Unzipped classical music. Schumann “Symphonic Etudes”. Introduction. Part 1

The second “object” of our musical series appears to be so enigmatic for modern mind in its content, so whole, separate, so “non-musical”, that a preamble is required.

A philosophical “literary aesthetic “introduction. Without such an introduction even, specialist will have difficulties to understand musically-artistic images and details of the delicate world of Planet Schumann. We have to take some time” living through” the thoughts outlined in this intro part to have the ability to fly in the space of Schumann’s music, penetrate easily into his conscience, and understand every “curb” of this extraordinary world.

Last weekend we recorded three series. First – “Introduction” (literary intro), second – “Theme” (theme and its origin, symbols and meanings of it), third – “Three Etude-Variations” (1,2,3).

We’ve managed to calculate the final number of episodes – there will be 6 of them. So, there will be three big ones (about 1 hour each) video episodes: 8 variations (4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11) and finale, three working days in total. Previous idea – to make it in 2 working days – turned out to be too optimistic, nor would it be necessary to spend two months period of time, as it was with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at the Exhibition”.

I hope, within next two weekends our team would be able to finish “Schumann. Symphonic Etudes” series.


Today we will continue our long conversation about the most important piano compositions. For some reason they were not revealed in all their beauty as were conceived by authors.

Our first series were focused on “Pictures at the Exhibition” of Mussorgsky, there were a lot of misunderstanding for pretty clear reasons. Because of it, in 140 years’ time period, layers of wrong interpretations overflowed the performances of these wonderful compositions of Mussorgsky. That was due to the fact that both interpretation and performance were going in the wrong direction, as it was named “Pictures”. And these pictures distracted us from Mussorgsky’s inner world and were in the way of understanding the real essence of music.

Furthermore, Russian history had very tragic moments such as Russian apocalypse, blast, which in 1917 destroyed all the previous culture, and connection between different points in

time was broken. So much so, that the modern Russians now have tremendous difficulties to penetrate into the Russian consciousness of the previous era and previous culture.

The story is quite different with misinterpretation of Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes” that we are discussing today. It probably has something to do with the anthropological changes in humans; and also, with the quite enigmatic world consciousness, not the national consciousness, in the society today, as far as the mysterious world of romanticist-symbolist is concerned.

I want to underline that Schumann for me, and I think most of you will agree with me, is the creator of symbolism. He created it in music half century before symbolism got its embodiment in literature and poetry. It then moved from western culture into the Silver Age of Russian symbolism.

It’s very interesting that the world of Schumann, which we will observe and through which we will fly with the help of his music, is connected to Russian symbolism, to the poets of Russian symbolism even more then to representatives of the Western European romanticism.

In America, symbolism is represented by Edgar Poe, due to his famous poem “Raven”, which is full of dark fateful symbols.

These poetic symbols exist by themselves regardless the prototype, in their form as well as their content. This incredible Schuman’s achievement in creating these symbolic images in music later transferred into consciousness of the modern man. Now they live in musical cosmos, surrounding us everywhere: in pop-music, in rock-music, and in other kinds of entertainment, they became part of our lives.

Even without encoding, these musical symbols talk about emotional experience they consist off.

This is a new accomplishment for music and poetry, but mostly for music, when musical symbol begins to act the same way the words do. When we know exactly what the words mean and use language to explain verbal concept. Same way, due to Schumann, we know what the musical symbols mean and we can recognize them when come across them in the movies, rock-music or just when they pop up in our minds, doesn’t matter if it’s America or Russia, or even Asia.

Musical thoughts, born by Schumann, became some kind of human asset in substantial form. We associate them with some particular conditions or emotions, and they now can explain one or another human feeling even better than words.

Schuman became first who created many of such symbols: symbol of victory, symbol of horse racing, symbol of parade… We will see it all and follow it all.

How does he reach the level when his music is more expressive then the word? What was behind this idea that brought him at the height of his talent by the end of the 30s to this concept?

This musical composition stands by itself. Here Schumann developed his language of symbolism, abstracting himself from public opinion and public success. He was talking about it in a letter he wrote to Clara: “It’s very good that you are not performing this composition because it’s not for public but for itself.” He clearly understood that this music – “Symphonic Etudes”- will exist by itself and for itself.

But as a genuine artist he believed that time will come when his music by itself will turn to the people and will become understood and loved because of what it carries inside.

