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Schumann's Fantasy Pieces, Opus 12


Among all composers there is none, with the possible exception of Chopin, who possesses such a remarkable and unmistakable individuality of style and such pronounced subjectivity in all his work as Robert Schumann. In spite of the manifold variety of his forms and diversity of his subjects, he is always Schumann, not by any possibility to be mistaken for anybody else, in any single period. Whether he is portraying the graceful flight of the butterfly or the grotesque pranks of the carnival clown, the dreams of a child or the stern ambition of a hero, a strain of his may be recognized anywhere without hesitation by anyone at all familiar with his work.

schumann-as-a-young-man.jpgThis distinctive peculiarity of style is due mainly, though not wholly, to two leading characteristics: a plain, wholly unembellished, almost primitive intensity of emotional content, and a certain vagueness of expression, an indistinctness of outline in his periods, which renders them hard to grasp. It is the former that so endears him to musicians and the latter which is responsible for his unpopularity with the public.

He has all the typical German’s force and depth, all his fondness for rugged, even if rough, directness and for calling things exactly by their right names, all his scorn of mere external refinements and graces; but on the other hand he has, more than all, the German’s involved obscurity of expression, his fondness for shadowy mysticism, his inability to formulate with clearness.

His grandest visions of beauty are apparently seen “as through a glass, darkly.” His thoughts seem at times too big for his musical vocabulary. Or rather perhaps his ideas are poured forth from the volcanic depths of his genius, in a molten state, too rapidly to solidify into separate forms; but intermingle, overlapping and blurring each other.

This defect, for a serious defect it unquestionably is, will always prevent Schumann’s works from being universally understood and appreciated: but naturally it is less apparent in his shorter compositions.

Of these the Fantasy Pieces Op. 12 are among the most effective and widely known. They are very varied in mood, full of the richest, most vivid fancy and striking originality, and clearer, more definite in form than the majority of Schumann’s works.


The strongest of this set is the “Aufschwung,” a powerful treatment in music of the idea of human ambition, mounting with irresistible, inherent strength toward the summits of fame and achievement, scorning obstacles, defying dangers, ignoring temptations, and the soft allurements of easier paths; sweeping onward with the overwhelming force of a tidal wave toward its goal, grand but destructive in its might.

It is the same idea precisely that is so ably handled in Longfellow’s famous poem Excelsior. The player should study that poem carefully in connection with this composition, and reproduce its thoughts and moods in the music; it is often a help to have it well read to an audience before playing the number in public.

The bold opening theme in B flat minor is the Excelsior cry of the poem, the enunciation of pride, courage, resolution, aspiration, yet of a stern sadness withal, for ambition is the avowed and deadly foe of happiness. Then follow successively, as in the poem, suggestions of the various difficulties, temptations and dangers that beset the upward path, the seductions of love, the allurements of home and rest, the peace and resignation proffered by religion, the growing terror of the ever darker and lonelier way, the warning, “Beware the pinetree’s withered branch, Beware the awful avalanche.”

But, as answer to each and all, comes the reiterated ringing shout, “Excelsior!”

This first theme should be given always with great strength and dignity, increasing in intensity with each repetition. It easily may be—and too often is—made trivial by excess of speed. The sections which follow must be treated with the utmost diversity of shading and tone coloring, each expressing its own particular mood and suggestion, while the superb climax in chords, with the scale passages in the left hand, should begin slowly and very softly and steadily,

increasing in power and speed to the final reiteration of the first theme, like the threatening whisper, the ominous approach and the deafening crash of the oncoming avalanche.

This work is a fine concert number and an invaluable study in dynamic proportions and varied tone qualities. The name “Aufschwung” has no adequate English synonym. It has been improperly translated “Soaring,” and so appears in many editions. But that word fails entirely to convey the meaning of the original. “Auf” means upward and “Schwung” signifies swing or sweep, with the implied sense of great power and weight, as of some heavy body in swift motion with resistless momentum. It might be applied to the movement of a battleship under full headway, but never to a bird. Or, if we translate the title “Soaring” at all, it should be the bold, strong, majestic flight of the eagle that we have in mind, not the joyous rise of the skylark into the blue.

Des Abends.

The exquisite lyric, entitled Des Abends (Evening), forms a beautiful and restful contrast to the Aufschwung, if played immediately after it. This little work, one of the most perfect of Schumann’s productions, is just what its name implies, a delicate picture in shades of violet and pearl. It expresses but one phase of emotional experience, the quiet, dreamy mood of the twilight hour, with just a touch of wistful longing, a hint of tenderness in it, faint memories of the stronger emotions of the day, like the soft, slowly fading tints in the western sky, when the glory of the sunset has departed, that linger for a time as faint echoes of that symphony of color, then merge into the shadows.

It is the hour and mood which idealists love and lovers idealize, which poets have sung in all ages, and which Schumann sings here in as true and flawless a strain as was ever penned. I never play it without thinking of the opening lines of Byron’s “Parisina,” which it so aptly fits.

“It is the hour when from the boughs

The nightingale’s high note is heard;

It is the hour when lovers’ vows

Seem sweet in every whispered word.

And gentle winds and waters near

Make music to the lonely ear.

Each flower the dews have lightly wet,

And in the sky the stars are met,

And on the wave is deeper blue,

And on the leaf a browner hue;

And in the heaven that clear obscure,

So softly dark and darkly pure.

Which follows the decline of day.

As twilight melts beneath the moon away.”

The composition should be given with the utmost tranquility, with a gentle, caressing pressure touch, with little agitating rubato, and no intensity of inflection.

