What can I write about Stephen Hough’s startling, stunning concert at the Festival Hall last night?
During the second half, between the miniatures by Debussy and Beethoven’s elemental Appassionata Sonata (Op 57), I leaned across to my concert companion and muttered that this concert seemed to be all about spontaneity and improvisation, the short works by Debussy which opened both halves of the concert, in themselves, and in Hough’s skillful hands, improvisatory in character, revealing the same qualities in the works by Schumann and Beethoven. One had the sense of meticulous preparation – and Stephen has talked before in interviews and articles about practising of the need to be “a perfectionist in the practise room” so that one can be “a bohemian” on stage – which enabled him to step back from the music and set it free.
It was an unusual programme. Other pianists may not have been able to pull it off so convincingly, and certainly opening with Debussy’s much-loved Claire de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque was potentially risky. The piece is so well-known, so prone to clichéd readings – yet Hough’s sensitive, unfussy shaping of this work saved it from saccharine sentimentality, and the delicacy of his sound and touch encouraged concentrated listening while also creating a wonderful sense of intimacy in the vastness of the RFH. It was as if we were in Debussy’s drawing room, gathered around his upright piano. And as Stephen said in the pre-concert talk, in the moments of the concert, we can “all be friends”, forgetting our differences of opinion or politics, joined in the shared pleasure of music.
In the programme notes, Stephen Hough explained that his choice of repertoire highlighted the very different approaches the three composers took to writing for the piano. While Debussy’s works (Clair de Lune, the two books of Images and the Prelude La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune) are “sensual paintings with mystical suggestions” [SH] (and even without the titles, their distinctive soundworld immediately conjures up potent, perfumed images in the listener’s mind), the two works by German composers are abstract and tightly structured with clear musical architecture.
And so while Debussy was light (feathery, but never fluffy) and delicately hued, the textures of Schumann’s Fantasie in C seemed all the richer in comparison, the composer’s passion for Clara all there in every note and phrase (Schumann often wears his heart on his sleeve), balanced by lyricism and tenderness, particularly in the glorious closing movement which seemed to evolve and expand there and then.
Similarly, the Beethoven felt wrought before our very eyes and ears, the opening measures creeping out of the mysterious darkness of the lower registers into something resembling light, if only briefly, the work fantasy-like in its range of ideas and striking contrasts. The outer movements were fraught with emotion, urgent and agitated, the middle movement providing a calm respite before the finale was unleashed upon us with, its feverish intensity all the more terrifying for the restrained tempo: this was music on the edge of chaos.
Stephen returned to Schumann for the first encore, one of the Symphonic Etudes which was rejected by the composer – a brief few moments of meltingly beautiful filigree traceries. And a Chopin nocturne to close this exceptional evening.
Nostalgia has a two-fold meaning: firstly, it is a longing for the past, and secondly, within such longing, an attempt to recreate and glorify the values of a bygone age. The 19th century’s obsession with nostalgia can be traced back to the Romanticism itself, where the name of the movement is a reference to the old French word romance, which referred to the often extravagant and fanciful literature of the Middle Ages. Don Quixote (published 1605 and 1615) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (not to be confuse with the fictitious Cervantes de Leon of the Playstation and Xbox fame) was perhaps the most notable of such literature it was also referenced in some of the 19th century’s most famous novels: Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers (1844), Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1844) and Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). All three novels have been adapted into films during the 20th century with varying degree of success.
Though it is not often implicit in the musical text, an example of nostalgia can be found in the Romanze of Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto (1830), the composer himself described this movement as: ‘Calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.’ A more obvious example of nostalgia can be found in Liszt’s Ninth Transcendental Etude entitled ‘Ricordanza’. The title itself has a two-fold meaning. It can mean ‘recollection’, possibly even a literal reference to the fact that this etude looks back and adheres to its 1827 prototype as no other etude in the ‘Transcendentals’ does (Liszt himself wrote three versions of the Transcendentals Etudes, the 1827 juvenile prototype, the 1839 Paganini inspired Grandes Études, before the final version in 1857 which stripped the exorbitant technical demands of its intermediate predecessor). In Italian, the term ricordanza can also refer to a memento, an object that was stored over a period of time to recall a specific moment of the past. The eminent pianist composer Ferruccio Busoni famously compared the musical content of this Liszt etude to ‘a bundle of faded love letters from a somewhat old-fashioned world of sentiment’.