I want to draw your attention to this amazing confession of Schumann’s that this music is “by itself” and “for itself” but not for public. Schumann, 190 years ago, already understood that he is creating something very new and different. It was not a new genre, as genre was actually not new at all, but shape and content appeared to be revolutionary new. Two centuries later it’s still incomprehensible.

What is the reason for this? I’m connecting it with an idea of our estrangement from the world of romanticism. If in a verbal language we are reading symbols with the help of linguists, history and aesthetics, and using pictures, so we can recreate information for verbal language. But it doesn’t work so easily for music even with the help of interpreters because of its unique phenomena.

In literature we have many more patterns and comparisons than in music. And there are many more great writers than great composers, and only one Schuman with his romantic world of symbolism. Later, some others joined him, like Russian decadent and symbolist Scriabin, whose personality is still quite mystical. But they cannot be correlated at all, as Scriabin is just a local Russian poet and mystic, whereas Schumann is the creator of absolutely new world, world of universal musical symbolism, musical romanticism.

He is very distinguished from his wonderful friends and colleagues – Chopin and Liszt.

Out of three of them, Liszt is the most understood. He was a promoter of his own music. He played his full of decorations and effects compositions by himself, traveling the world and seducing wide range of public by his perfect and bright technique. But he was could not create the new and unique world to get into which is as desirable as it is hard.

Despite all his enigma and refinement, Chopin had tremendously difficult character, quite difficult, inconsistent, and broken. The combination of Polish-French, West-Slavic, Polish-Slavic and Gallic created highly explosive mix. When we work on the creation of musical series on Chopin’s compositions, we will take a closer look into his character, but still, he is much closer and more comprehensible, despite his fragile appearance and the combination of masculinity and capriciousness. Anyway, up until now, it’s still in our modern culture; and it’s quite easy to understand, but not easy to realize.

But world of romantic symbolism is different, it’s so distant. It’s so sublime, full of sentimentalism, where images make us cry in admiration. Such conditions are gone from our world as humanity doesn’t need them anymore because of non-functionality. The incredible fragility of Schumann’s spirit, the spirit of his music, has no place in the modern world.

Because of it, modern man cannot penetrate into Schumann’s character and his mind – into times of knights and lovely ladies: to be a lady’s servant, to be ready to die for the Beauty, all these knightly ideals. It’s all in his music. This is idealistic service to the Beauty, complete dissolution and complete distancing from reality, despite his desire for freedom and democracy. For example, we can hear shells explode in “Vienne Carnival”, and we can hear “Marseillaise”, so we can say he is responding to some events from the outside world, such as the French revolution, but only as much as it was affecting his free spirit, which all his life was striving for freedom and fought against philistinism.

What is the meaning of Philistinism? It’s bourgeois. He was fighting it in music, in art, all his life is screaming against bourgeois, against of the ordinary. War, mortal war, where the spirit has to obtain victory over the hateful materialism, which was so hard on him. In this world, his spirit was imprisoned. So, it’s so hard to understand all subtlety of his soul, infinite flights, “air bags” between notes, like pilots say when we fall down the “air pockets”.

So, he is all in such a freefall between his notes and sounds. He is flying, he is falling, he is out of gravity, his coquetry is so fine for our understanding, as well as his humor. It’s not a

frontal lobe humor, it’s very fine and delicate in everything he is doing or saying. It’s so romantic, poetic, beautiful and elegant, so not from this world…it’s beyond our imagination. To get into it, we have to transform ourselves into unworldly poet, full of life, humor, love and happiness, and unbelievably positive. No matter the drama and tragedy in his life, his character is incredibly positive.

Chopin is all about drama. He tends to minor key and tragedy. Liszt is down to earth. He is busy with philosophy between good and bad and has strong connections with earthly love that occupied him his whole life. But Schumann was born a poet, out of touch with reality. Meanwhile, he is not like other symbolists-romantics who are usually very gloomy, as it’s easy to be a romantic like Byron, to talk to the abyss, to fall down from the cliffs, as most romantics love it. He is nothing like it, no Werther syndrome, nothing. He is in some kind of rose heaven. “Rose” not because of color but because of rose flowers. It’s such an incredible character and spirit. Besides, he is German from north of Germany, from Leipzig, so such personality is very uncommon. It’s definitely an anomaly, an anomaly for the humans and an anomaly for the German nation. Such humor, elegance, nobility cannot be associated much with Germans. It does not bring any associations with the German nation which we associate with certain pedantry and straight forwardness. Such a surprising combination.

