The first three movements of Schumann’s F-sharp minor sonata, Op. 11, set the scene of a composer at odds with the genre he is writing in. The fascinating results that arise therefrom—an almost Wagnerian obsession with a held single note—carries immense significance for the narrative of the work as a whole. Thus, the three movements can be structurally seen as a unit, even though they are entirely different in character. In contrast, the finale stands apart from the rest of the sonata. In it, we don’t quite sense the friction between Schumann and the sonata anymore, but instead get a glimpse of his schematic mind.
The longest movement of the four, this finale requires a great deal of physical and mental effort from the pianist, hence it acquired some “notoriety.” It is indeed long and physically taxing, with entire stretches marked forte and fortissimo. The journey from F-sharp minor in the beginning to F-sharp major is long and arduous, and when F-sharp major is finally reached, it is in the most painful and desperate manner—redemption through suffering.
Given Schumann’s fragile mental state, we often hear him described as a composer of “chaotic” music. This description is not entirely untrue, and the concept of chaos is most definitely germane even to his more “orderly” music. On the surface of it, the finale of the F-sharp minor sonata lends itself perfectly to this description. But are we missing something when describing it simply as chaotic?
To answer this question, we need to look at the tonal scheme of this movement—what happens between the initial F-sharp minor and the final F-sharp major. The tonal nature of the theme is somewhat ambiguous as it modulates to the relative key of A major, and ends with a cadence in that key. Following the introduction of the theme and a short transitionary passage, an episode in the foreign key of E-flat major ensues, with a wholly different character to the raucous and fervent theme. