Schumann, the three Piano Sonatas

Programme: The three Schumann Sonatas

A survey of the three masterworks of Robert Schumann, the form of whose music lies somewhere between narrative and the sonata forms of the late Beethoven. A unique programme, at the same time internally consistent and varied.

Robert Schumann 

Sonata in F# minor, Op. 11
Introduzione. Allegro vivace
Scherzo e Intermezzo
Finale. Allegro un poco


Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 14
Scherzo. Molto comodo
Quasi Variazioni. Andantino de Clara Wieck
Prestissimo possibile

Piano Sonata in G minor, Op. 22
So rasch wie moeglich
Rondo. Presto

cdScumann Three Piano Sonatas Sonata, Op. 11 Sonata, Op. 14 Sonata, Op. 22 Music & Arts CD-1120 Buy online

  Reviews of Grante’s Schumann recordings & concerts

Italian pianist Carlo Grante is a musician of superabundant gifts. Possessing a discography of over fifty CD recordings, he is much more than a recording artist, demonstrating such thorough pianistic mastery onstage that, if his concerts were recorded straight to disc, one would be hard pressed to think of a single spot to edit. He is unflappable in the face of tremendous technical, musical, and intellectual challenges, reminding this reviewer in many ways of Marc-André Hamelin, but with a mellower persona. While Mr. Grante’s weighty program of Schumann Piano Sonatas at Alice Tully Hall perhaps precluded glimpses of the lighter showmanship aspect of Mr. Hamelin, Mr. Grante’s prodigious skills are certainly comparable, and that says a lot… One eagerly awaits his Brahms on the basis of his tremendous control, effortless technique, and keen musical mind.

Rorianne Schrade, New York Concert Review – December 2014

However, Grante proved the impossible, and not just because of a nearly full house. If I admittedly walked a reluctant “pathway” to my seat, I was completely absorbed by Grante’s “architecture”. The pianist’s interpretations have deepened and darkened since his 2007 Music and Arts CD release of all three sonatas. Grante constantly sublimated his frighteningly proficient technique toward musical ends.

A master of subtle pedal effects, Grante is not afraid to blur a chord or slightly overlap connecting notes in order to create the illusion of sliding between pitches. This allowed for Grante’s softest legato lines and disembodied diminuendos in all of the sonatas’ slow movements to truly sing and shimmer. The First Sonata’s brief second-movement Aria was particularly beautiful in this way, and even more beautiful when Grante offered it as his only encore.

Jed Distler, – December 2014

Grante seems to forego pedal unless absolutely necessary, and when he does use it, there is such a judicious and economical application that you still come away amazed at how well some of the inner lines of Schumann’s always-critical middle voices are heard.

Fanfare, USA – 2009

“Grante has acquired quite a reputation as a performer of fringe repertory blockbusters such as Godowsky and Busoni. No shrinking violet, and possessed of a huge technique, he now spreads his wings further, but maintains his penchant for completeness. While other pianists have turned their attention to one or two of these sonatas, recordings of all three are not exactly thick in the air. Grante delivers outstanding performances of charm, grace, and depth.

Not only does he embrace this music with understanding and appropriate rubato, but he has the ability to communicate his enjoyment to the listener. His pedaling is a model of restraint, and his tone is always lovely. These performances easily compete with, and sometimes surpass, ones by better-known artists.

American Record Guide – 2009

Schumann’s “narrative” piano sonatas

“I no longer think about form when I compose; I create it.”

