Schumann: 'Scenes from Childhood,' Opus 15
Chopin: Fantasy in F Minor, Opus 49
James Boyk's program notes for Performance Recordings® album pr-2
Copyright © James Boyk 1980, 1998. All rights reserved.
SCENES FROM CHILDHOOD has a romantic, sentimental tone uncharacteristic of children. Schumann ends almost all of the scenes on weak beats, giving them the soft edges of vignette photos in a scrapbook, and helping to give the work a reflective, musing quality which the more active moments emphasize rather than contradict. Taken together, these things make me feel that the work is less "scenes from childhood" than "scenes from an adult's view of childhood."
Of Strange Lands and Peoples is familiar. The near-stop in the middle establishes the mood of the whole suite, reflectiveness underlying apparently straightforward activity. Curious Story is curious for its unexpected accents and the headlong quality caused by parallel motion of the voices. In Tag, one can hear the moment of stasis as the children take stock of where they are, then the running.
I imagine Pleading Child as a dialogue. It begins with the child saying, "I don't want to go to bed," and his mother answering, "You must go to bed, my dear." The listener will notice that the melody is related to that of the first scene. Schumann calls for Perfectly Contented to be repeated, but pianists commonly ignore this instruction. By doing so, they miss hearing the delicious elaboration of contentment provided by the very first note heard against the very last chord.
Important Event is a child's idea of one. I hear and see him at the keyboard, banging out the opening four bars, hesitating a moment, then meeting the dramatic necessity of continuing by simply repeating the phrase an octave lower. In the middle, intentionally coarse chords emphasize the naiveté of the piece. Actual banging or coarse playing would prevent the integration of this piece into the suite. One must just give the impression.
The accompaniment chord following the first two melody notes of Reverie hints at an imitation of that melody. Its gentle syncopation keeps the piece moving, and it turns into real imitation later. The listener may notice that the very first melody note gets shorter each time it appears until strategically reacquiring its full value for its last appearance.
By the Fireside opens with the same musical material as Reverie, but up-tempo and with the syncopation now obvious. Perhaps the volatile melody and the unexpected accents will remind the listener of the flickering of flames and the crackling and dropping of logs. Knight of the Rocking Horse does seem to me a perfect representation in musical energy of the physical energy of a child on a rocking horse. Each rhythmic unit represents a single "rock" forward or back, ending with the static moment in which direction is reversed. One can even hear the child adding "oomph" to the motion.
Each phrase of Almost Too Serious ends in the most up-in-the-air way possible, harmonically speaking, like an overserious and querulous child. The frightening part of Frightening may be the loud middle section, the running third phrase, or the chords opening the second phrase. Or perhaps it is the obsessive repetition of the opening phrase itself, heard five times in all. Similarly hypnotic and obsessive is Child Falling Asleep, which ends harmonically incomplete: The child has dropped off before the end of the story.
Finally, The Poet Speaks; its opening chorale texture and fantastic, free middle section are unique in the suite. The final chord lasts even longer than the last chord of Reverie. While it lasts, I listen back over all the scenes. I hold the chord until I can almost not hear it above the background noise in the hall. I do not want to stop playing.
Chopin's FANTASY is as personal a work as SCENES FROM CHILDHOOD, but it is dramatic and large-scale where the Schumann is small-scale and intimate. This difference is apparent from the very first two notes of the FANTASY. They are soft yet gripping in their drama, partly because Chopin specifies that they are to be played staccato, that is, short and separated. For some reason, many pianists ignore the staccato markings in the score. They play these first two notes like the succeeding note-groups, and throw away half the dramatic impact.
For the whole introductory section of the FANTASY, Chopin calls for "march tempo." The section ends in wonderful broken chords where potential energy becomes kinetic in a tempo doubling. Here is where the interpreter learns that the opening must be a funeral march, not a quick march. Doubling the tempo would otherwise put the piano into orbit from the sheer velocity of playing.
Now comes the long main section of dark, passionate, and wide-ranging melody; to a listener of my generation, it threatens incongruously at one point to turn into comedian Jack Benny's theme-song, Love in Bloom. The climax comes in a quick march in which the built-up energy is released through rhythmic verve instead of loudness. Perhaps more energy is released than was built up; for when the main section comes again, it is a tone lower than before, and ends with broken chords simply running themselves out. They are followed by the slow centerpiece which looks, to the score-reader's eye, too short to have any weight.
Chopin knows what he is doing, however. The slow section is just long enough for the listener to recover his breath and for the listener's nervous system to recover maximum sensitivity for the shock of the way the passage ends. An obviously penultimate soft chord sustains itself and is loudly interrupted by the third appearance of the main section. Various elaborations---octaves instead of single notes, and so on---intensify the feeling; and when the climaxing march comes this time, it has both verve and volume.
So great is the intensity that when the march is interrupted by what threatens to be a fourth appearance of the main material, the piece dissolves into chaos. Out of this forms a loud reminder of the centerpiece, trailed by a wraithlike cadenza. What energy remains is used in a broken-chord passage like the one which preceded the centerpiece. The stunning next-to-last chord compels attention to the emotion of what would otherwise be a routine ending.