It is also possible that Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved, 1816) is a musical reference to the composer’s own Unsterbliche Geliebte (Immortal Beloved) letters. Written in 1812 and never sent, the anonymity of the intended recipient triggered what was perhaps the most comprehensive sleuthing exercise in the history of Western Art Music. In fact, the controversy about these letters is such that they have been the subject and title of a Hollywood film (Immortal Beloved 1994), which was dismissed by scholars for its lack of historical evidence and speculative ending (casting Gary Oldman as Beethoven didn’t exactly help…), as well as making a brief appearance in the award winning HBO Series Sex and the City. In these letters, Beethoven expressed his longing for the beloved, and how he looks forward to the day of their next meeting. A similar situation appears in An die ferne Geliebte, where for reasons unknown to the listener, the poet and his beloved are also separated. Here Beethoven recalls the opening song as a symbol of memory within the last song, which not only gives the song cycle a sense of completeness and closure, but also signifies that the distance which initially appear between the poet and his beloved has now been bridged by the songs he sang to her, showing that music has the ability to transcend time and space. And just as in the Immortal Beloved letters, hope springs eternal in the poet’s heart with regards to his next meeting with the beloved.
In Romantic music, nostalgia can represent either a bitter sense of lost happiness or a wistful yearning of the past, both of which are often linked with the idea of cyclic reprise. This can be found in the coda of Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und leben (both composed in 1840). Further significant examples can be found in Schumann’s Fantasie (1836) and Fantasiestücke (1837). In the former work, Nostalgia took the form of Beethoven as the Fantasie was an attempt to raise fund towards the construction of a Beethoven monument in Bonn – this is most evident the majestic march-like second movement in the key of E-flat major – a key reserved for some of Beethoven’s most heroic compositions such as the Eroica Symphony, and the Emperor Concerto. The element of longing and passion in Schumann’s Fantasie was prefaced firstly by Schlegel’s quote:
Durch alle Töne tönet
Through all the notes
Im bunten Erdentraum
In earth’s motley dream
Ein leiser Ton gezogen
One soft note
Für den, der heimlich lauschet
Can be heard by one who listens stealthily
Second and more importantly, nostalgia adheres to a musical quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte as a mean to express the unattainability of his own love for the then seventeen-year-old Clara Wieck. This haunts the first movement in its fragment before appearing fully in the coda. Schumann’s sketchbook showed that there were actual attempts to quote the Beethoven quotation in the valedictory last movement before he changed his mind.
Similar to the Fantasie, Schumann also uses a falling five-note motif to enshrine the image of Clara in the Fantasiestücke. This motif appears prominently in Des Abends, a piece which evokes the haunting stillness of the Fantasie’s final movement, before returning in the opening and the coda of Ende vom Lied, a piece which Schumann confessed that had him dreaming of ‘wedding bells’ (evident in the middle section) before realising that there was still much distance between himself and Clara. Worth mentioning is that the third piece of the set – Warum? – with its persisting motif, was perhaps Schumann’s own way of asking fate why the lovers remained apart.
Although she is just a peripheral figure in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister Apprenticeship 1795), the enigmatic Mignon has been immortalised in the lied by composers such as Reichardt, Schubert, Schumann, Spohr and Wolf. In Goethe’s novel, the eponymous hero first encounter the androgynous Mignon after meeting a group of assorted actors who not only seek his wisdom but also funding for their aspiring theatre troupe. Having learnt that Mignon was abducted from her country of birth in Italy (one of the spiritual homeland of the Romantic imagination), Wilhelm proceeds to rescue her by buying her from the acrobats who had taken her. In Wolf’s setting of Mignon’s Kennst du das Land (Do You Know the Land 1875), Mignon nostalgically recalls the land where ‘the lemon blooms and the orange grows, and remembers the house with ‘marble statues and pillar roof’. Here nostalgia is two-fold, as Mignon longs for her distant homeland, and for a vaguely remembered past.