Robert Schumann, from a letter of 1838

Of all the nineteenth-century middle-European composers, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was perhaps the most idiosyncratic. Much has been made of the influence of his “eccentricities” on his music, though these are still for the most part admired as evidence of an innovative artistic personality. Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to “Schumann’s times” as those in which the composer experienced a sort of discontinuity with the contemporary world; Theodor Adorno found in Schumann’s music, even more than in Wagner’s, elements anticipating Alban Berg’s music of nearly a century later. To be sure, Schumann’s enigmatic compositional procedures can sometimes soar into the highest reaches of Romanticism, and also sometimes implode in intricacy of structure (as modern analysis reveals). In his “Sognando il sogno” (‘Dreaming the Dream’), Roman Vlad (a follower of Adorno in many ways) unearthed hidden twelve-tone pitch sets from Schumann’s Träumerei,” whose dreaminess can be seen as comparable to Schoenberg’s pre-dodecaphonic Sechs Klavierstücke, Op.19 (1911). Interestingly, Roland Barthes used Schumann’s music as an example of the progressive deterioration of music listening in general, finding in “the musician of solitary images … an amorous and imprisoned soul that speaks to himself” – the very characteristics that led Hanslick in 1846, to dismiss Schumann’s music as too “interior and strange” to have a future. Certainly, the novels of Jean Paul Richter, at the center of Schumann’s Romantic aesthetics, are based more on the subject and his interactions with objects of everyday experience than on any abstract idea or utilitarian concept of art (in which a close connection between art and literature might be expected). In this respect, Schumann struck an original balance, upholding “art for art’s sake” with quasi-literary references, yet at the same time working mostly as a composer of non-textual music. Despite growing up in and being immersed in a literary milieu and despite the narrative elements he deliberately incorporated into his music (including formal works like sonatas), even his more “fantastical” instrumental pieces can hardly be described as tone poems. The closest aesthetic model is Jean Paul’s self-referencing sense of reality, which had a non-hedonistic, autobiographical style, full of metaphors, and a cyclical sense of time, with the subject’s direct experience at the center of the narrative. Indeed, Schumann claimed that he learned more about counterpoint by reading Jean Paul than he did by taking counterpoint classes.
Where, then, does Schumann stand as a sonata composer? It was not until 1845 that an explicit description of “sonata form” appeared in print, in The Theory of Musical Composition by the German Adolph Bernhard Marx. Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny had also written about sonata form in 1837, suggesting that he himself had been the first to describe it in detail. In 1832 Czerny had translated Anton Reicha’s Treatise on Musical Composition, which had an interesting chart outlining “large binary form” and showing, in the “exposition,” a pattern featuring main subject, second subject, and third “idea”—all very much in the manner of Clementi and Beethoven. The historical weight of sonata form would haunt many a Romantic composer.
Schumann, who worked on and off on his three piano sonatas between 1832 and 1836 and indeed till 1853 for op. 14, did not subject himself to rigid formal rules, but he could hardly ignore the idealized sonata-form archetype that had emerged out of the Viennese tradition. He followed in Beethoven’s footsteps and paid heartfelt tribute to the latter’s influential conceptions of form, but also pushed back against it, re-making the piano sonata to do justice to his personal style of story-telling in music.
In Schumann’s three piano sonatas, one might call the sonata form a “pathway” rather than an “architecture,” as the form of these works is typically narrative, inventive, often idiosyncratic. They unfold with a most interesting discursiveness that is recognizably Classical without following rigid conceptions.
 Schumann’s aesthetics re the musical ‘fragment’ can be said to underlie his intermezzi; one of the six Intermezzi, Op. 4 (1832), would supply the first fragment of what became the monumental Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 11 (specifically, the middle section of the Scherzo). The same year Schumann wrote a Fandango in F-sharp minor (subtitled Rhapsodic Fantasy for Piano), which would develop into the first movement of the sonata. In a letter of 1829, he had written to Friedrich Wieck, “I am now working on the last movement of Hummel’s F-sharp-minor sonata, a titanic work, truly grandiose and epic, that projects a brave, fighting, resigned spirit.” One can see how some of this work crept into his sonata in the same key—it often happens to pianist-composers that the key of a once-studied work lingers in the ear and the fingers, providing raw material for future compositions.
 Schumann completed the Op. 11 sonata in August 1835 and dedicated it to Clara Wieck under the names Florestan and Eusebius, characters whose contrasting viewpoints and personalities resemble those of Walt and Vult in Jean Paul’s novel Flegeljahre, (‘The Awkward Age’), which Schumann greatly admired. These imaginary friends represented the eternal Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy, as well as two sides—turbulent and reflective—of his own character. The sonata, inspired (like the Op. 14 sonata) by his love for Clara, was sent to her in May 1836, but it received no other acknowledgement than the cessation of her correspondence with him, forced upon her by her father. Later, Schumann would tell Clara that this work was “a solitary outcry for you from my heart … in which your name appears in every possible shape.” He incorporated a motif from Clara’s own youthful composition “Fantastical Scene: the ballet of the ghosts” into the first movement, in a haunting slow Introduzione—in Charles Rosen’s words, a “song without words.” It opens with a forceful ascending fourth (C#-F#) turned into a descending fifth that will pervade