Schumann considered “Symphonic sketches” to be his best composition for pianoforte, although he discouraged their performance because he judged them to be “too internalized”, or too personally selfreferential – an “introversion”; he also believed that the score was seriously complex. He believed that the general audience, accustomed to overt emotional expression, would not appreciate the subtle beauty of his deeply felt music. Often people do not understand the value of a particular work of art for centuries after its creation, but the author is always conscious of the true value of his work; of what he best manages to accomplish through that work.
Two centuries after the writing of this grandiose pioneering work, it has become obvious how correct Schumann wasto consider “Symphonic Etudes” as his best work for pianoforte. This work was so “futuristic” in its prophetic insights into the mysteries of the modern soul and its many facets, that until recently “classical musicians” and musicologists were notably unable to see in his music the real “mirror of the modern soul” of man in the late 20th, and early 21st century.
As in the case of Mussorgsky’s prophetic work “Pictures at an Exhibition”, it took almost two centuries before man’s soul and intellect would be suitably developed to fully comprehend the amazing “Symphonic Etudes” at a modern level, when the musical ideas embedded in these works of steel would be accessible to a mass listener, one who visits stadiums for jazz and rock concerts. But so far the widest audience of serious jazz and rock music has not heard this amazingly modern music, because of the conservatism, stagnancy and isolation of the “world of classical” music. Because of the inexcusable short-sightedness of the classical music performers who could not “see”, to recognize and convey to the broad listener these musical treasures. As always, with great composers, they were much ahead of their time, and their music has often been forced by humanity into the narrow framework of the “genre of classical music.”
Before you is the first edition of the acoustic test recording from Prague. It will provide listeners an opportunity, as in the case with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures”, to become acquainted with the great prophetic work of Schumann. As with the “Picture” record, I want to warn that after the editing and mastering is finished, the “commercial record” will sound much stronger, and otherwise it’s much richer in sound and its musical ideas are more expressively and fully realized.
“Libretto” – Program.
In works that composers consider to be the pinnacles of their creativity, their essence is fully manifested thru their spiritual-intellectual selves. So it happened in this work, where Schumann wanted to develop his romantic idea – to show thru music the transformation of the soul from death in the beginning to the triumph of light and life in the finale. Together with the romantic idea, the composer expresses the full measure of his soul.
In this uncomplicated “folk ballad”, there is music that does not originate from Schumann’s pen; the beginning of the theme represents a funeral procession. It is replaced by a light, pathetique and sublime sadness about a departed or fallen “hero.” Then we hear a mournful drum roll. The theme ends with a short statement, which “opens the stage” to the listener, escorting him or her into the world of life and transformation of the different states of the romantic hero-composer’s soul.
Variation 1 [1:45]
In the intense “electric” atmosphere of this variation’s music, Schumann demonstrates how the power of life, symbolized by cascades of short, ascending phrases, permeates the theme of death. This causes death to “step aside” and give way to life. In the middle we hear a small major deviation, symbolizing a pleasantly and abstractly “pondered” living soul. Lyrical digression is replaced by “electric” waves that awaken life.
Variation 2 [2:47]
In the impetuous romantic music of Beethoven’s character, we hear Schumann thinking about the romanticism of Beethoven, even “sending him greetings” though his intonations and a direct quotation of the rhythm and character of the “Moonlight Sonata” in the middle of the variation. This variation is an “exemplar” of the romantic, pathetique-ly enthusiastic attitude of the artist, awakening from the previously restrained times of the baroque and classic eras of the European soul. Music is exalted, full of the symbolism of the “conversations” between heaven and ocean, mountain peaks and abysses. It symbolizes the revolutionary changes of the European soul, rushing to free flight, to freedom without borders.
Etude III [6:46]
In this “sketch” the theme transforms into a marvelous beautiful romance. We hear the imitation of the cello in the middle voice. A cello is an instrument that expresses the “voice of the heart”. The voice of the heart is, of course, the voice of the composer himself. In the upper voice is the haze of remembrance, in which the image of Paganini reigns, and there is almost no work written by Schumann that excludes that “presence”, as he was shaken to the end of his life by the magical essence of the Italian musician.
