Robert Schumann – Fantasiestücke op.12

If I remember correctly, I started playing the Fantasiestücke op.12 because of one recital Murray Perrahia gave in Amsterdam. The week after I came to my piano lesson and told my teacher I need to learn it. I was 15.

Now it is funny to come back to it, because it is as if it had never disappeared: I am 10 years older, have played many pieces in between and hope I improved !
I never considered Fantasiestücke as if they were following me during my development in music. But while coming back to it I start remembering things about the time when I was playing them I would never think of, for example, one concert that I gave in the foyer of Carré (editor’s note: emblematic theatre in Amsterdam). I would never think about that concert which was not very eventful in itself, but all things like that come back.

Some general thoughts on Fantasiestücke

The Fantasiestücke are just «perfect»: there isn’t one weak movement; it doesn’t pretend to have a large form but is still has, somehow. What separates it from other pieces of Schumann is, I would say, the chamber music character it has, it is obviously intimate. Other cycles are as well, for example Kinderszenen are maybe even more, but they are as if written specifically for a drawing room. The Fantasiestücke in its entirety represent a true concert piece for me, although they might not look as such.
Schumann was apparently playing around with the order; In der Nacht, for example, was going to have a totally different place in the cycle. But there is a balance in the end: slow and fast, light and heavy pieces are alternating ; it sounds as if it comes together by coincidence, maybe also because we know Schumann was trying different orders. It is as if he was not planning to write a big cycle and still ended up doing so.
I find it perfect that In der Nacht doesn’t go immediately to Traumes Wirren but has Fabel in between. Before that you have Warum and Grillen which are in the same key despite the minor color at the beginning of Grillen. After the latter there is a break in the global form, it is the half of the piece: In der Nacht seems to me as a departure from what has been, although this is very subjective. But for me this is where the climate changes from being still a light-hearted piece to not at all. Then Fabel is seemingly nice but the mood is never completely cleared. And in Ende vom Lied even less so…

About performing Fantasiestücke

I would love to say that when I play the first note I am already thinking about the last. I am more looking forward to surprise myself when I start playing.
For instance I have tried to wait between Grillen and In der Nacht, but it doesn’t work: the beginning of In der Nacht is like a shock, so when it starts without being calculated I know it works better.
However I am not sure whether I thought about this connection in the practice room or is it something I found on stage. I would say I can rely on the fact that what I feel is what the audience might feel, then I see and can say what « works ». And I definitely noticed that with this big break between Grillen and In der Nacht, the latter can sound just like another piece in F minor.

I try to leave things « open », and what I have noticed from playing Schumann’s Carnaval a few times in a row is that one learns, throughout performances, about certain phrasings and inflections.
But as accidents happen, they open up something that makes one see the piece in a completely different light. One note could come out too loud and you would have to adjust all of what comes after. A whole set of possibilities is changed. And because you have to solve this, it gives you an insight that you could not think about with rational practicing. Maybe on a piano which doesn’t allow it, you are not going to try and risk so much, but this is a practical side.

Some of those things that happen in performance I try to remember and reproduce again. A Beethoven Sonata doesn’t leave much to chance ; one has to have a concept and go for it, and it is already so much to do. With Schumann I feel it is different – I feel really free when I play his music. I try to understand how much I can be, because this is of course different for everyone. Everyone has also his own complex – indeed I could not possibly stand that someone would say my playing is boring. I prefer someone to say it is outrageous, and stupid and exaggerated, but not that I played notes and looked satisfied with this fact. Perhaps this translates in my way of playing and I can do too much, but I try to balance it.

It is such a cliché to say it, but with Schumann one wants to feel on the edge of what is possible to achieve. Carnaval is like a weird dream. But the dream of someone who would wake up and see actual people, or figures of people showing up in the real world ; what are Chopin, Clara, Ernestine doing in a carnival ? It is simply too crazy to be a simple depiction of a German or Venetian carnival! You cannot just make it square as you play.
In this sense the Fantasiestücke give maybe more freedom to imagine what is behind the pieces.

