Schu­mann Of For­eign Lands And Peo­ple

This dreamy, in­no­cent de­pic­tion of child­hood is a quin­tes­sen­tial ex­am­ple of the emo­tion­ally-charged works of this Ro­man­tic com­poser, says Brid­get Mer­mikides.

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In this issue we re­turn to one of the most im­por­tant com­posers of the Ro­man­tic era, Robert Schu­mann (1810-1856). Schu­mann em­bod­ied all the ex­pected char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Ro­man­tic com­poser: a vir­tu­oso pi­anist, ge­nius com­poser with a trag­i­cally short life filled with men­tal anguish, phys­i­cal health is­sues and a pas­sion­ate love af­fair. How­ever, Schu­mann’s works en­gaged with a huge range of emo­tions and style, and he was not only a pro­lific com­poser, but also a great con­trib­u­tor to the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the genre with his beau­ti­fully writ­ten and judged se­ries of ar­ti­cles as a mu­sic critic.

Here, I’ve ar­ranged the first piece from his Kin­der­szenen (Scenes From Child­hood), a set of 13 short works for pi­ano com­posed in 1838, each a nos­tal­gic mu­si­cal de­pic­tion of a child­hood scene. Th­ese works are shorter, more ap­proach­able and are more ‘in­no­cent’ and joy­ful than his pre­vail­ing style. They were inspired by his wife, the dis­tin­guished pi­anist, in­flu­en­tial im­pre­sario Clara Wieck who told Schu­mann that he “seemed like a child”. The open­ing piece, Von Frem­den Län­dern Und Men­schen (trans­lated as Of For­eign Lands And Peo­ple) has an in­no­cent and dreamy qual­ity re­flect­ing per­haps new worlds as seen through the eyes of a child. It is a very fa­mil­iar melody that has found its way into both the pi­ano reper­toire and pop­u­lar cul­ture (used for ex­am­ple in the Os­car-win­ning 1982 film So­phie’s Choice). Barely a page long on the orig­i­nal pi­ano score, the piece is con­structed by a re­peated eight-bar sec­tion, fol­lowed by a less conventional 14-bar one. De­spite its brevity and un­usual bar length, there is a com­plete­ness and in­tegrity to the work. Fur­ther­more, al­though the har­mony is con­ven­tion­ally tonal and ‘sim­ple’ there is an in­ter­est­ing twist. It largely com­prises chords from the key of G (G-Am-Am6-C-D-Dsus-D7Em), their in­ver­sions for bassline move­ment and one func­tional ap­proach chord to one of th­ese di­a­tonic chords (C#º7 used to ap­proach D) is a late ro­man­tic mo­ment. How­ever in bars 20 and 34, there’s a B Ma­jor chord that’s nei­ther in the key nor re­solves con­ven­tion­ally to a chord in the key. The move from B to G, how­ever, can be ex­plained in terms of voice-lead­ing: B Ma­jor has the notes B-D#-F# while G Ma­jor has G-B-D. By just keep­ing the B the same, and mov­ing the D# down a semi­tone to D and the F# up to G, a very smooth tran­si­tion can be made. This tech­nique, where har­monic changes from out­side the key can be made by ‘voice-lead­ing’ ad­just­ments, is a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Ro­man­tic era of art mu­sic to which Schu­mann made a great con­tri­bu­tion.

I’ve main­tained the orig­i­nal key of G and man­aged to stay very close to the orig­i­nal. The main chal­lenge is to play the melody over the triplet ac­com­pa­ni­ment and in, par­tic­u­lar, in bars 2,4, 6 etc, the last semi­qua­ver of beat 1 in the melody must ap­pear af­ter the last triplet in the bass. Slow your play­ing right down so you can un­der­stand the place­ment.


Schu­mann: much more than just a Ro­man­tic com­poser

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