Thursday, April 29, 2010

Schumann, bless his heart

Before I became a Mendelssohnophile, I was a Schumannophile. At some point, after I turned into more of an organist than a pianist, I transferred my affections. I needed a break. Schumann may have written some of the most stunningly beautiful phrases of all time, but Mendelssohn's music just seems so, well, sane, in contrast: mature, confident, reliable, and able to form complete paragraphs, rather than moody, petulant, fragmented, and ravishingly, achingly, hopelessly Romantic.

2009 marked Mendelssohn's 200th birthday, so I celebrated by learning a few of Mendelssohn's organ sonatas. 2010 is the Schumann bicentennial year, so now I'm learning some of Schumann's organ music--specifically the fugues on BACH. (In German, the letters B-A-C-H are the names for the pitches B-A-C-B, a nifty little chromatic motive that even Johann Sebastian himself had fun with.) Schumann didn't leave much music for organists to choose from, actually; he wasn't an organist.

What I've learned so far is that, indeed, Schumann was no organist. When he wants a crescendo, for example, he pretends the organ is a piano: instead of telling the organist to pull out a few more stops, he tells the organist to grab a few more notes; instead of adding in a 16-foot stop to some 8-foot stops (one of the resourceful things you can do on an organ that you can't do on a piano), he has the left hand double everything the right hand is doing, an octave lower.

Even if you can't read music, you might still be able to see this happening in the middle two systems below. The top stave of each system is the right hand, the middle stave is the left hand, and the bottom stave is the pedals. He does it in the pedals too--see that octave doubling in the third system?

If my knowledge of organ repertoire were broader, I might know of other composers who do this sort of quirky, unidiomatic thing. But for now, it's just Schumann, all the more endearing for plugging resourcefully onward on an unfamiliar instrument, a passionate fish out of water ("bless his heart," as we say in the South).

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