But let’s get back to Earth for a moment to touch on some technical questions.

When Schuman was thinking about this composition, he said: “I want to show the transformation of the theme”. This theme was sent to him by one music enthusiast: it was a theme without harmonization, monophonic, like a song.

Schumann perceived this theme as a funeral one, in his own words. For me, it sounds like an ordinary European ballad in minor key, some sort of song from the era of European knights. But, obviously, his consciousness is more tremulous then mine, and because of some minor key cues (we will follow them later), he assumed it a funeral motif.

He shared his plans about developing this funeral theme, and to transform it using more colors and traits, and give it a life-asserting ending. And he did it in a brilliant way, remarkably original, so I’m expecting our voyage will be very exciting at that point.

Now, as for the name Etudes. Here we have same problems with the interpretation as we had with “Pictures”. Pictures, pictures, pictures! And everyone looked at them, “illustrated” them, but totally forgot that Mussorgsky’s Pictures, (of which we made 6-hour series), were just a trigger that created storm of personal emotions for Modest Petrovitch. Whoever follows the

series of our musical shows, can precisely trace all the decryption of Modest Mussorgsky’s consciousness.

Same applies here: “Etudes”! Teachers in schools, conservatories, universities and high schools had pursued just utilitarian ideas in developing performance technique when they taught us that Chopin’s and Liszt’s compositions are romantic etudes. Only as a base! They were transcendent etudes, they were, and they are called like that not just because of difficulties in playing technique but because these techniques were supposed to create artistic images. The richest! The newest! The phenomenal! This only became possible thanks to the new technique Chopin and Liszt introduced to create images they wanted to convey.

It was not possible before as there was no such technique. But Liszt made it possible to see all his sunset harmonies, wandering fires, and surrealistic images through his unique technique. Chopin is showing us unlimited revolutionary images, hurricanes based on his new innovative technique so only such approach can be called “etudes”. This incredibly complicated technique serves as the base for new structures of Liszt and Chopin.

As I already said, Liszt and Chopin are quite easy and clear to understand, especially through etudes. Especially Liszt, with so much taken from outside in his easy to understand technique. He is more of a philosopher, publisher and educator, even more than he is a composer. All is obvious with him, even though it’s not so easy to create true artistic images. We know many performers of Liszt’s etudes but not many true finds and discoveries from the interpreters because even Liszt has big artistic objectives.

It’s even worse with Chopin. In his 24 etudes we can see 24 absolutely different quite fantastic images, where Chopin is represented in full. He is not so monumental but richer in images then Liszt. Full Chopin is displayed in his 24 different faces, different images. It was easy for him to express himself in a miniature. By nature, he was a miniaturist; he loved miniatures and was most comfortable expressing himself through clear images in his etudes, which at the very least can make sense.

As far as Schumann’s Etudes are concerned, it’s very interesting to see what Schumann did here in terms of techniques. If Liszt’s and Chopin’s etudes exercised the weak fingers – 5th and 4th fingers, developing all physiologically possible fluent and colorful techniques, then Schumann created something quite mysterious, because his perception of technique and creative images was in a different dimension, a little superhuman.

Being apparently a wonderful pianist, he challenged himself with physiologically extraordinary tasks. And in the end, he ruined his ring finger, became an invalid,

and was not able to continue his performance. But, to our selfish joy, he became a great composer. He was always dreaming about career of a performer but by chance was forced to turn to composition instead.

So what did he do? First, he completely violated our musical vestibular system! We are operating with two hands: we have soprano and we have bass, and we rely on two hands and body in the middle. Schumann changed it and distributed his musical narrative through three levels as if we had three hands. Now we have soprano, middle range, and basses. Nobody has ever done such a thing. Liszt didn’t it, and neither did Chopin, because it’s so inconvenient! It’s inconvenient for vestibular apparatus too, and for the body support, and for the brain coordination and motor function. We have no skills to operate on three levels, only on two as we have only two hands. It would be much easier if we had three hands.

