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Fairy Tales, Op. 120, for clarinet, viola, and piano

September 27, 2009 – Stephen Williamson, clarinet; Ken Noda, piano

Robert Schumann, the son of a bookseller, publisher, and novelist, grew up equally passionate about literature and music. Gifted both as a writer and a musician, he founded and edited the enormously influential journal The New Leipzig Musical Times, which became a driving force behind German musical Romanticism. Always a generous colleague, Schumann campaigned vigorously in support of the composers who he felt were producing music of substance. He also sought to bolster the reputations of underappreciated composers of the past, while criticizing contemporary musicians who he felt catered to prevailing “Philistine” tastes for flashy technical display.

Schumann’s passion for Romantic novels and poetry informed his musicianship at every level. From his earliest years the deeply emotional Schumann viewed music primarily as a way of expressing his kaleidoscopically shifting, often dreamy, inner states of mind. Throughout his life he aimed at finding ways to fuse literary and musical imagery, giving many of his pieces evocative titles such as Arabesque, Butterflies, Carnival, Fantasy Pieces, and Scenes from Childhood. These titles were often applied only after he had completed the music in trancelike states of creativity. They were meant to draw the listener into his subtle world of color, mood, texture, and poetic allusion.

Fairy Tales, Robert Schumann’s final piece of chamber music, was composed in 1853, shortly after meeting the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms. Schumann was in the midst of a fevered burst of creativity when Brahms first came to play for him. So inspired was he by Brahms’ artistry that he wrote an effusive article in The New Leipzig Musical Times, praising Brahms’ genius and describing him as music’s great hope for the future. The article was written in mid-October, at the same time that he composed Fairy Tales. Perhaps this accounts for the rather Brahmsian flavor that permeates the second and, especially, fourth movements of the piece.

Schumann scored Fairy Tales for the mellow combination of clarinet, viola, and piano. His declining health at the time included auditory hallucinations and hypersensitivity to extreme high and low register sounds. These afflictions may have led him to choose the soothing sonority of the two middle-range instruments for this charming evocation of childhood. While Schumann never identified the particular tales or narratives that inspired these four lyrical character pieces, they evoke the atmosphere of favorite stories of youth. The first piece is tender, playful and lyrical, suggesting the beginning of pleasant outdoor journey. The minor-key second movement is more robust and march-like, with a more nonchalant middle section. The third movement is nostalgic and poignant, while the swaggering final movement suggests a hunting scene with lusty horn calls and galloping rhythms.

By Michael Parloff

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