ favourite literary genres. Within the space of a few words, rarely of more than one sentence, the Romantics wished to express the wisdom of the age in a poignant, concise and memorable fashion.
There is nature, one of the great protagonists of the Romantic age, but also an element which was considered as being the gateway to the supernatural. The Romantics enthused over nature because they saw it as the expression of something beyond it.
There is individualism, the expression of the self: and this is, of course, one of the most characteristic features of Romanticism, centered on the individual and on his/her feelings.
There is narrativity, drawing from the experience of the Middle-Ages, whose ballads were rapturously read, commented, plagiarized and faked by the Romantics.
There is the myth of childhood, as the age of innocence, as the moment in which the human being, still incorrupt by society, is at his or her purest – a spiritualized element of nature, which has the beauty of both the natural and the supernatural.
There is dream, and its faithful companion, night; dream is the space of fantasy, where the distinction between natural and supernatural fades away, where we can fly or do otherwise impossible feats, and all is by definition ephemeral.
And, of course, there is love: love imagined, love pursued, love construed in one’s mind and heart, but also faithful love, conjugal love, procreative love, which generates children and thus gives wings to the human being.
All of these elements, making up, together, a rather complete encyclopedia of Romanticism, are found – more or less importantly and frequently – in this album, dedicated to some of the most beloved piano works by Robert Schumann.
Schumann’s family was not one of music professionals. As a child, Robert was enthralled by a concert he heard, and decided that he wanted to pursue that career; his parents, however, were not enthused by this perspective, and they wished him to continue his university studies. This was by no means unjustified: Robert was very gifted intellectually, and, in his teens, he repeatedly wavered between the musical career and one bound to the world of literature. (Law, which he was set to study, was evidently not his top priority).
For years, or rather for his entire creative life, Schumann maintained the two parallel rails of his activity, i.e. literature and music; of course, these two paths frequently crossed, almost always in fact. Neither can be conceived in isolation from the other, and the two successfully complement each other. Aesthetical and philosophical reflection sheds light on the creative processes and on their significance; actual music embodies the principles painstakingly expounded by the author in his thoughts.
As said, the works recorded here represent a formidable embodiment of many of Romanticism’s key issues. All but one of the opus numbers found in this CD are cycles made up of short pieces; and the only one which technically does not qualify as such, i.e. Arabeske op. 18, in fact can also be viewed through that lens. One of the relatively few piano works by Schumann which adopts one of the fixed, closed forms of the Classical era (the rondo form), this Arabeske can be seen as made of three episodes surrounded and connected by a refrain, which is another episode in se. Each of these episodes is intensely characterized, and each constitutes a miniaturized narrative of its own.
As for the other works, we have a variation set, going under the label of Abegg Variationen op. 1, and two further cycles of “scenes”, one observing childhood, and the other having the forest as its setting. Schumann’s genius is evident in the fact that the fragmentariness of these works does not show; there is a powerfully unifying narrative connecting these miniature pieces and, musically, thematic and motivic elements build up a strong red thread which eschews dispersion and evanescence.
Nature is the protagonist of Waldszenen, and, as said, it is not merely a postcard kind of landscape. As happened with the first master of German Romanticism in music, i.e. Carl Maria von Weber, woods are the place where nature rules, but where magic, the supernatural, and the good and evil forces behind it are at work. Here, too, we have the enchantment of a “bird as prophet”, a natural singer endowed with supernatural powers, which sings and en-chants, conveying an important message to the listener. Schumann’s writing, here, is partly mimicking the natural sounds of birdsong, but partly also transforming them in their mysterious, supernatural counterpart.
Similarly, there is the beauty of a red flower – an object rather frequently found in nature. But this red flower’s tinge is not due to natural pigmentation, but rather to the fact that the flower grew on a soil where human blood had been shed. In this case, the reference to a literary model is open and public: Verrufene Stelle (no. 4: “Cursed Place”) is prefaced by a motto by Friedrich Hebbel, a poet who imagined this (very Romantic) combination of beauty and horror. Other extra-musical references were prefaced to all pieces of the Waldszenen (from Laube’s “Hunter’s Breviary”), but, again typically, Schumann removed them from the published version.
Individualism and expression of the self are found everywhere in these pieces; indeed, their very scoring for solo piano bespeaks this basic attitude. Most of Schumann’s first published musical works are for solo piano; and while this trait is rather unique among the great composers, many other important musicians of the nineteenth century demonstrated a particular predilection for this instrument.