And what is Schumann doing? Throughout his “Symphonic Etudes”, for the exception of only specific chord base variations, all action takes place on three levels. And as a composer he is following it very precisely. He keeps this technique and never abandons any of these three levels.

This is tremendously hard to do!

Since he is completely obsessed with his weak fingers (5th and 4th) he is moving body support into middle voices and facilitating basses and sopranos. Nobody does it, but we mostly rely on sopranos and basses. And the middle range is always supportive. With Schumann, in all variations, main action takes place in the middle range, and basses and sopranos are supportive. This confuses all performers, because they don’t teach you this in schools and no Czerny etudes can prepare you for that.

This is completely new, and it sidetracks most of the musicians. They get so much involved into the solving of technical tasks, that they have no chance to pay attention to Schumann’s symbolically-poetic delirium, which was his world. This world is full of elegance, life excitement and grace. Can you just imagine that we have three levels instead of two? So here we got the musculoskeletal system all messed up, our brain is confused …and we have to get out from this labyrinth of physiological and vestibular-technical challenges to make the texture transparent and light. So audience could hear only a song, song and “la-la-la”. This is what Schumann, as a true song writer, wants us to hear. He is singing romantic symbolic song. And all texture is in three levels, incredibly rich, full of chords.

He also was obsessed with the idea to involve all ten fingers at the same time as much as possible! Neither Liszt nor Chopin have done this. They always alternate chords. He, on the

other hand, wants all ten fingers be involved in making the sounds, and all ten should sound and intone in a different way.

This is clearly physiologically technical challenges, completely Utopian that nobody wants to deal with. They simply try to play all notes but not intone and to make it light in order to show Schumann’s main metaphysical idea – to turn the clock back – from death to life through series of romantic songs.

Such a gigantic super challenge not solved up until today by one reason or another. On one hand, I suppose, it has to do with the great technical difficulties, which make the musicians, for more than 180 years now, to concentrate on them thus distracting them.

On the other hand, as I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, there is a phenomenal spirit, remarkable consciousness of symbolical romantic-sentimentalist who is so distant from us. He was distant from them in his own time, too understood neither by Liszt (maybe Liszt did a bit as was more tolerant), nor by Chopin who didn’t understand him at all. Chopin thought that Schumann was writing educational music. “Whatever let him write his pedagogic music” he said once. Apparently, Chopin couldn’t see it more than just an incredibly difficult technique for human body and new musical technique for piano that was created by Schumann. It looks like even Chopin was not be able to see all this cloud castles built by Schumann with his unique technique, never repeated by anyone else.

Now I’d like to say a few words about the name. Initially he wanted to name it “Pathetic variations”. It is because there is a lot of pathos here, and many overlaps with Beethoven who was idolized by Liszt, Chopin and Schumann. He was an Idol, Superstar of that time. For them he was an ocean where they came from.

But then, Schumann decided to emphasize the symphonic qualities of this composition, like I said: when all 10 fingers are involved and each one intones in a different way representing different instruments. He changed the title to “Symphonic variations”, and after that “Etudes” as there were big technical challenges. So, we can see from it, how his mind was skipping from content to form. He was going back and forth, from technical complications – from etudes he posed, to simple ideas, which were supposed to be layering “on top” of these etudes – pathetique variations, that is, he wanted pathetique poetry. He is trying then to distract our attention then to concentrate it on etudes. And then his consciousness was kind of confused “let it simply be the pathetique variations, not etudes”.

All of this is in a short story, in historical documents that we have concerning the composition of this unique creation where we can follow the composer’s mind and see where it’s going. He

wants the new technique, new world, new poetic world, new symbolic world, new language! As for the title… you can’t just describe it, in this case he would need to write the whole introduction to it, just like Mussorgsky did for his “Promenade”.

If Schumann had his will, he would have written the whole volume of how to play it. But Schuman was apparently a very humble man, an introvert with a character of an extrovert (it was a contradiction, which was ripping him apart from inside out). Anyway, we have not written description for this composition, so we will figure out it during the trip into consciousness, traveling in time, in culture, speaking in the language of music.

What did the author want to tell us? Did he achieve it? He did it beautifully! So how come we haven’t accomplished it until this day?

As always, let’s go step by step through the music, and it will help us to penetrate the consciousness and the unique beauty of this poetic spirit.

And so, let us get started.

Translated by ZJanna Melnichuk

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