Schumann: Four Sketches, Opus 58
In 1845 Clara Schumann remarked in her diary: “On 24 April we received on loan a pedalboard for beneath the piano, which has given us much pleasure. Its primary purpose was to enable us to practice our organ playing, but Robert soon discovered a further interest in this instrument.” The pedal-piano, now something of an anomaly, was popular for a time in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The instrument featured a pedal board like that of an organ so that the keyboardist could play bass notes with the feet. Schumann’s further interest in the instrument was engendered by his overall passion for Baroque counterpoint, and particularly the great organ works of J.S. Bach, to which he and Clara devoted themselves with single-minded intensity.
Contrary to received opinion, Schumann (1810-56) knew the organ well and had studied it on and off since his salad days. “Lose no opportunity of practicing on the organ,” he wrote in 1850. “There is no other instrument that takes a swifter revenge on anything unclear or sloppy in composition or playing.”
Schumann’s catalog features two sets of short pieces for pedal piano (Six Studies in Canonic Form, Opus 56, and Four Sketches, Opus 58) and the better-known Six Fugues on the Name B.A.C.H., Opus 60, which could also be played on pedal piano. Whereas the Opus 60 fugues have been subjected to more than their fair share of critical drubbing over the years—most of the carping being about perceived shortcomings in Schumann’s contrapuntal abilities—the Opus 58 Sketches have been largely left spared from commentarial disrespect.
The first two sketches share a tempo marking (Not fast and very marked), a meter (triple), and an overall style (ceremonious). However, the first sketch is in minor mode while the second is in major. And whereas the opening sketch maintains its overall pomp throughout, the second allows for an ingratiating middle section that could have stepped right out of a Schumann piano work of the Romances or Carnaval stripe.
The third-place (Lively) is the longest of the sketches, cast in Schumann’s favorite three-part form. Paired instances of an extroverted, dancelike passage in minor mode flank an introverted and lyrical major-mode episode, albeit with fleeting references back to the original extroversion. The concluding Allegretto opens with rhythms similar to the previous movement, now more kittenish than muscular, playful and lighthearted.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.