Saturday, 25 August 2012


Last time he went to Banks Music Shop in York, I asked my husband to get me some music by Schumann, 'Anything!' I said. He came back with the Abegg Variations and Kreisleriana. An interesting choice. The Abegg Variations are one of Schumann's earlier pieces (1830), not really difficult to play and 'transparent' for want of a better word. They seem to come from the same stable as his cheerful programme music for students. Kreisleriana, by contrast, was written in 1838 in a period during which Schumann and Clara struggled to marry against the wishes of her family (they finally achieved this in 1840, the day before her 21st birthday) and at a time when the fragility of his mental state was becoming obvious. 

Robert Scumann 1810 - 1856

Kreisleriana is a very demanding piece. It is so difficult to make sense of it that I completely gave up.  After several attempts to bash through parts of it, I ordered a recording so that I could hear how someone else  made sense of it. (I always feel that this is defeat, but anyway, it has helped me make some progress!) The work is exhausting and disturbing and strangely, powerfully addictive as it draws you into its rich melodic and harmonic patterns. Schumann himself wrote that it is 'music which is fantastic and mad.' It certainly takes huge amounts of energy and concentration to play and always leaves you feeling you haven't quite got there in terms of understanding what it is that the music requires of you. The Larrousse Encyclopedia of Music puts it like this, 'His piano compositions are nearly always based on short themes which he develops by harmonic progressions which, in turn, affect the melodic line, a dialogue which is very revealing of Scumann's troubled state of mind...his compositions seem rather like pages from a personal diary, fragmented, precise and profuse in musical invention.' This is nowhere more true than with Kreisleriana, I feel. As well as being technically almost impossible (especially if you keep to the indicated tempi), it is a piece that continually yearns toward resolution then abruptly resolves in a short cadence and moves on to a new idea that turns out to be a reworking of an old idea....a hovering, again and again, around the same theme which is not quite the same.

Playing it, living with it, makes me aware of paradox - that mental illness and profound creativity often co-exist, that obsessive ideas can reveal the way to a release that is breath-taking in its strangeness, that yearning can break out in unspeakable beauty or surprising playfulness that is suffused with joy. There is a darkness about this piece of which I am not afraid - it is rich and majestic and ultimately welcoming but, of the restlessness, I am afraid; it possesses a 'no-place-to-lay-your-head' manic quality which runs on to madness or exhaustion.

The work has been described as a psychological music-drama and it is based around the character of Johannes Kreisler from the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Throughout much of his life, Schumann identified with two characters who represented his inner world - the cheerful, instinctive, open Floristan and the dark, brooding Eusebius. Kreisleriana has its 'Floristan' moments but it is, I think, more noticeably from the world of Eusebius. I find it fascinating to discover how grappling with a piece like this reveals the composer to you in ways that words or biographies cannot.

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