A Pianist’s Thoughts on Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

Beth Levin

[December 2003.]

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I open the score. At a swift glance I notice the graceful slurs and dynamic markings, a hidden trill in the tenor voice, the music laid out in a thick texture, symphonic in scope. I note: Andante, 52 to the quarter, C-sharp minor, Common time (4/4). Even as a visual work of art, the theme to the Symphonic Etudes is as perfect in form as a Japanese print.


The opening chords seem to carry the weight of worldly sadness. A descending arpeggio in C-sharp minor supported by chords succeeds in resisting forward motion, giving the theme its somber beauty. These opening notes will form the basis for much of the material to follow. The second half of the phrase opens up to A major for a brief taste of joy before returning to the minor mode. The melody continues in poignant expression often above the chords I and V, the simplest and clearest suggestion of a musical key. Beneath a fermata (or hold) lies the V chord which closes the theme as it connects us to Variation I. The direction attacca further implies a segue rather than a clean stop.

Variation I Un poco piu vivo.

Staccato (dotted, short) notes dance everywhere on the page. Variation I contains the basic harmonic structure of the theme but veers away in character. Snippets of thematic material jaunt in quick tempo, thus relaying a sense of energy and humor. After the double bar line which divides each variation in two, the melody stretches out under a long ritardando or gradual slowing. This elongated music is legato and more thickly orchestrated, reaching a climactic forte. Then as if nothing happened, our original sprite returns and scurries to a close.

Variation II Marcato il canto.

The repetition of thickly woven inner chords creates color and momentum for the song of the outer voices. The bass line repeats the theme verbatim as the soprano moves in contrary motion spinning its own expressive melody. For the pianist, the feat is one of balancing the diverse voices, illuminating the soprano yet never losing the underlying bass and allowing the chords to emerge only enough to provide a lush backdrop.

This might be the appropriate place to discuss the etude as variation, variation as etude. Here, as in the work as a whole, we encounter an extreme technical challenge not unlike that of Chopin’s Etudes. But musical expression should remain paramount. A pianist must camouflage difficulty as secondary to the ultimate aim: that of making music.

In Part B of Variation II, the tenor voice, now accented, continues the theme. The treble speaks playfully in two-note slurs and duple 16ths, creating a dancelike figure. The richness of sound and idea continues to expand the sense of possibility and develop the theme to another level of intensity.

Etude III Vivace.

(The publisher Schuberth in 1852 chose to combine two versions of Schumann’s proofs. Thus, a discrepancy in numbering.)

The final octaves of Variation II still grip us as Schumann, the master of contrasting mood, cleanses our senses with a gentle rain. Delicate 16th notes rise and fall against a tenor melody. The effect is delightful, a release from the grandeur and emotion of Variation II. Here again the technique of the dancing notes must be flawless, the sound dolce and unselfconscious, the staccati as light as angel’s wings.

Variation III

This is a strident dance of martial chords. Sforzandi often accent the first and third beats of a measure, re-emphasizing powerful impulses. The rhythm and sense of direction is unrelenting. The direction crescendo sempre seven bars from the end propels the music without hesitation to Variation IV.

Variation IV

From the clip-clop of heavy boots emerges the sublime lightness of Variation IV, a song sung first by an ogre and now a nightingale. The rhythm is equally exact and driving as in III but the mood turns sunny by virtue of staccato, dotted rhythms, and the markings scherzando and vivacissimo. Sforzandi reinforce the rhythm here as well, although a sforzando in the context of p and pp feels more like a pinch than a jab.

As I step deeper into the variations, I sense the warning, “Follow at your own risk!” Etudes can be the reason a pianist sometimes leaves the practice room on a stretcher.

Variation V Agitato.

Variation V is a frenetic game of leap and interplay between right and left hands, treble and bass. The musical challenge is to express the melody amid chordal high jinx and mile-wide leaps. The inevitable cueing, or triggering of one hand by the other, sets up a melodic pattern of drive and power throughout. Although Schumann often enjoys playing with rubato, here the writing remains as strict as an atomic clock.

Variation VI Allegro molto.

Schumann extracts a detail from the second measure of the opening theme, a repeated G-sharp, and proceeds to go to town. The result is brilliant, fast and powerful. As with any great composer, Schumann is able to take a naïve idea and from it create a virtuosic tour de force. In Etude III, he employs the repetition of G-sharp in a lilting accompaniment figure. Here the idea, transformed, imbues an etude with stunning force and élan.

