Schumann “Symphonic Etudes”. Etude 1 . Part 3

Since our dear Dima (Dmitri Nilov) is working hard not sparing himself and his time, I don’t want to hold on to this nice episode, first variation. Publishing it right away. Hope it give you an aesthetic pleasure.

Schuman is not just musically talented, but he is also a great producer, playwright, and innovator. He is original and unpredictable in making decisions spiced with great deal of subtle humor. Let’s immerse into it. Have a wonderful Sunday.

0.22 Schumann’s language, his musical language is very rich. If in “Pictures at the Exhibition”, we were enjoying in first serial, and were surprised by saturated creativity of Mussorgsky’s language which took almost six hours to be decoded, explained in a musical way, in comparison, symbolic Schumann’s language is richer, more compact, as every symbol contains historical root, and without understanding them we can’t move further through his music. It’s not only sincere true to life creativity we can see in Mussorgsky but infinite historicity in every musical idea, every symbol that immerses us into the depth of the European culture.

Considering that Schumann is using song-like repetition, he is repeating every half twice for us to grasp at this huge amount of pressed information. If we skip it without repetition we will be left with nothing, because, like I say, it’s so pressed and squeezed like a Zip file. Schuman feels it, understands it, and he separates it by repetitions.

Nevertheless, because of this compression, this composition would be half as short as “Pictures at the Exhibition”. Even considering that without repetitions we can go through all musical material in 15 minutes, but music itself and ideas are so squeezed, so densely pressed that unpacking this literary musical language we are getting into completely different timeframes, into different dimensions.

So here is the first variation. Schumann is “taking bull by the horns” right away. That is to say (3.08 – 3.10), he turns around this fatal idea right away (3.17 – 3.20), and back. He starts fighting death right from the beginning.

Schumann is simply turning over the idea upside down. He is adding life and tension on all levels, on all registers. He will spread life all over the piano’s keyboard and all registers. It will live permanently everywhere – this was never achieved by any composer but Schumann, neither before nor after him. This amazing man in this remarkable piece, in this wonderful composition, in this piano symphony, – he is giving us unique technique when we are performing on the whole keyboard, as if we had three or four hands. Three hands play permanently and the forth one is if it were added. This is astonishing technological achievement and miraculous philosophical and aesthetic success.

Let’s go through this material Schumann gave us like in slow motion movie. Death topic upside down, lunched up (4.42 – 4.44) first voice backwards; second voice (4.48 – 4.51), so we already have 2 levels; third level (4.54 – 4.56); fourth level (4.57 – 5.00). Now it’s hurting our vestibular apparatus because the theme is in the middle voice, and on both sides, up and down, supporting themes in basses, twinkles with life while death is turned upside down. This is his first death-cheating game and transformation of death into life. But the theme is in the middle voice. So, we have all fundamental actions in the middle voice. Our balance is disturbed. Our life is going on in the middle voice framed by the accompaniment. We are used to the fact that the theme sounds either in upper or in lower register framed by the accompaniment. But Schumann breaks all the laws. The theme appears in the middle voice (5.55 – 5.57) in and unchanged state (5.59 – 6.01) in our noble theme of the hero’s death, and it’s surrounded by waves of life (6.09 – 6.12), where Schuman is fighting death, sending it upside down, mocking it. All in all: (6.19 – 6.28). It’s an amazing life statement. Because of it he wanted to name this composition “The Etudes Pathetique”, as a dignified straggle between life and death started right from beginning, from first variation. But then he was afraid of becoming pathetic himself, in a bad sense of the word, as the word pathetic could have an ill meaning. Linguistically, this word can define something sublime as well as ridiculous. To avoid mocking, Schumann decided to remove “Pathetic” from its name.

So, we moved through phase one. In the second phase (7.17 – 7.21) we have a surprising metamorphose. This is yet the first idea, first theme about death, turned upside down. And as you know, then, in the middle, the theme followed: memories of a hero’s life (7.34 – 7.37). Lifetime memories appeared in the middle part of all funeral marches as well as in this funeral theme. Schumann is creating his unique language, which after 50-60 years after his death will penetrate the popular culture. It’s becoming a musical symbol that has existed more than hundred years by now. (8.12 – 8.20). It’s such a frivolity. For sure, I just

exaggerate a bit and grimace, but idea is exactly this: to get away from reality, to fly away by means of one musical phrase, by one musical idea, to fly into another reality: to get yourself distanced from death, to ponder and fly away. To express it in music so fast and convincingly and at the same time to show totally different side of a human being; in musical Romanticism, only Schumann could do it.

(9.04 – 9.06 and that – 9.08) This kind of music transitions into silent cinema ballroom playing, where heroes are flirting in various dramatic situations. Silent cinema is quite affected by subconscious action same as consciousness of people of early 19th century we have dealt with. They are so black and white, – not colorless, but full of dramatic contrasts: heroes are killing each other with knives, making scary eyes, and next moment, there is a different picture. And all of it is portrayed by a ballroom piano player. Ballroom pianists brought Schumann’s musical language, which he developed at the beginning of 19th century, and by the end of 19th century it became the musical language of the popular music, the language of the accompanying music. This language is so expressive, so evocative and lucid and easily demonstrates the change of mood, so intelligibly and convincingly that it can even illustrate cinema images.

Let’s enjoy this amazing language created by Schumann: (10.39 – 10.53). In three musical measures, we see a careless and lighthearted man. Suddenly, by way of several sequences and quite simple modulation (11.07 – 11.08) he is moving from minor all of the sudden to – 11.18. Also, as I said before, his consciousness is like mercury, it is fragmentary, because he has so many thoughts overflow him, and everything is compacted – he is returning from three musical measures into the other world to his previous idea (11.36 – 11.44). And his first image of death fight is finished.

Such unique music, such unique gift, and unique set of mind, embodied so simply. Graphically, these compositions are quite common. When you look at it, it’s hard to see it, as it looks like something kids would have symbol combinations for – some chords, melodies… But we have to look into the depth, not into content of chords and accords but into engagement and polyphony of separate voices, integrated in to these chords and accords. This is when Schumann’s character is revealed. If we decide to write his texts in this way, graphically they will look quite abstract and crazy hard to read. Most musicians are getting into this trap because of this apparent simplicity of his texts; they are getting into simplicity of fools instead of simplicity of geniuses. This often hides the original face of genius. Now I will play the first variation in its entirety (13.34 until end of recording).

Translated by ZJanna Melnichuk

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