In Schubert’s Winterreise (1827), the poet’s recollection of the past serves only to remind him of his present suffering and lost happiness. The images of rural life and (in particular) of nature became symbols of his lost love: the gate of his beloved where he passes to bid her farewell (Gute Nacht), the weather-vane that reminds him of her fickleness (Die Wetterfahne), the frozen stream which became a metaphor of his own heart – frozen, but overflowing with passion beneath the icy exterior (Auf dem Flusse), the ‘town of inconsistency’ where two eyes captivated the poet (Rückblick), and the linden tree that recalls past happiness and promises rest (Der Lindenbaum). It is possible to interpret Müller’s text in such a way that the ‘rest’ here signifies death as this is the only release from the poet’s longing and pain. Schubert’s Lindenbaum looks forward to the final song of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Song of a Wayfarer 1885), where the poet recalls the ‘two blue eyes of his beloved’ also by symbolically embracing death under a linden tree.
The title Rückblick also appears as the title in the fourth movement (Intermezzo) of Brahms F minor Sonata Opus 5. Literally translated, Rückblick means retrospect, or remembrance, and this is evident in the way the music recalls the second movement (Adagio espressivo) in its thematic materials and programmatic intentions. Prefaced by Sternau’s poem Junge Liebe (Young Love), the Adagio espressivo depicts the image of two lovers embracing beneath a moonlit sky:
Der Abend dämmert, das Mondlicht scheint
The evening falls, the moonlight shines
Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint
Two hearts are united in love
Und halten sich selig umfangen
And keep themselves in bliss enclosed
The emotional directness of this movement such that one of the 20th century’s greatest pianist, Claudio Arrau, described it as ‘the greatest love music after Tristan, and the most erotic.’ However, whilst Brahms was obvious in regards to the programmatic intentions of the Adagio espressivo, the composer was far more cryptic about the subject matter behind the fourth movement. Although is it not identify in the score, the Intermezzo is based upon Sternau’s poem Bitte (Request), which depicts a love that has grown cold similar to a withered tree or a barren forest.
Furthermore, it is possible to see Brahms’s late piano and chamber works as music which verges on the dream-like realm of nostalgia. Unlike the early works, (in particular the F minor Piano Sonata and the D minor Piano Concerto) which place titanic demands on the soloist in terms of technique, emotion and physical stature, the late works (in particular Opus 117, 118, 119 and the Clarinet Quintet) are much more intimate in their conception and exude an autumnal atmosphere. In these works, we no longer hear the intense, passionate young composer haunted by Schumann’s attempted suicide as well as his love for Clara (as attested by the opening bars of the Concerto and its slow movement, written as Clara’s ‘portrait’). The drive, the titanic tussle, and the composer’s allegorical triumph over adversary fate (in the finale of both the F minor Sonata and the D minor Concerto, Brahms utilised the frequently adopted 19th-century compositional device of transition from the minor key to the tonic major identical to that in Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies), all of which were hallmarks in the Brahms’s early, large-scale works, were replaced by a sense of contentment, acceptance and serenity in the composer’s late musical essays.
In a similar way, Schumann’s Kinderszenen (1838) is the composer’s own nostalgia of childhood. Although it is difficult to speculate the autobiographical content (or the lack of) within these pieces, Schumann himself admitted to Clara that they were inspired by her comment in regards to the composer who seemed ‘like a child’ at times. Most poignant is the first piece of the set entitled Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Land and People), which (to me at least) is a musical portrait of a toddler’s foremost interaction with the outside world. Perhaps the most famous piece of set is Träumerei (Dreaming), immortalised by Vladimir Horowitz as a favourite encore and used in the 1947 Hollywood film Song of Love, starring Paul Henreid as Robert Schumann and Katherine Hepburn as Clara Wieck.
