Sunday, 19 September 2021

‘Let music not be forgotten in the meantime’: Sonatas, Fantasies, and Fragments by Schumann and Chopin


In Beethoven’s wake, composers, especially in the Austro-German tradition, asked themselves what should become of forms and genres he had seemingly taken to their ultimate, foremost among them the sonata and symphony. Allied to increasing interest, born of literary Romanticism, in the idea of the ‘fragment’ – for Friedrich Schlegel, ‘a small work of art, complete in itself and separated from its surrounding world, like a hedgehog’ – such pressure led in several directions: rejuvenation and rejection of old forms only two possible polarities. We shall hear in this programme Schumann wrestle with such questions; Chopin take, to Schumann’s bemusement, a very different sonata path; and much territory both between and beyond.

‘For ladies’

Writing in 1843, Schumann argued that ‘difficulties in form and content’ had prevented much of his music from gaining greater public esteem. The C major Arabeske, composed over his Vienna winter of 1838–9, had represented an attempt to offer something less elusive, less enigmatic, or, as Schumann put it, ‘for ladies’. In Classical terms, we may consider it a rondo: ABACA plus coda. Schumann’s literary alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius, appear respectively in passionately extrovert, minor-key episodes and wistful, introspective postlude. Strong interrelationships between first section and episodes, whether in thematic derivation or transitional return, suggest a fluid conception of developmental variation somewhere between Beethoven and Brahms.

A Lone First Movement

Schumann’s love of dotted quaver-semiquaver figures – the first note may be a quaver, followed by a semiquaver rest – as heard in the Arabeske also informs the Allegro in B minor op. 8. Conceived as the first movement to a piano sonata, completed or nearly so, yet otherwise destroyed, it occupies an interesting place in Schumann’s development. The pianist-composer integrates aspects of virtuoso display into a respectable, even venerable, musical form. We might suspect the opening cadenza to announce an improvisatory fantasia; it turns out instead to be a sonata-form movement’s first thematic group. The stark motto enunciated at its heart—B–C sharp–F sharp—proves to have multiple thematic consequences, serving, John Daverio observed, ‘as bass line for the elaboration of the first group, melodic backbone for the opening of the lyric second theme, head motif for the development, underpinning for the sequentially conceived retransition, and herald of the coda’. We might not be surprised to discern in those letters an extra-musical cipher, though that seems not to be the case. For Romanticism, incompletion does not itself signify a fragment; a fragment must in some sense be complete. However, like a ruin of yore, incompletion, however construed, forms a good basis on which to construct a fragment.

Sonata or Fantasy?

The Fantasie op. 17 is a very different kettle of fish: in Charles Rosen’s words, ‘the monument that commemorates the death of the Classical style’. The idea is especially apt given Schumann’s intention at one point during its complicated genesis to offer proceeds as his contribution to a Beethoven monument in Bonn (its committee chaired by the other Schlegel brother, August Wilhelm). Schumann expanded a single movement of 1836, a ‘fantasy’ called Ruinen – ‘a deep lament for you’, he told Clara during their enforced separation – into a three-movement ‘sonata’ entitled Ruinen, Trophaen, Palmen, tension between ancient and modern, introspection and the monumental integral to its design. Many continue to view the Fantasie in relation to sonata genre and forms, yet Schumann seems to have become convinced during, perhaps by virtue of, its composition that they had ‘run their course’, at least as comprehensible to his Classical forebears. ‘We should not repeat the same thing century after century’, he wrote in 1839; by all means write ‘sonatas, or fantasies (what’s in a name!), but let music not be forgotten in the meantime’.

Form, then, must not become formula; it is experienced as interplay between sonata and fantasy and other opposing yet related forces. Outer movements begin in medias res, with something to them of the old improvisatory fantasia. On the first’s stage appear Florestan and Eusebius as equals. The third hymns the latter, seemingly have cast off the last vestiges of Florestan’s sonata-like material. They frame and are framed by Florestan’s grand second-movement march. Mediating these oppositions, there appear (at least) two ghosts from Romanticism’s past and one from its present. First is Beethoven: in musical inheritance, but also in the first movement coda’s allusion to the closing song of Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, where the protagonist bids his ‘beloved’ during their separation to accept the songs he had once sung. Second is Schlegel, in musico-literary method and, explicitly, in Schumann’s inscription from his Die Gebüsche (once set by Schubert):

Durch alle Töne tönet
Im bunten Erdentraume,
Ein leiser Ton gezogen,
Für den, der heimlich lauschet.
(Through all the sounds
in the earth’s many-coloured dream,
one faint sound echoes
for him who secretly listens.)

Third and most important is Clara. ‘Are you not’, Schumann wrote to her, ‘the tone in the inscription?’. Is she (or Robert)? Who, then, is the secret listener? It need not be either/or.