Variation VII

This variation feels much less like an etude. Pure brilliance is superseded by expression, sheer difficulty by drama. A low C-sharp connects via a wide leap to an A and once again to a C-sharp three octaves above it. The right hand breaks in and begins the same pattern in a canon. Thus the music relays a physical sense of reaching upward. Further, the imitation of voices over and over throughout the piece gives it an integrity, the kind of tight framework only fugal writing provides. Rhythmically this could easily be a Bach fugue, but the harmony plants it in Schumann’s era. Very quick notes between leaps, accents, and luscious, extended trills fill out time and space as we are swept along, moved by the Thema’s heartrending harmonies.

Etude IX (see Etude III) Presto possibile.

“As fast as possible” is always a daring achievement if you take care not to fall off the bench and take the metronome with you. This etude is wholeheartedly an etude, openly displaying its bravado. The quick fistfuls of chords must sound effortless even as they prance and reach a climax of ff at measure 33. A harp-like effect at measure 57 adds to the feel of the wind and the lush, eerie diminished arpeggio at measure 65 lures us to the end in a hush. We have experienced a true vanishing act courtesy of Schumann’s magic.

Variation VIII

Schumann sustains the momentum of Etude IX against a contrasting variation — a push to the end. The treble again plays on the pattern of a repeated note against a driving, scalar bass line. Con energia sempre (with constant energy) defines the variation’s character exactly. Here, as in other of his fast movements, Schumann brings an exhilarating physicality to bear, a horse’s gallop. The 16th notes never stop, there is no stretching of time, only crescendi to ff, sforzandi on key notes and a surge to the end.

Variation IX Con espressione.

We have arrived at the last variation before the true Finale. A slow movement in G-sharp minor seems to fulfill a desire for peace after the preceding movements’ chaotic pace. The introductory chords are ethereal. The repetition of D-sharp to C-double sharp (D) / D-sharp to D / D-sharp to D pulls at us without quite preparing us for the resigned beauty of the melody to come. And what a melody it is! A G-sharp falling to D-sharp is a haunting reminder of the opening theme, but not mimicry: rather a heartfelt song that creates its own boundaries and takes us farther along Schumann’s imaginary path. As always, the voicing is complex: A melody on top develops into polyphony, with the bass’ chordal arrangements thick and color-rich. Some of the variations are separated by a mere fermata, implying a connective timing to the next. Others are offset, as in this case, and stand alone. As we approach the end, we can look back and see Schumann’s plan: a clear arc of emotion and timing of symphonic proportions.

Finale Allegro brillante.

When I think of the Finale movement of the Symphonic Etudes, I think of the great English pianist, Myra Hess, who often performed the work for her countrymen and women during the Blitz of London. The music can be described in one word: triumphant, its inspired quality perhaps springing from the dotted rhythms which permeate the music, whether as part of a melody, an underlying bass line, or as an almost unconscious weaving in and out as other material takes prominence. Schumann’s favored rhythm, ebullient, energetic, propelling to the musical line, infuses the music with a march-like sense of direction and purpose. The descending pattern of the opening, imbued with a stirring presence, is now turned skyward.

Schumann seems to abandon the dark side that was his original theme in C-sharp minor and enter the light through the new melody in D-flat major. Measure 50, for example, is pure fanfare: A long pedal tone in A-flat, a middle voice echoing the opening theme, and on top dotted 16ths billowing like sails in the wind. The final movement’s chords are often massive, seeming to require more than ten fingers, yet nowhere does Schumann blur harmony or cloud voices. His love of Bach and clarity of line is ever-present. The pianist, too, must make decisions, especially in the thick of the harmonic soup, as to the appropriate lines to emphasize. The final page of music feels like a culmination of everything before it. A procession of octaves and chords (sempre fortissimo) descends through various keys and concludes with a strong declaration of D-flat major, back and forth between I and V, until the D-flat harmony prevails in a final, exultant chord.

[Schumann wrote the Symphonic Etudes in 1834. Before publication (in 1837), five of the 12 pieces were pulled, six new ones added and the rest modified. The 1852 revision also killed two items not strongly related to the theme. Brahms put them back in 1862, and printed the five missing sections in an 1873 critical edition.

Andreas Werz plays the 1837. Nearly everyone else uses the 1852 version with the five “extras.” Richter and Pollini keep them together, between V and VI. Others create an appendix or drop them in singly, and Hamelin ignores them. Cortot’s pioneering 1929 rendition (he was the first to air the five missing movements) still astounds, and is best enjoyed in Andante’s indispensable Schumann set. Beth mentions Dame Myra Hess’ heroic performance; it’s in her “Great Pianists” volume on Philips. For the price of a bad lunch, Stefan Vladar’s Naxos is close to the best. W.M.]

[Investigate a few pages of Schumann’s manuscript held at Yale University. G.C.]

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