Romanticism’s idea of nostalgia has been one that was well adapted by Hollywood. In Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1996), Almásy’s heavily annotated copy of Herodotus’s The Histories serves only to recall his torrid love affair with Katherine Clifton (expertly captured under Minghella’s direction), which was to have devastating ripple effects on those around them. At the same time, Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ is a mere reflection of the Almásy’s state of mind (and heart) for it is only in heaven (hence death) that he is able to ‘find the happiness that he seeks’. In David Fincher’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Daisy Fuller’s deathbed merely serves as the only consistent variable throughout the course of the film as Daisy recalls her life, along that of her lover, Benjamin Button, whilst her daughter Caroline reads from the protagonist’s diary. The film was also haunted by the use of Scott Joplin’s Bethena Waltz (1905) which serves as a reference to period when the film was set. And finally, it was the grown up Peter (Pan) Banning (played by Robin Williams), who enlist the help of Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) as he rummages through his childhood memory in search of the one big ‘happy thought’ that will enable him to fly in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991).
Recommended listening (All of which can be found on YouTube)
Ludwig van Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte Opus 98
Johannes Brahms: Piano Sonata No 3 in F minor Opus 5
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Opus 15
Johannes Brahms: Sehnsucht Opus 14 No.8
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor Opus 115
Johannes Brahms: Piano Pieces Opus 117, Opus 118 and Opus 119
Frederick Chopin: Larghetto from Piano Concerto in E minor Opus 11
Franz Liszt: Transcendental Etude No. 9 in A Flat Major ‘Ricordanza’
Gustav Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen: Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz
Franz Schubert: Die Winterreise D911
Robert Schumann: Fantasiestücke Opus 12
Robert Schumann: Kinderszenen Opus 15
Robert Schumann: Fantasie in C Major Opus 17
Robert Schumann: Frauenliebe und leben Opus 42
Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe Opus 48
Robert Schumann: Lieder und Gesänge aus ‘Wilhelm Meister’: Mignon (Kennst du das Land)
Hugo Wolf: Goethe Lieder: Mignon (Kennst du das Land)
Schumann’s #30 (* * * (untitled), in F major) from Album for the Young has a way of casting a spell of contemplation over its listeners. Whenever I perform this music, I meditate on how I reclaimed my passion for classical piano music. As your guest columnist, I want to share with you my secrets on how to study and play the #30 with best effect.
In April, I performed the #30 as part of “Claiming Your Passion”, a keynote workshop I gave at a Toronto conference. I hesitated before including this relatively unknown piece in my program. How would it fare in a lineup with recognizable works by Chopin and Schubert? I placed the #30 towards the end of my workshop, when participants would reflect on a plan for claiming their passions.
At the workshop, as soon as I rippled the #30’s opening chord arpeggiato, the music’s calming harmonies drew me in. I contemplated the 25 long years, from the summer of my 16th birthday until my early 40s, when the piano had lain fallow in my life. I thought about the bliss that I had experienced once I reclaimed the piano, bliss that had radiated outwards, turbocharging my career as a speaker and writer and strengthening my family life. Now at the workshop, I played the #30’s ending, two Ds ringing out, connected by a chromatic inner voice, followed by a simple, plainspoken resolution to F major. Afterwards, I felt gratified when several participants told me that their favorite piece of music was the #30.
The #30 is one of the pieces at the back of Album for the Young that offers concert repertoire that is nonetheless accessible for the advanced student of adult piano lessons. In order to appreciate this music, we should start with its composer. Robert Schumann loved writing almost as much as composing. In the mid-1830s, he launched, as chief editor, the NeueZeitschriftfürMusik (New Journal for Music). For his journal, he often wrote under the pen names of two distinct personalities, Florestan and Eusebius. While Florestan was impulsive and exuberant, Eusebius was thoughtful and contemplative.
