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Robert Schumann

Scenes from Childhood, Op. 15 for piano

May 12, 2024: Lucille Chung, piano

Schumann was at his best when composing miniatures for piano, which he grouped together under various picturesque titles such as Davidsbündlertänze, Fantasiestücke, Noveletten, and Kreisleriana. Perhaps the most purely conceived works of this type, distilled to their essence, are the thirteen Kinderscenen (Scenes from Childhood), op. 15. He described them in a letter to Clara Wieck in March 1838, two years before their marriage, while they were still fighting parental disapproval:

Whether it was an echo of what you said to me once, “that sometimes I seemed to you like a child,” anyhow I suddenly got an inspiration, and knocked off about thirty quaint little things, from which I have selected twelve [sic] and called them Kinderscenen. They will amuse you, but of course you must forget that you are a virtuoso. They have such titles as “Fürchtenmachen” [Bogeyman’s coming], “Am Kamin” [By the fireside], “Haschemann” [Catch me if you can], “Bittendes Kind” [Entreating child], “Ritter vom Steckenpferd” [Knight of the hobby-horse], “Von fremden Ländern” [Of foreign lands], “Kuriose Geschichte” [A strange story], etc., and I don’t know what besides. Well, they all explain themselves, and what’s more are as easy as possible.

Unlike the later Album für die Jugend, which are written for children, Schumann said that the Kinderscenen are really addressed to adults, “reminiscences of an adult for adults.” Their unassuming front masks an incredible attention to detail, unity, and poetic content. They are connected not only by programmatic content, but by thematic unity: nearly all the pieces seem to stem from the thematic shape of the five-note opening of Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of foreign lands and people). Often the first ascending sixth is left out, leaving a four-note falling figure related to the “Clara motto” that Schumann often used in his compositions. Theorist Rudolph Reti went so far as to call the Kinderscenen a theme with variations, the “theme” comprising not only the opening figure of the first piece but two of its subsequent motives as well. While some of his conclusions stretch credibility to the limit, there is no doubt that the miniatures are bound together as a definite structural unit by more than their program.

Each of the thirteen little pieces is a simple example of ternary or binary form. Schumann’s titles, whether added before or after the pieces’ completion (a matter of some discussion), are brought out in the music by a wealth of details. Bittendes Kind (Entreating child) is left still entreating by an unresolved chord (dominant seventh) at the close; the famous Träumerei (Reverie) compresses a whole world within the rise and fall of the opening four-bar phrase; Schumann chose the key of G-sharp minor to intensify Fast zu ernst (Almost too serious); Fürchtenmachen (Bogeyman’s coming) is illustrated by unexpected tempo changes and accents; Der Dichter spricht (The poet speaks), a typical Schumann epilogue, contains a “recitative” (a free unmetered declamation), and ends peacefully. It was perhaps this final piece that Schumann did not include in his original count of twelve, as it is not based on a simple child’s subject, but is rather the poet’s comment or reflection after the child has gone to sleep.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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