On Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze (I)

Beth Levin

[April 2002.]

Perhaps only a fool would try to describe Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. (Those places where angels fear to tread are much underrated.) My hope is that this will be an illuminating journey through Schumann’s imagination, visiting emotion, mood, poetry and human experience with beauty as our guide. I may not reach the end.

Schumann wrote this ambitious set of dances in two books (or parts) between 1834 and 1836. Florestan and Eusebius, representing the conflict within, inspire each dance. The contrast between the characters’ fiery and sensitive natures motivates the writing throughout.

Book I

1. Lebhaft (Lively, brisk)

The opening bars herald and invite the listener in. I think composers like to do this, often with as little as a chord or two. The message is Welcome, You are here, Come in, Close the door, See what awaits you! What follows is a congenial movement with one quirky aspect: the tied note (a note tied over to one of the same pitch, often across the bar line). The tie pervades the writing and propels the melody forward, always forward. Schumann’s rhythmic events (here a tie followed by two short chords) always equal his beauty of melody. His rhythms suggest lilt, a leap, a landing, movement that relates to human energy. When I read in the New York Times about the death of classical music, I want to shout, “Death to the New York Times!” Schumann’s music is utterly alive, as alive as a ladybug that crawls up your leg, as the perspiration at my brow as I struggle to write, as a human heartbeat. When we open the score of Davidsbündler we enter a world of sound and timing in the moment — palpable, audible and intensely expressive if only we would listen.

2. Innig (Heartfelt)

The music immediately turns inward and dark. The melodic D resolving to a C-sharp in continual repetition pulls, tugs and resembles a human sigh — Ah me, Ah me. Accenting the passing tone (D) increases the sense of anguish and we find ourselves embroiled in angst. The performer must be careful not to overplay the sorrow, cry a river or add schmaltz to what is already amply expressed by the composer. One wants the audience to cry, but must maintain a controlled distance in order to let the music speak for itself.

Schumann asks for a strong downbeat but also adds unexpected accents on other beats, not unlike Chopin in his mazurkas. Schumann adored Chopin and they both revered Bach. Here and throughout Davidsbündler the writing is often set forth in four voices close to a Bach fugue. The music exists in a Romantic context, but it closely emulates Bach.

3. Mit humor

The rhythmic élan of the opening chords suggests the sensation of a running leap with a sure landing onto a sforzando (accented) chord at the fourth measure. Again, the vitality and imagination of the rhythm enhance the dance, get it up in the air, and charge the music with a balletic quality. Further, the color of the harmony, the unexpected accents, and the staccato bass line leading to a chord and back down to a single note suggest a circus atmosphere. We begin to sense that we inhabit a child’s world of wonderment — playacting, dress-up, tumbling, dancing and singing. We are in Schumann’s domain.

There are direct quotes in the movement from Papillons, a much earlier work. This player was excited to remember the former and watch the same material re-employed with heightened intensity.

4. Ungeduldig (Agitated)

Schumann infuses the music with a breathless quality by having the treble and bass play off each other in inevitable succession. The first strong bass octave sets up an unforgiving pattern of the treble bouncing off the low notes until the final few bars drive to a conclusion. There is no letup, no respite, no ritardando that might stretch out the music in time. There is nothing but the jagged agitation of the writing, resulting in a feeling of anger and turmoil. A diminutive F. at the bottom of the page suggests that Florestan is to blame for this particular output.

5. Einfach (Simple)

Eusebius pervades this movement. It consists of a sensitive, naïve melody that spins out over a simple bass line. One is reminded of the Eusebius movement from Schumann’s Carnaval, which is also a gentle musing of notes that endlessly turn and roam above a sparse but supportive left hand. The deeper one enters Davidsbündler, one senses that the emotions and the events in the music spring from a child’s imagination. No matter how earnest or heartfelt the music at a given moment, one has to be careful not to overpower it. A child’s forte (loud) is not an adult’s forte, and therefore a pianist must temper her dynamics and find the sound that matches the world she finds herself in. By the end of this movement the melody has spun itself out; like a music box that has run out of energy, so does the music.

6. Sehr rasch (Very swift)

Pianists think of this movement as the killer. Whenever I tell fellow pianists that I am at work on Davidsbündlertänze, they immediately refer to this section with knowing smiles. Here again Schumann presents a driving, relentless rhythm that never wavers for a second. Don’t expect to breathe when performing it or listening to it. The 6/8 rhythm of the bass and the hasty, two-note slurs in the treble combine to give a sense of a panting horse or someone escaping from danger. The key of D-minor creates a foreboding quality, relieved momentarily by a short D-major section, but quickly returning to the darker key. The exquisite coda, however, breaks into E-flat major, the key of love, and the same music that once felt dangerous now speaks to us of ecstasy. Eusebius and Florestan seem to be sparring. The key of E-flat is so unexpected that we are moved, delighted and stunned. Of course our bliss lasts only a moment, as Schumann drives to the end in forte D-minor chords.

7. Nicht schnell (Not fast)

Harp-like chords begin the music and crescendo to a held chord marked sforzando. The timing is bent by Schumann, who asks for a ritardando (a gradual slowing) at the beginning and end of each crescendo. This allows for a slow unfolding of each rolled chord, adding to the general expressivity and a sense of being stuck in molasses. The rhythm is held up, held back and it begins to feel like slow motion.

A word about Schumann’s sforzandi: There are as many meanings as contexts. A chord marked sf here will be emphasized, leaned into, but always with a cushion of tone, never harsh or snapped as it might be in a faster, more energetic context.

A lyrical middle section consists of a dialogue between the alto voice and the soprano over a lilting bass line of eight notes. It has more forward motion than the chordal sections in G-minor, and the sweeter key of E-flat subtly suggests its contrasting nature. This is not an extreme contrast as in other parts of Davidsbündler, but music that emerges naturally from the chords and serves to unify the beginning and end of the movement.

8. Frisch (Brisk)

This is a wild, rhythmic dance with a desperate air. One fragment serves as a melody but resembles a human cry. The top notes of the jagged chords against bass octaves provide melodic material. Here rhythm and melody intertwine and work in four voices, again in Bach’s shadow.

Two sections, A and B, are repeated as they are in each dance, although Schumann repeats as little as eight measures at times. The underlying purpose of a repeat is structural and should not be ignored. A repeat can also be an opportunity for the player to reiterate an idea, highlight a hidden voice (theme, melody, line), or experiment with different moods and dynamics the second time through.

9. Lebhaft (Vivacious, lively)

The eighth dance seems to go directly to the next. The timing between the dances is a challenge of intuition for the player. Sometimes the movements need to breathe, and require space after the final notes. Others propel themselves forward naturally. A player must sense timing, as it’s not something concrete or written down.

The ninth dance is highly rhythmic with a sforzando written over every downbeat. This suggests a dance that might be carried out in a real sense by stamping one’s foot on every first beat. When the sforzandi disappear temporarily in the music, a more thoughtful and general melodic section unfolds, and with it a dialogue between alto and soprano with less emphasis on purely rhythmic stresses.

There is an overall feeling of a crazy but graceful clown who leaps wildly from place to place. The large span of the melody and accented leaps in the bass figures imply a circus atmosphere, in keeping with Schumann’s theatrical sense throughout the work. A calmer code, again lacking in sforzandi, feels like a comment on the previous material and helps us stand back from the colorful circus and resolve the movement in clarity and calm.

It is here that I will pause before going on to examine the second book of dances. It is not a full stop but merely a fermata, a deep breath before proceeding.

On Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. Book II.

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