I really like performing one work multiple times. With repetition, everything becomes more interesting. The level of comfort one develops on stage doesn’t resemble anything one reaches in a practice room.
So how does the balance work between this level of « insanity » demanded by Schumann’s music and the routine of playing it many times ? I guess one has to suggest this more than actually be « insane » . Once you repeat a piece, maybe it becomes less difficult, but the effect of it on the audience could be the same, while for the performer it becomes more pleasant. I would say the highest form of pianistic communication is just feeling completely at ease with the material while what it is expressing is this insanity.
I really dislike it when one reduces the contrasts between slow and fast pieces of Schumann to a clear separation between Florestan and Eusebius, although it is true in many ways; but they also often appear together in one piece.
Furthermore, In der Nacht has a program, which Schumann added after writing the piece, related to the Greek myth of Hero and Leander. This could mean that every piece can have its own program.
Although it is a fact Schumann was obsessed with literature, wanted to be a writer himself, gave titles to his pieces and attributed to each of them one of his alter egos, and so on, but in my opinion the music is still free from the title, as the example of In der Nacht proves it. One can maybe get closer to the « truth » through the title, but fixing a program on top of it can be suffocating.
In that respect, Warum also makes me think about the bigger « Why », not so much through the eyes of one character. It is there, obviously, in the harmonies : it starts on the dominant, of a dominant, then only comes the tonic, but the main voice lands so heavily on the 3rd that it doesn’t feel stable at all. There is no end in this piece, it leaves you with a question mark.
But this is where one can say with certainty what it represents, however I would say that one shouldn’t go much further than that.

A little about each of the Fantasiestücke

Des Abends
The challenge is to get one single line in this peculiar atmosphere – it should be smooth and at the same time speak. I am not sure Des Abends can be an encore, so strong is its overture connotation.
I find it already fascinating that in the very first bars it is just written « Pedal » – and that’s it! There are not so many dynamic markings. There is this obvious rhythmical ambiguity which you can choose to emphasize or not, and it doesn’t really seem that one is right or wrong, you could also choose while you play. You have a repeat which you can do or not following your taste, and change to a more « subtle » way of playing or…

It is difficult to have it agitated but also not to lose yourself in this agitation. Bring out the theme in the lower voice, played with the thumb throughout the piece. Be as passionate as one can be but not ruining it, because here an accident happens easily. Heinrich Neuhaus speaks about the distinction between what is a technical difficulty versus a piece’s “content”: if someone misses all the jumps in Paganini from Carnaval, does this piece lose all of its « content »? What the audience considers a technically difficult piece is more than the outer shape of it, and a slow piece can be as technically difficult as something else.

In Warum every little phrase should be resembling someone who sings, every note should be different from the other, as in every one note has to be played with intention, with substance, one has to manage all these micro nuances. For me it is also about not becoming rigid and loud. Warum is totally different from Des Abends. The latter is about painting a picture, or sound painting, like a Debussy Prelude ; Warum is related to speaking and singing, speech, it is definitely a Lied, with its characteristic 6th jump in which one can hear the question «Warum?».

This word exists in Dutch as well, also as an adjective – funnily enough I was once mentioned in a review as the « grillige Van Poucke » ! – it means you are doing strange, sudden jokes ; the indication is already « mit Humor », and the piece comes up with sudden changes ; one can hear simple good spirit in the main theme, but the next section (from bar 17), is already as if more sneaky. One shouldn’t probably get stuck in the spirit of the first phrase, and make it sound Teutonic all the way through. It is also a bit clumsy.
But someone who is « grillig » also defines someone one cannot trust – a flighty nature. This is for me represented in the middle section of the piece with its contrasting short articulated phrases.
I also don’t want to choose if this piece is a depiction of someone like this or actually the direct speech of that person.

In der Nacht
There are the voice layers one has to make audible ; one has to feel as if everything was haunted, and totally unpredictable. I actually aim to create a certain mystical haunted atmosphere ; for example this could be achieved with playing the beginning extremely soft and make only the bass F really sound. A mysteriously difficult passage is the recurring descent in the left hand with the possible special fingering 1-2/1-2/1-2 etc.

