Schumann: Fantasy in C major, Opus 17

Frustration played a substantial role in Robert Schumann’s piano compositions of the 1830s. The source of that frustration was Clara Wieck, the teenaged piano prodigy with whom Robert (1810-56) was deeply in love—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Clara’s father Friedrich was the prime mover of Robert’s vexation, given Wieck’s adamant opposition to any union between his treasured daughter and an apparently ne’er-do-well artistic upstart.

It was true enough that Schumann didn’t have all that much to show for himself as of 1836. A dreamer rather than a doer, he had originally resolved to marry money and thereby sidestep the unpleasantness of making a living. That didn’t work out. He remained single and without significant prospects, although he had launched himself as an up-and-coming musical journalist and had composed a bevy of startlingly inventive piano works. Nor would his situation improve over the next few years; in 1839 he was to hobble back to Leipzig after a failed attempt to set up shop in Vienna.

Thus, Friedrich Wieck’s parental opposition was understandable, however reprehensible the legal skullduggery by which he sought to thwart Robert and Clara’s aspirations. It all came to naught when Clara reached the age of consent and the two were married on September 12, 1840. They were to become the First Couple of European music, lauded and admired, but as of the writing of the Fantasy in C major that destiny was still a good ways off.

On March 17, 1838 Robert wrote Clara: “I think it is more impassioned than anything I have ever written—a deep lament for you.” He was referring to Ruines, a single-movement piece from 1836 bewailing his enforced separation from Clara. Ruines might have gone no further, but later in 1836 Schumann conceived of adding two more movements as a fundraising strategy for a Beethoven monument in Bonn. He suggested to the minor-league publisher Kirstner that 100 copies of his verbosely titled Obolen auf Beethovens Monument: Ruinen, Trophaen, Palmen could be sold to raise money. Kirstner demurred. So did the much better-known publisher Tobias Haslinger. Eventually Schumann placed it with the august firm of Breitkopf & Härtel, which released it as the Fantasy in C major, Opus 17, dedicated to über-virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt.

Breitkopf axed the fanciful movement titles, but Schumann—that most literary of composers— wasn’t about to release it without a poetic header, from Schlegel:

Resounding through all the notes
In the earth’s colorful dream
There sounds a faint long-drawn note For the one who listens in secret.

Was Clara the “note”? Robert dropped a hint to that effect, but stopped short of acknowledging the reference altogether. Given Schumann’s penchant for extra-musical imagery and extrapolation, it’s not farfetched to suppose that at least some of the Fantasy’s themes suggested Clara to him, such as the allusion to Beethoven’s “distant beloved” of An die ferne Geliebte near the end of the first movement.

Whatever its sources and inspirations, the completed Fantasy stands as a landmark of Romantic piano literature. Not really a sonata, but tolerably masquerading as one, it follows its own private blueprint, in some places seemingly stream-of-consciousness, in others relatively structured and planned through. To be sure, there’s more than a hint of classical sonata-allegro form in the first movement, but no sonata movement before or since has shown such a freewheeling disregard for the niceties of established key centers, structural modulations, and developmental gambits. To approach the movement expecting Beethovenian rigor is to be sorely disappointed, but to treat it for what it is—a fluid outpouring of emotion and sonic vision—is to revel in its superabundance of imagination.

If the opening Durchaus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen (With fantasy and passion throughout) is an unfettered cascade requiring the utmost in a pianists’ imagination, the second-place Mässig–Durchaus energisch (In moderate tempo. Energetically throughout) is a sturdy march that requires the utmost in a pianists’ muscular control. Cast in classical rondo form, in which multiple iterations of a self-contained reprise alternate with contrasting episodes, the march features sustained passages of simultaneous leaps in both hands that demand not only physical stamina but inerrant marksmanship.

Then comes the introverted luminosity of the third movement, slow and meditative, a dreamscape in suspended time. Even its underlying key structure is introspective, dropping steadily by thirds until resuming the original C major for its otherworldly final statements.

The Fantasy was not an immediate success. Dedicatee Franz Liszt, one of the few pianists of the day with the technique to handle the second movement’s daunting challenges, declined to play the work in public although he did teach it to his students, thereby ensuring its persistence down the generations. Even Clara Schumann refrained from playing the Fantasy until well after Robert’s death.—Scott Foglesong

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