the movement obsessively. The Op. 11 sonata thus begins not, as we often find in Schumann’s works, with a sudden burst of stormy emotion. (He uses the narrative device of seeming to begin in medias res at the outset of his other two sonatas.) The ever-present anapestic (short-short-long) rhythmic motive in the Allegro vivace effectively holds the listener’s attention (à la Schubert); especially compelling is the return of the first theme of the Introduzione in the development section, which has the effect of bringing the flow of time to a stop. Another motive from the Introduzione appears in the second movement (Aria), another “song without words,” based on the song “To Anna” that Schumann had composed in 1828, aged 18. (Liszt, apparently, was especially fond of the dreamy intimacy of this song.) The jumpy Scherzo surprises us with a polonaise-like Intermezzo in the middle, which is followed by a strange recitative that might be heard as a tribute not only to Beethoven, that master of instrumental recitatives, but to Schubert: with its subdued melody in the bass interrupted by loud, full, crashing chords, Schumann’s recitative bears a striking resemblance to a famous passage in the slow movement of Schubert’s late D. 959 sonata of 1828, a movement that, significantly, is in the same key as Schumann’s Op. 11 sonata, F-sharp minor. Bitterly ironic and puzzling in its succession of events, the Scherzo leads to a finale that is even more puzzling, with its incessant variations of tempo and character, though one can see (if not at first glance) that the composer constantly reuses same thematic material throughout.
Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 14, is better known by the title it bore on its original publication, in three movements, in October 1836: ‘Concerto without Orchestra for Piano.’ Praised by Liszt as “rich and powerful”, it was composed, according to a note in Schumann’s diary, during the summer of 1836, when he was “completely separated from Clara—a decision of my own.” In the second edition, of 1853, a fourth movement, a Scherzo, was added after the first movement, which was itself revised in some respects. The present performance offers a composite: the four-movement version of the second edition, but with the first movement from the first edition. This ‘concerto without orchestra’ is less compact and cohesive than the Op. 11 sonata, perhaps because its various sections appear enigmatic from the standpoint of conventional sonata form, owing to their transitional character. However, some of the work’s strength lies in its very peculiarity. One can certainly sense the overall “pathway” of a typical sonata, though without the constituent sections being clearly defined or laid out. In the first movement, Schumann, like Beethoven, focuses the listener’s attention on the intermezzo-like transitions from one theme to the next—those transitions themselves taking on “thematic” status, and indeed lingering in the ear as the most important matter in the movement. The development section, which begins with a false reprise as memorable as it is deceptive, stresses some of the apparently trivial motivic material of the exposition, showing how deeply Schumann was indebted to the composer of the “Appassionata” Sonata, which is also in F minor and was an influential forerunner of many appassionato, “night-wind” pieces in that key, including Liszt’s (untitled) Transcendental Etude No. 10 and Schumann’s Phantasiestück “In der Nacht.” (Beethoven, incidentally, was himself indebted to Clementi’s F-minor sonata. Schumann’s F-minor sonata would, in its turn, influence Brahms’s Op. 5 sonata in F minor.)
 After a “comfortable” Scherzo (Molto commodo) comes the poignant Andantino de Clara Wieck, based on a “Clara theme.” The theme itself is strange in form—a series of four-measure units arranged AABBCC—and sounds symmetrical: it lacks the expected restatement at the end of the opening eight measures, and so is just twenty-four measures long (like the famous theme by Paganini adopted by Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Lutoslawski, and others). In the four variations that follow—Schumann calls them “quasi-variations”—the theme is recast in ever-new, unpredictable ways, never in its original twenty-four-bar form. Sometimes it is shortened: in Variation 1, the form becomes AABAA; in Variation 3, which is cast in binary form, the A theme is followed only by B. At other times, the theme is expanded: in Variation 2, the “expected” reprise (AA) is added at the end; in Variation 4, a two-measure version of A is followed by a six-measure version of B, after which a substantial coda is appended. Even the tempestuous finale (Prestissimo possibile) recalls, at the very beginning (in a subtle, disguised way), the “Clara theme,” which is also stated at the outset of the first movement and shapes the principal idea of the Scherzo.
 In this finale, Schumann’s manner of superimposing puzzling, contrasting rhythms over the basic prevailing meter, in an effort to destroy the listener’s sense of the bar line, hardly constitutes a departure from regular metrical organization, though it certainly has shock value. There are a number of such instances in this movement, whose main “theme,” with idiosyncratic keyboard writing, bears a close resemblance to a Humoreske, which Schumann considered “Hausmusik” (music for the home). Schumann wrote about it to Moscheles, the dedicatee, “what mad inspirations one can have.” The Op. 14 sonata was performed in public for the first time only in 1861, five years after the composer’s death, by Johannes Brahms, who loved it very much.
The Sonata No. 3 in G Minor, Op. 22, was begun earlier than the other two, though completed and published later. In June 1830, Schumann composed a piano piece “Papillote,” based on his 1828 song “Im Herbste,” which he eventually reused as the second movement (Andantino) of Op. 22. That this sonata was the earliest of the three accounts, perhaps, for its less innovative overall shape. Clara considered it “not too incomprehensible,” though she admitted that she would “play it if necessary, but the masses, the public, and even the connoisseurs for whom one is really writing, don’t understand it.”

Carlo Grante