It has been claimed that the form chosen by Schumann in this work was unfortunate and metrically incorrect; that it should have been written in three-eight instead of two-eight measure, thus making plain eighth notes of the sustained melody and alternate sixteenth rests and sixteenth notes in the lower voice. This is a mistake. Schumann knew what he wanted and how to produce it. Just that slightly swaying effect of the triplet rhythm, if properly handled, and the natural lessening of stress on the alternate melody notes falling on unaccented parts of the measure, even though the melody is, as it should be, distinctly sustained, add materially to the wavering, wistful charm of the music. The triplet rhythm is there for a purpose. It must be just perceptibly indicated but by no means emphasized. The ear must recognize it unconsciously without its being distinctly heard.

Traumes Wirren.

Perhaps the most original, and certainly the most technically difficult, of the group of “Fantasy Pieces” is the Traumeswirren, which we might translate “Dream Tangles” or “The Confusion of a Dream.” It is a fanciful attempt to portray in music the capricious vagaries of a bright and happy dream, in which a host of dainty, fairy-like figures, all luminous color and swift motion, appear and disappear, floating, circling, flashing hither and thither, as in some playful dance of the sprites.

The middle movement in chords brings a startling contrast, slow, sombre and impressive. It seems to indicate the moment when the sleeper half awakes and gazes about his darkened room in vain search for the bright visions that have haunted his slumbers. But soon he realizes the situation and you can almost hear him say to himself, “I’ve been dreaming.” Then he settles quietly back again and little by little the dream god reasserts his sway.

This is a fine study for the fourth and fifth fingers of the right hand, and as such may be used by students, but it requires extreme flexibility, delicacy and speed, to make it effective as a program number. In fact, it is one of the most difficult things of its size in all piano literature.


The most famous and, in some respects, the best of this whole group is the Warum? (Why?). It is very brief, very intense, supremely beautiful and technically very easy; a lyric of the warm, impassioned type, expressing the question which the name implies, with an undertone of sorrowful pleading and restless longing more fully and forcibly than is elsewhere to be found in music.

It was inspired by and written for and to his beloved Clara, in the days of alternate hope and doubt and torturing uncertainty before their engagement. In those early days Schumann was an obscure but aspiring student at Leipsic, and already a composer of promise, but no prominence as yet, and of most meagre income. Through his piano lessons of Prof. Wieck, then the leading teacher in Europe, and consequent intimacy in that family, he had fallen desperately in love with the Professor’s daughter, Clara, who, though still very young, was already recognized as the first lady pianist of her time, and had won fame and success in all the musical centres of the old world. She was an artist of prominence, he an unknown student, and quite naturally the proud father decidedly opposed his suit, though Clara seems to have favored it from the first. The marriage finally took place in 1840, after five years of love, courtship and struggle, during which period most of Schumann’s leading pianoforte works, including the one in question, were written. He himself confesses that they reveal and depict much of the personal experiences and feelings of his long and agitated courtship.

So much is fact. The following legend is afloat concerning this particular composition, which seems to be borne out by the internal evidence of the music and has at least all the probabilities in its favor, though I cannot vouch for its accuracy:

One evening Schumann, having been most rudely repulsed by the irate Professor, in fact, shown the door and requested not to re-enter it in most unequivocal terms, wandered away humiliated and disconsolate to one of the many beer saloons where students congregated. He sat him down in an obscure corner at a soiled, drink-stained table. A wine card lay before him and soon he began to pencil lines on the back of it, later notes upon the lines, and there, amid those vulgar surroundings, this perfect gem of purest art was born. It is the questioning cry of a soul, conscious at once of its own power and future possibilities, and of its present pain and piteous helplessness, and is singularly free from the bitterness and anger that might have been expected under the circumstances. Next morning the card was sent to Clara, as a protest and an appeal in language which she as none other would understand.

Their marriage was an unusually happy one till darkened by the great and growing shadow of his developing insanity and ended by the tragedy of his death. The noble woman, who devotedly returned his affection, shared his life and labors, interpreted and edited his works, finally lived to be chiefly known, to fame, not as Clara Wieck, the celebrated pianist, but as the wife of the great composer, Robert Schumann.


One more of the set deserves special attention, the Grillen, usually translated “Whims.” It is, indeed, a most whimsical, capricious composition, full of surprises and abrupt contrasts, of odd harmonies, unexpected modulations and particularly of fantastic rhythms.

The opening subject, in chords, with its startling, seemingly misplaced accents, recalls the swing of the gavotte and suggests a jolly but clumsy country dance, while the exceptionally poetic and attractive trio theme affords a most effective contrast, like the motive of kobold and fairy.

The work as a whole, both in conception and execution, reminds us strongly of one of those fantastic sketches by Hartmann, entitled “Dreams,” much read in Schumann’s time, by which it was very possibly suggested. I refer to the one in which a rather bombastic, would-be poet of that day, whose imperfect verse showed a decided tendency to limp, was satirized in the person of a particularly grotesque Earth-Giant, with one leg much shorter than the other, making his clumsy advances to the muse of poesy. The jocose humor of the conceit would readily appeal to Schumann, for though wholly lacking, as are all Germans, in the sparkle of true wit, he was quite given in certain moods to a sort of broad drollery.

Ende des Lieds.

The last of the series bears a somewhat curious title, Ende des Lieds, which we should translate the “End of the Song.” This phrase is a common conversational idiom in Germany, signifying the close of a story or experience, just as “Once upon a time” is our stock phrase in English for beginning such. Indeed, anything brought to a finish, an anecdote, an argument, a yarn, a joke, is dismissed with the words, “and that is the end of the song.”

One cannot help feeling that it would have been better in this case if the song had ended before this last verse had been written. For the composition so designated contains little of the originality and power usually so plentiful in Schumann’s works, in fact, seems rather trivial and commonplace and is rarely played with good reason.


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You are reading Schumann's Fantasy Pieces, Opus 12 from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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