[This article was written for the Peters International label, a short-lived LP label which mostly reissued recordings from affiliates overseas which the Peters International company also distributed. This LP came from Dutch EMI, so it was probably easier to have new program notes written than to have the original ones translated.
It was a privilege to write for one of the few recordings of Youri Egorov, a superb pianist whose early death from AIDS was a music tragedy I rank with the losses of William Kapell and Dinu Lipatti.]
Schumann: Fantasy in C, Op. 17; Arabeske in C, Op. 18
The two compositions which comprise this album bear adjacent opus numbers, but there is little else to connect them except their composer himself. They were even written at different times: the Fantasie (“Fantasy”; or “Fantasia”) was composed in 1836, while the Arabeske dates from 1839.
Although both works show us the typical contrast of Schumann’s sub-personalities, the more outgoing Florestan and the poetic Eusebius, the Arabeske is one of Schumann’s smallest and most intimate creations, while the Fantasie is a heroic outpouring of feeling on a vast scale. The Arabeske is a technically simple work which falls within the abilities of the gifted amateur pianist, while the Fantasie remains to this day a pianistic Everest to be scaled only by the greatest virtuosi. The Arabeske is written in a strict classical form, the rondo; the Fantasie is a creative rethinking of the classical sonata form in romantic terms.
When Schumann wrote the Arabesque in 1839, he was still forcibly separated from his future wife Clara, able to communicate with her only through letters and in music. It seems likely that any music he wrote during this period can be regarded as at least partially directed towards Clara, and that is a fair interpretation of this piece, which alternates a dreamy yearning with more militant episodes. The construction is in strict rondo form, but Schumann makes his own interesting elaborations on the form. The rondo theme itself is in a miniature A-B-A form, although “B” is better labeled “A-prime” since it is a variation of the opening measures. Both contrasting episodes are in minor keys. The first, a contained storm of passion, contains but one theme, varying it and repeating it until a coda for the section returns us to the main rondo theme. The second episode is in march rhythm, which is hardly surprising; at least one section in march rhythm is found in nearly every piece Schumann wrote. This one leads abruptly back to the rondo theme. The piece concludes with a dreamy coda based on the rondo theme. Such description, of course, in no way explains the magical effect of this piece, one of Schumann’s most popular.
The Fantasie (Schumann`s own incorrect French spelling) in C had its origins in a project to build a monument to Beethoven in his home town of Bonn. In 1836, the Beethoven Memorial Committee which had planned the monument announced that it had been unable to raise enough money and was abandoning the project. Schumann, who worshiped Beethoven’s memory, concocted an elaborate method of raising money for the monument. He was going to write a piece dedicated to Beethoven’s memory, the composition to be based on Beethoven’s life and works; proceeds from the publication would go towards the building of the monument. The composition was the Fantasie and of course it was actually written, but the music was not published until 1839 (and thus received the opus number before the Arabeske) after going through some major changes.
Schumann originally entitled the work “Ruins, Trophies, Palms,” and subtitled it “Grand Sonata.” Eventually all programmatic titles were dropped, as was the designation of “sonata.” Evidently the composition was sketched in 1836, but the final score was completed only just before publication. Schumann also wrote of his intention to quote the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the finale of his work. Evidently this quotation was dropped, although the rhythm of Beethoven’s movement is heard, and the notes themselves are suggested, at two points in the finale (measures 30-31 and 87-88, left hand).
The Fantasie is not quite a sonata, but it is almost one. ln comparison with the sonatas Schumann did write, his alterations of the form are all improvements. Schumann always had difficulty with sonata-movement developments, although he eventually learned to cope with their requirements by the time he wrote his symphonies. The opening movement of the Fantasie has the outlines of sonata form: an exposition with two themes, a section making use of them, and a recapitulation. But Schumann does not write an orthodox development section, which sometimes reduced him to mere note-spinning; instead he substitutes a free improvisation, very loosely based on the material of his exposition.
The second movement is an enormous, thrilling march, more or less in rondo form but not strictly bound by formal conventions. The suggestion of the original title, “Trophies” or “Triumphal Arch,” is abundantly justified by this music. This is the most difficult movement of the Fantasie to play, and its coda makes demands virtually unparalleled in pianistic literature for rapid skips in opposite directions simultaneously.
The march rondo would have made a good conventional finale for a sonata, but Schumann had another idea, obviously inspired by the late sonatas of Beethoven. His finale is a beautiful, meditative nocturne in simple song form.
The original intention of the Fantasie as a tribute to Beethoven is carried out in several ways aside from those already mentioned; but as with all works of this period, we also find references to Clara. Sometimes both are merged. The very opening of the work, stormy and passionate, reminds us of Beethoven’s middle-period sonatas, but the theme is based on a motif by Clara which is often suggested in the remainder of the work. Various writers have suggested passages as possible quotes from Beethoven’s music, but the most obvious quote occurs in the coda of the first movement, where Schumann uses a line from a Beethoven song; the original text is, “Then accept these songs, beloved, which l sang for you alone.” This is obviously a message for Clara.
The Fantasie score is headed with a motto from Schlegel’s poetry:. “Through all the tones in Earthâ€˜s many-colored dream, there sounds one soft long-drawn note for the secret listener.” Again, this is Clara, as Schumann himself indicated in a letter to her.
When the Fantasie was published, it bore a dedication to Franz Liszt. lf the music was written in memory of Beethoven and expresses Robert’s feelings for Clara, this dedication might seem inappropriate. However, it can be explained with a good deal of justice. For one thing, the difficulty of the Fantasie was so great that Liszt may well have been the only pianist of his time who could play it satisfactorily–as he indeed did, including a private performance for the composer. Even more important, Schumann undoubtedly felt frustrated that his publisher in 1836 refused to print the Fantasie for the benefit of the Beethoven monument. However, the monument was built, due in large part to the efforts of Liszt, who solicited support from others and emerged from his self-imposed retirement to give fund-raising recitals. Clara already knew what messages were in the Fantasie for her, and Schumann’s devotion to Beethoven was well known; he could well afford to dedicate the score to Liszt.