Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Honest concert notes

In 1845, the year he wrote his six fugues on the four-note theme B-A-C-H (Op. 60), Robert Schumann was renting a spiffy Louis Schone pedal piano with a 29-note pedal board. According to Schumann's contemporary and biographer, Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski, Schumann wrote the fugues specifically for organ, amidst a sea of other contrapuntal pieces written that year specifically for pedal piano.1 B-A-C-H, like Bach, belongs on the king of instruments.

But if you don't happen to have a king in your living room, you could compose sitting at your right swell rented prince* instead, which is maybe kind of close enough to an organ that no one will notice the difference, unless you do things like (dang) double octaves to mimic pulling out stops, forget that tones decay when you hold down a piano key but that they don't when you hold down an organ key, or stick in subito piano and sforzando and crescendo indications that are trivially easy on a piano but make an organist wonder "what the *&$# were you thinking?"

A non-organist, Schumann had enough experience with the instrument to understand its challenges. As he advised in his "House Rules and Maxims for Young Musicians" (1849), "Lose no opportunity of practicing on the organ; there is no instrument that so quickly revenges itself on anything unclear or impure in composition or playing as the organ." How ironically perceptive!

Schumann considered the B-A-C-H fugues to be among his finest compositions, writing to his publisher in 1846 that "I worked on this set for the whole of last year in order to make it somewhat worthy of the exalted name it bears; [it is] a work that will, I believe, long outlive my other works."2 Of course, any Schumannophile who's read any Schumann biography will know that Schumann regularly wrote with effusive enthusiasm about whatever next great "entirely new!" composition he was working on at the time, so his opinion of Op. 60 (sincere though it may have been) should be taken with a grain of salt.

Although Schumann's contemporaries heard much to praise in the composer's fugues, posterity has viewed his contrapuntal pieces less kindly. Ah, fickle fashion. To illustrate this point, compare one modern critic's review ("you sure are a glutton for punishment") to Wasielewski's glowing assessment**:

"Of the two sets of fugues (Ops. 72 and 60), the latter, consisting of six fugues on the name of Bach, is of extraordinary merit. The first five fugues especially display so firm and masterly a treatment of the most difficult forms of art, that Schumann might from these alone lay claim to the title of a profound contrapuntist. They show variety of plastic power with four notes only. The tone of feeling varies in all six pieces, and is always poetic, which, in connection with a command of form, is the main point in composition. These are serious character-pieces. The sixth fugue offers a difficult problem as to execution, since the mingling of even and uneven movement renders it very difficult to perform it properly upon an organ."3

And now, for your aural edification, here is Op. 60 #2 on organ and on pedal piano, performed by Martin Luecker and Silvio Celeghin respectively.

*I'm not sure king:prince properly describes organ:pedal piano. It should probably be something more like king:king's second cousin.

**Indeed, Wasielewski, whom we might consider the chief booster of the first-generation ardent Schumannophile club, found it nearly impossible to write about Schumann in anything but glowing terms.

1. Wasielewski, Life of Robert Schumann (1871), 149.
2. John Daverio, Robert Schumann: Herald of a "New Poetic Age" (1997), 308.
3. Wasielewski, 149.

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