I would say I cannot consider it a difficult piece, nor very deep ; I had to think what the middle part represents, but it could be a classic hunter scene, like in the « Jäger auf der Lauer » from the Waldszenen ; I try to separate the « narrator ‘s » speech from the rest. Somehow this piece is, so to speak, very well made for performing. In those slow inputs I try to follow the inner lines as much as the top voice, so that all have some life. Those introductory phrases really make you feel as if you were reading to your kids : “once upon a time”…
But, as light as it may sound, after having heard something as haunting as In der Nacht, a simple fable like that – you cannot trust it. It is a happy piece to me, but in regard to the whole set, a happy story is a memory and is always connected with it being over, and dead…
Although it is something on the top, the whole cycle narrative puts it in a certain light.

Traumes Wirren
Definitely the most difficult piece of the set. It’s always a balance between wrist and finger work. One can get tired already in the first pages, but I guess once you have the key the difficulty is way less of a one. It is hard to start ; one cannot feel completely safe; maybe one tip would be to imagine the beginning with a slight rubato without actually doing it.
One should not make an etude out of the piece, it should sound like a vision. The middle section makes it even clearer that it is about « weird » dreams, it is a home that feels odd.
Speaking of difficulty, does one really should play without any single mistake? Is it possible even? When a musician like Sokolov, Richter or Horowitz plays a wrong note, the message is coming across shining through, the narrative is always there, the vision of the music is so directed that it is always clear what they have to say.

Ende vom Lied
The first theme gives already a feeling of « this is it ». It is of course very subjective and I would avoid as much labeling as possible, but especially the middle part feels like an epic journey that has to be done and cannot end well, a depart for a battle although knowing well enough it is lost in advance.
This piece is repeating a lot, can almost feel long, as it is in fact based “only” on chords. With a material which seems to be uniform, one has to create some kind of variety, not only with a plan. I would always try to find something new, spontaneously, since this piece sounds easily loud and boring.
But the fact that there are also written repeats make me think this piece has to be a bit tiring for the audience: if that magnificent coda came too soon, it would not sound as much of a relief as it does after all of the preceding music. This coda ties the whole cycle together.

Where to position Schumann and afterthoughts

Romantics have an obsession with the dream, with what it represents of the supernatural and the mystical, with the night and the darkness as romantic symbols. I hear Chopin pieces as if they were coming from a dream – a striking example in that sense would be his Polonaise-Fantaisie.
But Schumann is so much more connected to the literary world. Take the example of E.T.A Hoffman’s “The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr”: the book is entirely written from the point of view of a cat. In the introduction written by the author, the latter is apologizing for the bad writing of the cat. Moreover, there is a list of words that, as a matter of fact, mean something else than their original definition ; and finally, as the cat was delivering the first version to the publisher, some other leaves seemed to have fallen into the book, and these are forming the biography of the musician Johannes Kreisler, which will inspire Schumann’s Kreisleriana.
Those kind of crazy visions, absurd, are closely connected to Schumann’s music and one should be a bit familiar with this literary world to stimulate the musical fantasy.
Changing the rhythm of language purposefully, as a matter of style, as would do Jean Paul or E.T.A Hoffmann, is something Schumann could have tried to emulate in his music ; the constant use of irregular phrase structures, for example, is thus easily often related to the composer’s mental health, although it must have been for the purpose of exploring a new musical language.
I relate a lot Schumann’s piano writing to late Beethoven, with its complex contrapuntal life.

Fantasiestücke seem to me such a powerful piece, with its last three lines nailing it all down. I cannot explain why does it have maybe a less popular reputation than some other pieces of Schumann, such as the Kreisleriana or the Symphonic Etudes.
Pianists of the past would play only some of the Fantasiestücke and not the complete cycle, just as no pianist has performed Chopin’s Préludes in their entirety during his lifetime, but nowadays are hardly heard apart.
In the past there were maybe strong ideas about what is good music and what is not, there were clear boundaries defining the quality of an artwork, whereas now basically anything can be considered as a piece of art. Generally, there is less criticism, actually a big part of the audience and reviewers would not differentiate Fantasiestücke from Carnaval
But thanks to that, perhaps, a piece which hasn’t been considered worth being performed in a cycle has now totally its place in our concert life.

If I had to name just a few pianists to listen to, those would be Cortot, Michelangeli, Rubinstein, Gilels, Horowitz.

Based on recorded conversation between Nicolas van Poucke and Nathalia Milstein

MuziekHaven, Zaandam (Netherlands), August 2020