These two aspects of Schumann’s personality also suffused his music. The #30 “is contemplative and expresses the Eusebius side of Schumann’s personality,” says Mark Pakman, adjunct professor at the Cali School of Music and my piano teacher. Once I learned the notes, I agreed with his assessment. This four-minute piece doesn’t have a dramatic arc with crashing chords or chattering scales; the sound ascends to forte on only two brief occasions.
The biggest challenge in studying the #30 is to create its contemplative mood via meaningful phrasing. The phrases in this decidedly Romantic music have less resolution than music from the preceding Classical era. Take, for example, the #30’s opening motif, a C lingering with longing, two As gaining urgency, and then the motif sliding with resignation into a G. This G clearly marks the end of the motif, yet it feels somewhat unresolved, as though the impulsive Florestan had snuck into the music and sliced off the motif. I found that playing only the top melodic notes of the chords helped me to absorb the melody and its phrasing. Away from the piano, I tested myself, making sure I could sing the melody in tune and out loud.
Further complicating the phrasing is the fact that the #30 has a surprising amount of repetition. The opening motif I described above appears four times in the music’s first period, a section that is then repeated, at Schumann’s suggestion, in pianissimo. Moreover, the entire second half of the music is essentially a repeat of the first. When my piano teacher first showed me the music, I silently registered the repetition with some glee: I could learn the notes quickly. Yet once I absorbed the notes I faced the challenge of preventing the music from sliding into a pool of monotony.
One technique for creating variety in the #30 is to use tempo rubato. Take, for example the opening motif, the lingering C, followed by two As, and finished with G. My piano teacher and I decided that the first time I played this motif, I would slightly delay the dotted C note, in contrast to playing the motif strictly in time in its next appearance.
I also used shades of different mood states within my own mind to create a slightly different color with the repeat of the opening section. This music reminds me of my own 25-year-long wandering back to the piano. The first time I played the opening section, I thought about the longing I had for piano music during that time in my life when I was not playing. The second time through, I reflected on how, now that I have reclaimed my passion for the piano, I actively seek to dedicate myself to music.
I’ll share with you a few more tips that I assimilated learning this music:
Schumann begins the music with a chord arpeggiato, and uses them frequently throughout the #30. Don’t do as I did, and create a bad habit that is later difficult to undo, by playing all three notes of these chord arpeggiatos with equal emphasis. The top note is the melodic one. If you play the first two notes with a delicate touch and allow the top note of each arpeggiated chord to ring out, the music will shimmer.
In the #30’s second section (measures 9 to 16, repeated in 25 to 32), half-note, trombone-like octaves ring out, while an inner voice picks its way up and down the keyboard, as though stepping through wildflowers. In order to achieve a contrasting effect, practice the octaves and the inner voice separately.
If you’re like me, and you sometimes forget to pedal, especially when you are concentrating on tricky chord changes, then pay special attention to measures 22 and 23 (repeated in 38 and 39). Here a crowd of tied notes, 16th notes, and inner voices create a general confusion, but stay calm and make sure you pedal after each eighth note.
Schumann’s #30 from Album for the Young has become a staple of my repertoire. I hope you will obtain as much enjoyment as I did studying this music. For me, the contemplative #30 packages feelings of longing and seeking with a wrapping paper softly glowing when turned towards the light.
Watch Nancy play Schumann’s #30 from Album for the Young
Nancy M. Williams is a motivational speaker on “Claiming Your Passion” and an award-winning creative nonfiction writer. She is also the Founding Editor of the online magazine Grand Piano Passion™. An amateur concert pianist, she debuted in 2012 at Carnegie Hall in a master class recital.
Austrian pianist Till Fellner played a selection of well-known and well-loved piano music by Haydn, Schumann and Liszt in an engaging lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here
My piano teacher, Penelope Roskell, performed at Sutton House, in Hackney on Sunday evening, in a fascinating programme in which she juxtaposed the reason of Bach with the mercurial romance of Schumann. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.
Penelope Roskell is an acclaimed concert pianist and Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, and is Artistic Director of Sutton House Music Society.
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