Program Notes

Yefim Bronfman in Recital 

Robert Schumann's Vienna Winter
Schumann: Arabesque in C major, Opus 18
Schumann: Humoreske in B-flat major, Opus 20
Debussy: Suite bergamasque No. 3 in D-flat major
Prokofiev: Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major for Piano, Opus 83

Robert Schumann’s Vienna Winter

For Robert Schumann (1810–56) love and madness were constant preoccupations, the first a lifelong joy, the second a lifelong fear that eventually, and tragically, came to pass. In the winter of 1838–39 it was love that filled Schumann’s mind and heart; that, and frustration over his beloved Clara’s father (and Robert’s teacher) Friedrich Wieck, whose determination to quash a courtship he viewed as utterly unsuitable had hardened into unyielding resistance, thundering condemnations, and persistent attempts at sabotage. Wieck’s disapproval was based, at least in part, on Robert’s meager income and unlikely prospects for advancement.

Thus, Schumann had left Leipzig to try his fortunes in Vienna, where he hoped to relocate his budding music journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and achieve at least a modicum of financial respectability. “You’ll regret ever having come here,” said publisher Tobias Haslinger. He was right. Unable to navigate Vienna’s toxic combination of censorship and intransigent bureaucracy, Robert was back in Leipzig by April 1839.

But he was not empty-handed. He had composed a bouquet of fine keyboard works during his Vienna sojourn, among them the exquisite Arabesque in C major, Opus 18 and the startlingly original Humoreske in B-flat major, Opus 20, both written with Clara’s sterling pianism in mind (even if both bore dedications to others).                    

For those who are curious about how things worked out: Once Clara came of age she and Robert were married—amid a typhoon of resistance from Wieck—and soon became the First Couple of European music, she as one of the finest pianists of the age and he as, well, Robert Schumann. 

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Schumann: Arabesque in C major, Opus 18

The title “Arabesque” has become so familiar in keyboard music that it’s worth remembering that Schumann was the first to write a piece so named. “The picture becomes the painter’s music, the musician puts the paintings to music … The esthetics of one kind of art is that of another; only the material is different” wrote Schumann in the guise of his favorite literary alter egos the hyperbolic Eusebius and meditative Florestan. That said, Schumann dismissed the Arabesque as a lightweight trifle written for money rather than artistic satisfaction.

Nevertheless, the Arabesque marks an important milestone in Schumann’s compositional career as he introduced a new subtlety and grace into his idiom while resisting the limpid salon style so in vogue at the time. Cast in a five-part rondo form, the Arabesque consists of three iterations of a reprise interleaved with two contrasting episodes, the whole capped off by an unexpectedly dreamy coda that might remind listeners of Schumann’s song cycles yet to come. The reprise itself is in a basic three-part form, as a primary phrase in the home key flanks a central section that hints at a slightly melancholic minor mode, the whole characterized by rippling pianistic figurations that ornament, without hiding, a gently bouncing melody. The first episode is a songlike affair, characterized by long silky phrases in flowing rhythm, while the second suggests a march in its dotted rhythms underlaying a sturdy theme. 

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Schumann: Humoreske in B-flat major, Opus 20

Schumann wrote to Clara Wieck from Vienna on March 11, 1839: “The whole week I have been sitting at the piano, composing and writing, laughing and crying all at once. All this you will find nicely portrayed in my Opus 20, the grand Humoreske, which is also about to be engraved. You see, that’s how quickly things go with me: conceived, written out, and printed. And that’s how I like it.”

Subtle, innovative, elusive, and heartfelt, the Humoreske is leagues removed from the popular salon trifles of its day. It is all the more rewarding for its mysteries, challenges, and beauties. Consider the second section marked Hastig (hastily), written on three staves instead of the usual two. The uppermost is intended for the right hand, and the lowest is for the left. No surprises there. But what about the staff in the middle? Schumann marks it as innere Stimme (inner voice), and it is not to be played: “both interior and inward, a double sense calculated by the composer: a voice between soprano and bass, it is also an inner voice that is never exteriorized. It has its being within the mind and its existence only through its echo” writes Charles Rosen. In other words, that inner staff is heard in the mind—not only the mind of the performer, but also by the listener as a ghostly presence that emerges from the combined figurations of right and left hands.

There’s no easy label to apply to the Humoreske’s form, and indeed some commentators have even questioned whether it has a coherent structure at all. Overall it’s best described as a cycle of shorter pieces unified into a larger whole, but without the intervening breaks typical of other Schumann cycles such as Carnaval or Kreisleriana. Each of its sections, plus epilogue, is given a tempo/character marking, some of which are Schumann favorites such as Einfach (simply) and Innig (inwardly), but others range far and wide, such as the altogether tongue-in-cheek Mit einigem Pomp (with a certain pomposity). All along the way, darting changes in mood—sometimes ricocheting from one extreme to another—keep the listener alert, intrigued, and perhaps a bit unmoored. Clearly, Schumann’s title Humoreske was no idle whim. He was conjuring up moods (humors), thwarting expectations, and defying conventions—all to be expected from a composer for whom playing it safe was never an option. 

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Debussy: Suite bergamasque

Among the pleasures of hearing Suite bergamasque is the opportunity to encounter the ubiquitous Clair de lune in its natural habitat, freed from the drawing-room langueurs of old-time Hollywood weepies. Heard thus, it is revealed as the slow movement of a four-part suite that takes its inspiration from Baroque dances, honoring the noble keyboard achievements of the past while avoiding mere imitation or awkward pastiche.