The array of reference is dizzying: internal, external, and in a strange liminal zone of the literary-musical. Tonal and thematic relationships, as ambiguous as they are complex and thoroughgoing, fuse with questions of genre. The distinction Schumann drew between ‘higher’ or ‘noble’ forms, such as sonata, symphony or ‘fantasy’, and smaller, ‘characteristic’, simpler pieces, pertains within as well as between works. ‘Im Legendenton’, a Eusebian Lieder ohne Wortre of paradoxically timeless archaism – a musical ruin – that blossoms with typical Romantic passion, is flanked by Florestan’s sonata tendencies. For Daverio, it offers an instance of Schlegel’s conception of the Arabeske: ‘humorous, witty, or sentimental digressions that intentionally disturb the chronological flow of a narrative’, yet, ‘as a total form, […] tempers a seemingly chaotic diversity through a deliberately concealed logical process’. For Nicholas Marston, it is from here that Florestan’s flanking music is derived, if only in retrospect, by way of parallel to Schlegel’s fragmentary novel La Lucinde. The idea of a single reading misses the point. A multiplicity of readings, of (potential) performances, both fragments and unifies. Such, then, are those ‘difficulties in form and content’ to which Schumann would later refer, and which seem to have discouraged even Liszt, the dedicatee of the Fantasie, from frequent performance: ‘too difficult’, he wrote to Schumann, ‘for the public to digest’.

‘Unruly children’

We turn to Chopin for the single work named a ‘Piano Sonata’: his Second, in B flat minor op. 35. Schumann commented, sceptically, that Chopin having ‘called it a “sonata” suggests a joke, if not sheer bravado. He seems to have taken four of his most unruly children and put them together, possibly thinking to smuggle them, as a sonata, into company where they might not be considered individually presentable.’ There is no evidence to back up that observation, which says more about Schumann in 1841 than Chopin in 1839, when he wrote three of the four movements. Less weighed down by Beethoven’s example, Chopin had greater liberty to strike out on his own. He used the sonata genre, to quote Jim Samson, as ‘a framework within which the achievements of his earlier music – the figurative patterns of the Études and Preludes, the cantilenas of the Nocturnes, and even the periodicity of the dance pieces –might be drawn together in a kind of synthesis’.

More readily than the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasie, we may hear Chopin’s opening movement in terms of (modified) sonata form, especially in its exposition: a brief, powerful ‘Grave’ introduction followed by a headlong first subject and songful successor. ‘There is beautiful song in this first movement, too’, Schumann wrote, adding that the younger Chopin’s Polish qualities were vanishing, ‘via Germany, towards Italy’. We may beg to differ; Schumann did himself, continuing: ‘As soon as the song is sung, the Pole flashes forth again in all his bold originality. Certainly, Bellini never would nor could have dared the interwoven chords encountered after the close of the first episode of the second part.’ Indeed, though to be fair to Bellini, he had no more wish to do so than Chopin had to follow the hallowed (German) tonal pattern of the ‘double reprise’. The question is not ‘why did he not?’ but ‘why might you think he would have done?’. In place of the archetypal tonal drama of the Beethoven sonata, Chopin reveals his nocturne-like second subject as both heart and destination.

Typically for a Chopin scherzo, the second movement is quite without humour, even of Beethoven’s gruff variety. In dark E flat minor, its central ‘Più lento’ section shifts for the Trio to G flat major, more song – echoing the first movement’s second subject – than dance. Inner part voicing delineates Chopin’s delicate balance, born more of Bach and Mozart than Beethoven, between melody, harmony and counterpoint. Written two years earlier, the celebrated Marche funèbre offers similar contrast, this time between memorial and nocturne.

The moto perpetuo Finale represented, for Schumann, ‘more mockery than music. And yet one must confess that from this songless and cheerless movement there breathes a special and dreadful spirit, suppressing with resolute fist every inclination to resist.’ The music has certainly proved an enigma to many: Chopin at his most modernistic, even athematic? Perhaps. Again, however, is that the point? There is irony, bitter or otherwise, in this display, both in character and brevity, following the funeral march. Arthur Rubinstein described ‘night winds sweeping over churchyard graves’. The music needs neither poetic nor formal naming. Like a Prelude or Étude, it sweeps across the keys with diabolical magic entirely the piano’s own.

Singing on Its Own Terms

The Berceuse op. 57 bears affinities with the central section of the Sonata’s Scherzo. Like the Sonata itself, though, it speaks, or rather sings, on its own terms. Whatever its starting point – allegedly a lullaby for singer Pauline Viardot’s baby daughter – the music’s glittering ornamentation beguiles us into believing it, not the ostinato bass, to be the form-creating substance of 15 variations. Sometimes our ears know better than our eyes or biographies. Samson observes the patterns of Chopin’s ornamentation gain ‘new meaning precisely because of their divorce from harmonic progression, dynamic curve and even melody’. They become objects of contemplation, heard, like the Sonata’s Finale, simply as themselves. Liszt, Debussy, Ravel and other composers to this day have savoured and furthered this Romantic legacy. 

Swagger and Suggestion

The A flat major Polonaise op. 53 was Chopin’s last (bar, aptly enough, a Polonaise-Fantasy, op. 61). It strides majestically across the keyboard with fierce confidence and purpose that render its genre a starting point rather than a destination. It is clearly not intended straightforwardly to ‘be’ a dance. The composer bears witness, as if prefiguring a Liszt tone poem, to both particular and universal in wounded ‘national’ pride and heroism. Chopin’s late preoccupation with ostinato refreshes the central section, once more rejecting any notion of form as formula. Orchestral suggestiveness is no mere imitation. A piano can suggest an orchestra, but an orchestra cannot suggest itself – at least not prior, say, to Helmut Lachenmann. In sonority as in form, music is certainly not, as Schumann had it, ‘forgotten in the meantime’.

 (This essay was first published in a 2021 Salzburg Festival programme to accompany a recital by Maurizio Pollini.)