The early Romantic movement in literature and music is often perceived as a time when artists through off the restraints of form and sober thought and gave themselves over to the direct expression of their contradictory emotions. Robert Schumann can be thought to embody this trend in spades. This contrast to the so-called classical period can be overdrawn, however. The difference between Mozart and Schumann is clear enough even to the untutored ear. Mozart and his colleagues Joseph and Michael Haydn place contrasting musical ideas within elegant forms while Schumann and his contemporaries allow their music to erupt in many emotive fragments. Thus, the emotion in classical works is controlled while in Romantic works it runs riot. Charles Rosen makes much of the importance of the fragment as resting at the heart of Romantic music in his book The Romantic Generation, but the fragment also emerges as an important building block in Rosen's analysis of classical form in his book The Classical Style. The sonata form emerged as a useful way to pit themes and motives of different characters and different tonalities in close proximity without degenerating into chaos. Rosen makes a strong case that the key relationships play an even stronger part in the structure of a piece than the repetition of themes themselves. In Robert Schumann, I see an alternative way of exploring the dialectic of musical fragments so that they form an artistic unity.
In building dialectical relationships between contrasting musical fragments, both Classical and Romantic composers are forging different middle grounds between reality and art as artifice. In reality, emotions are unstable and chaotic, but their direct expression is unintelligible because chaos is unintelligible. If art does not give some illusion of chaos, then it fails to mirror reality, in which case it is deemed unrealistic. And yet this chaos has to be ordered if it is going to be expressed. The sonata design is one way of ordering a chaotic set of emotions expressed in musical phrases. Although Schumann and many of his generation used sonata form in many works, they were also sought other means to ordering their emotional expressions. The emotions themselves tended to become stronger during the Romantic era. We should not overlook the importance of musical technology here, especially the evolution of the piano that was still in the process of increasing in dynamic range and sheer loudness. Also, we should not forget that the emotional punch of some of Mozart's works shocked his contemporaries.
Fully conscious of just this polarity of artistic expression, Schumann conceived of two artistic personalities, which he called his "best friends," to embody each pole as poetic self-projections. To use the designations of John Daverio in his biography of Schumann, the "rambunctious improvisor" Schumann called Florestan and the "pensive cleric" he called Eusebius. Schumann, of course, felt himself called upon mediate between the "unbridled energy" and the "thoughtful restraint" of his "best friends." One way Schumann did this was to compose cycles of very short pieces where these two characters more or less alternated from piece to piece. This alternation has much to do with why early works such as Carnival and the Davidsbündlertänze are so much more than the sum of the parts. Also, the illusion of chaotic emotion is heightened even as the music gives structure to that chaos through the use of motifs that reappear throughout the work, but often in forms that are undetectable by the ear. In this respect Schumann is a distant forerunner of Anton Webern who depended on the listener to sense a unity in the music that was present but not hearable.
When measured against not only Mozart and Beethoven but fellow Romantics Schubert and Brahms who were comfortable with sonata design, Schumann is usually rated has highly deficient. This judgment tends to lead to a verdict that Schumann could not handle large-scale forms. This verdict becomes questionable when one considers large-scale works such as the Humoreske and the Fantasy in C Major, both of which are every bit as long and complex and Schumann's piano sonatas. Much great music occurs in many of Schumann's sonata-design works, but I think he usually does better when he feels free to let go of the design as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven did. (But then these composers were forging the design based on the inner logic of the music, not following pre-conceived forms set in stone.) Compared to the satisfying wholeness of apparently freely designed works, the sonata design seems, at times, to box in the musical expression Schumann seems to be aiming for. In the remainder of this essay, I will look at two works where Schumann did what he did best.
Contrary to the expectations of English-language readers and all who are familiar with the Humoreske of Antonin Dvorak, the Humoreske of Schumann is not a whimsical piece and it is not funny. Neither is it a slight work. Rather, it is one of Schumann's weightier works and its overall emotional effect is one of thoughtful melancholy. Perhaps it is this character that prevents it from being a popular work. The title refers to humor in a broader sense where the word refers to a passing mood. Schumann himself said that the humors offered an "infinity of contrast" which infiltrated every aspect of the music. The abrupt shifts in mood and the use of musical figures that make one-time appearance makes the work sound chaotic, as if it were merely following one person's whim after another. the actual emotional trajectory, however, gives the work a deep sense of coherence.
