English Blog

Robert Schumann “Humoreske” Op. 20 5/30/19

May 30, 2019

My affection to Schumann’s music continues. Now it is Humoreske, Op. 20. The music of Humoreske is very organic to me. The music flows so naturally that I often forget it is a lengthy cycle. Schumann tells his Belgian music-lover friend that the word “Humoreske” is hard to translate to French. He said it is a combination of gemütlich (cozy) and witzig (witty). I wish I understand German to feel this word.., but not. So I asked my German friend as well. So it is more like “wit” as Schumann said. Of course Schumann was deeply in love with Clara at that time so I would take it as “romantic wit”! Schumann characterised his work “Humoreske” as “not merry, and perhaps the more melancholy” to Ernest Adolph Becker. But most important document is his letter to Clara describing his new work on 11 March. 1839. “I have been at the piano all week, composing, writing, laughing and crying all at once. You will find this state of affairs nicely evoked in my opus 20, the big Humoreske, which is about to be engraved. You see how fast things are going with me now..” Also he writes “I have been rhapsodizing about you and have thought of you with a love such as I have never experienced before.” At the time they were separated and they communicated through their music and letters. It was about a year and a half to their wedding.

I don’t need to be a detective to find their secret messages or traits (bread crumbs!) in their compositions, but it is intriguing to think about it. They are Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann! They don’t leave anything so obvious otherwise it is not fun to give their secret messages each other. They wanted the other person to smile when they find secret messages! But here are some obvious ones to me. For instance if you play Clara’s Romance op. 11 (dedicated to Robert), which was written at the similar time as “Humoreske”, we can find similarities. m. 322 – in Humoreske is resemble to m. 101 in Romance Op. 11 No. 2. And Clara uses B flat major – G flat major modulation frequently and sure enough Robert does it in his Humoreske too! I believe Clara wrote her Romance op. 11, intending for French audience, and this French (!) melancholy in Romance can be found in “Humoreske” as well.

“Humoreske” has 7 movements in my opinion. The 1st movement starts heavenly. Schumann was a great song writer and this opening shows his future (1840 is his song year)! I am not sure, but it seems to me he was inspired to write his amazingly beautiful songs from his piano works. In this 1st movement when it is in G flat major a right hand and a left hand sing a love duet beautifully in pp (this is Clara’s modulation). From m. 37 Clara’s image is dancing in his mind and she is calling his name with affection. M. 88 – we start to hear note C with accent for many times. C is Clara’s initial! Then here comes Robert with his big pride at m. 105. His music always has this kind of “pride” moment. Then there are imaginary chases (between Clara and Robert) and the movement finishes with the opening melody. In the 2nd movement Robert is more anxious. He can’t hold his emotion. Inner voice is written out, showing long phrases, but the feeling is hasting. Clara, don’t tease me! M. 275, again Robert’s pride comes in. M. 289 – His anxiousness starts again! The right hand is “out of tempo” and the left hand keeps in tempo. The tempo is getting faster and faster, and the material from Clara’s Romance puts brakes on his anxiousness at m. 322. If you know Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6 there are 12 repeated low Cs at the end of the piece to indicate their wedding day “polterabend”. Here are two phrase of 6 repeated notes (m. 322- and m. 330-) and it could be the indication as well?? This segment finishes with triumphant attitude! M. 358 – the humorous chase between 2 hands starts, but at m. 408 2 hands become homophonic, and they sing chorale. Then the chorale will be sung in the far distance in m. 447-. It is a timeless moment. The opening theme comes back to conclude this movement. The beginning of the 3rd movement is a melancholic song with a duet in the middle section. But in the next section at m. 549 – unexpectedly we encounter with a subject of the fugue section of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata. I bet Schumann was walking pass Clara’s house one day and heard her practicing Hammerklavier. She was performing Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata at that time, but not Hammerklavier yet. She started to perform it in 1850’s. So I can imagine she was trying to figure out this difficult sonata, and Robert wanted to tell her he heard her playing. Isn’t it a good guess? Interestingly Schumann uses many B-flat with sf signs on top of this subject, like a bell, showing Clara’s initial in B-flat major key (again my imagination!). The 4th movement is a lovely song, but he inserts a scherzo, like his song “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube”! The mood shifts quickly. The 5th movement has a lot of humor, wit and charm. It is a technical movement, but really fun to play. I often enjoy too much and lose my memory! Alas! The pretentious character from Shakespeare enters in the 6th movement. But at m. 854 Schumann tells us that fooling around is over. The last movement is just beautiful. Schumann tells us “If I am with Clara everything is beautiful.” His voice gets softer and sweeter, they sing a love song together.. but suddenly m. 952 (few measure to the end) the chromatic melody appears with f, resembling to Clara’s Romance No. 2 m. 5-. What does it mean? Clara may have told Robert “Your piece often finishes softly. Isn’t it more exciting to finish with big sound?” I don’t know.

Humoreske gives us an opportunity to create stories and imaginations! I will perform Humoreske for several occasions and plan to record it in the fall.