It allowed the composer (and even better, the pianist-cum-composer) to let his soul speak or sing, and to express itself from his heart of hearts. The piano, an autonomous, self-standing musical instrument, is the perfect voice for the Romantic soul’s outpourings. In the works recorded here, Schumann takes all advantages from this scoring. This implies rhythmical and tempo freedom (albeit within the limits of some internal rigour: he did not like the unruly pace of some virtuosi, whose performances reminded him of a drunk person), but also the capability of ruling polyphony in the fashion of an orchestra conductor – but with a much more ductile means of sound production.
Even when Schumann is actively describing something – such as the “scenes” from the woods or with children at their protagonists – he is in fact voicing his view of that something. Far from being an objective description, it is entirely subjective, unique, personalized.
The narrative element is, as previously said, the unifying factor behind these cycles. It is almost hidden, since there is no consequentiality among the episodes. But, at the same time, the episodes are not randomly disposed, but rather they follow each other in an organic and well-considered fashion.
Childhood is the protagonist of the Kinderszenen op. 15; conceived at first as works for children, by an “aged child”, they were later reconsidered as works by an adult, to adults, and simply speaking of childhood. True, their technical requirements make them accessible to gifted children: they are not too complex from the mechanical viewpoint, and they do not require large hand spans. Yet, the gap between execution and interpretation is wide and large, and only the adult gaze, veined by nostalgia and regret, can satisfactorily “see” them.
Children are seen in their daily activities, in their games (Hasche-Mann, Ritter vom Steckenpferd…), in their feelings (Glückes genug, Fast zu ernst), in their capability to be enchanted (Am Camin, Von fremden Ländern und -Menschen…), in their reactions to what happens (fright, as in Fürchtenmachen, laughter, as in Curiose Geschichte, comical pride, as in Wichtige Begebenheit…). Schumann sent these pieces to his fiancée, Clara, specifying that the stimulus for their creation had come from a remark she had dropped – saying that he gave her the impression of being a child himself.
Dream is epitomized by the best known of the Kinderszenen, Träumerei, which – according to Alban Berg, was in turn “Romanticism in a nutshell”. But even when it is not labelled as such, dream pervades most of these cycles: one has merely to think of the final pieces or movements of both Kinderszenen (Der Dichter spricht) and Arabeske (“Zum Schluss”) to see that they belong in the world of dreams.
And there is love, as previously said. Love for Clara, the first reader of Kinderszenen, who was certainly a great virtuoso who could have superciliously looked down to the seemingly unpretentiousness of these pieces, but also a great woman who knew where genius was. Schumann sent her these pieces about childhood, and, once married, their home would be filled with children, who doubtlessly were the ray of light in the difficult years of Robert’s illness. But there is also the imagined love for “Meta Abegg”: a real person in disguise? An entirely fictional character (“Meta” being the anagram of “tema”, “theme”)? This is not really important: in either case, young Schumann was more in love with love itself and the artistic possibilities it offered, than with any particular girl. Here, as in the piece dedicated to Niels W. Gade in Album für die Jugend, and, even more importantly, in Carnaval op. 9, ideas for the piece’s melodic shape came from the letters constituting a person’s or a place’s name.
Together, these pieces invite us to enjoy the beauty of Romantic music and thought and to get lost with the composer in this fascinating world.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Luca Delle Donne started studying piano at the age of six. He obtained his Diploma at the “G. Tartini” Conservatory in Trieste, his hometown, with full marks, honors and special mention under the guidance of Lorenzo Baldini and his Master in piano interpretation with Gabriele Vianello. To enrich his musical skills, he took part to several masterclasses with acclaimed musicians as Philippe Entremont, Claudius Tanski, Benedetto Lupo, Franco Scala, as well as the legendary Trio di Trieste. Aquiles Delle Vigne wrote about him: “Luca has an enormous musical sense and develops his Art with great convintion. His repertoire and his Love follow the steps of the great names of the Piano. He is a Poet and, in the same time, a lion of the piano.” In the well known “Mozarteum Universität” of Salzburg he debuted in the “Wiener Saal” and performed the complete execution of the Chopin’s Etudes op.10. Delle Donne has performed throughout Europe and went on tour several times in China and Japan chiefly in solo recitals but also in several chamber ensembles and with orchestras: from 2010 he continues to give recitals and concert-lessons dedicated to Beethoven. He usually plays with well known musicians as Emmanuele Baldini, Massimo Macrì, Monte Belknap, Dawn Wohn, Gervasio Tarragona Valli. Besides performing in concert, he usually works as a teacher and gives masterclasses, he has been invited as juryman in several national and international competitions, has been member of the executive in the prestigious “Società dei Concerti” in Trieste, he broadcasted classical music programs on radio and he is the co-founder of “Festival Internazionale Primavera Beethoveniana”.
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.