Variation 3 [8:23]
In this song, Schumann uses epic, broad chords to sing “the anthem of life and freedom,” revealing with this variation a whole “block” of four variations dedicated to the joy of life. “The theme of death” has already been completely transformed into the “theme of life.”
Variation 4 [9:48]
In this variation we are shown the most intimate features of Schumann’s character. Schumann is full of graceful coquetry, and joking playfulness; Stately, but cheerful, even a little, “Lovelace-knightliness”, the sprit of chivalrous love. The music is full of grace and gaiety, aimed precisely at flirting with the “fairer sex”. And, like all truly romantic music, it is not without some nostalgic sadness, hidden between the fragile notes of a love game.
Variation 5 [11:07]
A seductive song of love and life, which becomes a funeral march. This song is also completely full of “acrobatic” jumps for the left hand in the bass. This makes the song especially tempting, since it shines with physical life-force.
Variation 6 [12:03]
“Toccata”, which Schumann turns into a “hymn of being.” His “ode to the joy” of life. But not the exalted epic “Gloria”, as the works of preceding masters from Handel to Beethoven, neither is it an ode to high poetics, but rather it is the earthly joy of being. It is Prowess and strength of Will – from earth removal and creation on earth, to the removal in a hot battle, when blood is boiling and death is not terrible, but sweet, like life itself. This is not music, but “intoxication with life.” Rare, only Schumann has a successful example of a special genre and character that many years later rock musicians will learn to utilize in forming their music of protest, fury and freedom.
Variation 7 [13:07]
Another amazing insight. “A crossing back in time” in the future. Here Schumann “sends greetings” to the masters of the Baroque. Using simple polyphonic music, in the style of heroic Passacaglias or courtly “improvisational preludes” on a cembalo, Schumann recites an incredible “call to freedom” by force. Freedom in all its manifestations – from freedom of expression to freedom of being. This is literally a “cry for freedom.” The music is so intensely charged with the notion of freedom that with its intonations, it brings to mind the “stadium” rocker’s “cries of freedom”, from the best examples of vocal creativity by Freddie Mercury.
Etude IX [16:06]
Here Schumann is immersed in his favorite element – the ball. In a dazzling scherzo, reminiscent of the Hoffmann’s fantastic tales, a luxurious dancing “crowd” falls before us. Not literally, of course, but “the spirit of the crowd” is what makes the music even more amazing. In the air, ladies and gentlemen are suspended; in the middle of the piece, there are magnificent hussars characterized by Hungarian dance cadences. These images are infused with the spirit of Paganini “flying” though fantastic space towards the hussars, while plucking a “diabolical pizzicato”. All this sparkling luxury dissolves in the air, which finally dies, like a cold whirlwind, in the traditions of the favorite works of Hoffmann or Bulgakov.
Variation 8 [16:44]
Dance-song of Austro-Hungarian coloration. Continuation of the ball, which becomes more and more real.
Variation 9 [17:54]
“Cruel romance.” This cannot be named otherwise – this is a duet of two women accompanied by a Spanish guitar. Female voices weave an amazing tenderness and passion into the theme of death. Twisting favorite themes of European poets and artists – “woman and death”, “love and death” is always there. A cry about love from the composer breaks through, culminating through women’s voices at the end. It is difficult to find in the world of musical literature such an open and strong sense of genuine earthly passion expressed by the pure soul of a great artist.
Variation 10 – Finale. [20:58]
Schumann intended to, and did show the procession to victory. The themes and content of the music are interlaced with chivalric plots about the “march in search of the Holy Grail.” Schumann could not get around this topic in the apotheosis of his grandiose music. The plot of “Ivanhoe,” which is based on an opera containing themes contemporaneous with Schumann, touches on the themes of the music in the finale, dictating the idea of the crusades and knightly deeds. It is the logical conclusion of the epic fresco about the ascension of the soul to happiness and the “victory of spirit and mind”.
In a kaleidoscope, we clearly hear the themes of “horsemen”. In music, clearly distinguishable cavalry detachments, which then go galloping, then calmly and cheerfully “trot” traveling in the “search for happiness.” We hear the themes of vows, prayers, battles, groans of the fallen, the cries of the victors. Before us is a huge “knightly musical fresco”.
The guns rumble – first in battle (bass), then, in the coda – the cannons are firing victory fireworks.
English CD Notes Prepared by Todd and Svetlana Harris