The Humoreske is normally divided into four larger sections which, in turn, are divided into contrasting subsections. The first section begins with a reflective and mildly melancholy theme that sets the tone for the whole piece. This theme is followed by two subsections with generate more ebullience and subsiding into the first theme once again, giving this section an ABCA design. This is the only section to end with its "A" subject. The second section is a scherzo marked hastig (hastily). The first subject, energetic enough is followed by an even more energetic one before returning to the first. This is followed by an Adagio which brings back the reflective temperament of the piece, so that this section falls into an ABAC design. The Adagio sets up the third section marked einfach und zart (simple and tender). The "A" theme again embodies the melancholy character of the opening theme, but is somewhat more intense, even agitated at times. The last subsection here is marked innig (inwardly) and it returns to the more resigned and relaxed mood underlying this work. (Design: ABAC) The final section begins with the sort of energetic theme that one expects in a finale and is followed by a mildly pompous figure which comes close to being a parody on the finale to the Symphonic Etudes which, for all its stunning quality, tends to become tiresome after a while. The third subsection is called zum Beschluss (towards the finale) but, far from carrying on the pomp of the preceding sections, it returns again to the melancholy mood that opened the work (not the theme, just the mood.). I must say that it was a surprise to me to realize that the opening theme which seems to underlie the whole work is not repeated after the first section and that it is the mood itself which recurs and holds the piece together, although each melancholy theme has a drooping quality attained through a large descending interval or two. The brief ponderous coda that concludes the piece does nothing to dispel this dominant mood. It not only makes further mockery of the notion of a triumphalistic ending but it prevents the melancholy mood from having the last say in bringing closure to the work. As with the second and third sections, the final section fails to round off the sequence of musical ideas. Throughout its mood swings, the Humoreske builds a firm unity based on feeling in such a way that the listener is never given anything conclusive to hold onto.
The Fantasy in C Major is arguably Schumann's greatest work. It is a personal favorite of mine. Like the Humoreske, it explores the ordering of chaos in interesting ways. The three movements follow a trajectory unique up to that time. A disrupted sonata design is followed by a scherzo quasi finale followed by a reflective slow movement. If this work were a symphony, more people would know that Schumann had beaten Tchaikovsky to the punch with the idea of a slow finale. John Daverio suggests that the first movement gives voice both to Eusebius in the sonata design and to Florestan in the emotional passion of the themes. Moreover, Florestan breaks up the sonata design in the development by running the thematic fragment in the tonic minor into the ground and then grinding the music to a halt to the extent that it is a miracle that the music rouses itself out of its lethargy enough to finish the job. The second movement belongs to Florestan and the slow finale to Eusebius.
Schubert sometimes created tension for a handful of bars by beginning in a key distant from the tonic and modulating to it (e.g. the finale of the B-flat Major Sonata). Schumann begins his C Major Fantasy in D Minor and spends the whole movement seeking a long-delayed resolution in the tonic at the very end. Charles Rosen points out that Schumann's use (or misuse) of sonata design differs radically from the classical concept which begins from repose, moves towards tension and then back to repose. This first movement was originally composed as an independent fantasy called "Ruins." One reason for the title could be that Schumann felt that his life was in ruins on account of his treatment at the hands of his future father-in-law. But ruins in their fragmentary testimonial to past grandeur had a positive aesthetic value. Rosen quotes Schumann as defining himself as "a ruin pointing forward." The first movement, as noted above, expresses much emotional anguish before coming to some semblance of calm repose at the end. Not only that but, throughout this movement, Schumann has been toying with fragments from Beethoven's song An die ferne Geliebte which he bring together only in the conclusion. The second movement is a straight-forward ABA design scherzo-march. Eusebius seems to get a voice in the slower trio section, but Florestan's sense of rhythm completely blurs the distinction of bar lines so that the listener completely loses the beat. Needless to say, Florestan gets carried away by the end of this movement What is curious about this movement is the way it provides relief from the intense first movement, as a scherzo is supposed to do, but it has most, but not quite all, of the flamboyance of a triumphal finale, but instead of being in the place of a finale, it is an interlude between two weightier movements. The final movement puts the entire Fantasy up on a much higher plane. This time the tonic asserts itself effortlessly by the simplest means: C Major arpeggios that one can listen to forever. The thematic material from the first movement returns in transmogrified guise. This time, the ear can detect the thematic unity quite readily, but the radical change of mood ensures that the Fantasy will not be rounded off. In the Humoreske, Schumann achieved a much more rounded quality without benefit of repeating his musical material. This conclusion that misplaces the finale eschews triumph, but embodies a profound hope that the ruins in Schumann's life really did point forward.