Suite bergamasque is an early work; Claude Debussy (1862-1918) began working on it around 1890, when his career prospects were as yet a bit murky. He took his original impetus from Verlaine’s 1869 poetry collection Fêtes galantes, itself inspired by painters such as Watteau who provided the visual complement of the “galant” style of eighteenth-century music. “Your soul is a delicate landscape/Where roam charming masques and bergamasques/Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost/Sad under their whimsical disguises,” writes Verlaine in the poem “Clair de lune.” (One can imagine those taffeta phrases uttered by a silken courtier to his alabaster lady amid one of Watteau’s etheral landscapes.)

By the turn of the twentieth century Debussy had morphed into a radical adventurer whose influence changed the course of modern music. It would seem that he came to think poorly of his early suite and resisted its publication; only after substantial revisions (and perhaps some strong-arming by his publisher) did he allow it to reach print in 1905.

The flowing rhythms and noble lyricism set the antiquarian tone of the opening Prelude. It might seem more Chopin than Bach—but it’s worth remembering that Chopin modeled his own Preludes on those in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; thus Debussy’s homage is perhaps twofold, honoring two of his most distinguished predecessors. A second-place Minuet is cast in surprisingly jumpy rhythms, atypical for this once-ubiquitous dance. Eventually it tapers off into wistfulness—with a whiff of melancholy—before wafting off in a quietly dazzling upwards gesture to a hushed close.

Then comes Clair de lune, at first so seemingly out of place amid all these eighteenth-century dances. Upon closer inspection, however, it fits right into place as the “sarabande” of innumerable Baroque dance suites—a slow dance in triple meter with a slight emphasis on the second beat of the measure. Originally titled “Promenade sentimentale,” the dignified and leisurely tableau evokes not only Verlaine’s poetry but also the elegant dancers of an earlier age. Thus it remains the standout movement of the Suite bergamasque, but now as integral component rather than charming outlier.

A gently merry “Passepied” concludes the Suite. That it was originally labeled a “Pavane” ameliorates nitpicking that the Baroque-era recipe for the passepied specifies triple meter, while Debussy has employed duple—the usual meter for a pavane. Besides, such trifling objections mean little in the presence of such infectious charm, the perfect ending for this graceful nod to a gracious past.

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Prokofiev: Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major for Piano, Opus 83

A pair of roughly contemporaneous “sevenths” speak eloquently of the cataclysmic upheaval of Germany’s invasion of Russia during World War II. One is a symphony, the other a piano sonata. Even if both had been begun by their respective composers well before the invasion, they were heard by their initial audiences as powerful expressions of the nation’s anguish and struggles during the darkest days of the war. The symphony is the Seventh (Leningrad) by Dmitri Shostakovich; the piano work is the Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Opus 83 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953).

“With this work we are brutally plunged into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance” wrote pianist Sviatoslav Richter (who premiered the Sonata). “Chaos and uncertainty reign. We see murderous forces ahead. But this does not mean that what we lived by before ceases to exist. We continue to feel and love. Now the full range of human emotions bursts forth. In the tremendous struggle that this involves, we find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life-force.”

The duality of brutality versus lyricism is threaded throughout the Sonata. The outer movements can seem downright shocking in their harshness, angularity, and dissonance—although both are also exhilarating, virtuosic, and tautly structured. The horror of mechanized warfare hovers behind the nervous, clattery rhythms of the Sonata’s opening, a supercharged march. Soon enough all that fire and brimstone gives way to a melancholic secondary theme that cools the proceedings considerably via shifting meters and a certain rhythmic fluidity. Soon the temperature begins rising, the flames are re-ignited, and the conflagration resumes. Given that the movement is cast in a loose sonata-allegro form, that lower-voltage secondary theme puts in another appearance, but is swept away by the firestorm. The movement’s quiet ending heightens, rather than alleviates, the prevailing tension.

The second movement, marked Andante caloroso, begins with an oddly misshapen waltz that gradually morphs into passionate outpouring of grief before sinking back into the resigned mood of the opening. The opening waltz-like theme is based on “Wehmut” (Sadness) by Robert Schumann, from his song cycle Liederkreis, Opus 39. Joseph Eichendorff’s text provides a clue to the movement’s overall sense of displacement and yearning: “I can sometimes sing/ as if I were glad/ yet secretly tears well/ and so free my heart.”

The finale is cast in the classical “rondo” form in which three iterations of a reprise alternate with two contrasting episodes, thus diagrammed A-B-A-C-A. But this is no Viennese Classical rondo. It’s a glitteringly propulsive toccata, or “touch” piece, marked Precipitato, that is all about the sheer heady exuberance of playing (touching) a keyboard instrument. Written in 7/8 meter—meant to be counted as 2+3+2 beats per measure—it bristles with sizzling syncopations and manic exuberance. All that breakneck energy is tempered (but not quashed) by a contrasting episode that ever-so-subtly hints at melodic materials from the first movement. Thundering chords and hammered octaves bring it all to an appropriately powerful close.

The years following World War II were not particularly kind to Prokofiev; he was to die almost impoverished in 1953, both deprecated and neglected by Stalin’s bureaucratic minions. He had been spectacularly productive during the war years—the opera War and Peace, the Second String Quartet, the score to Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, and the Fifth Symphony, among other accomplishments. The “war” piano sonatas—numbers 6, 7, and 8—hold a special place of pride, exemplars of Prokofiev’s vivid dramatic power at the peak of his career.

—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

(February 2018)

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