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.
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.
THIS PIECE HAS AN INNOCENT AND DREAMY QUALITY REFLECTING NEW WORLDS AS SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHILD
Schumann: much more than just a Romantic composer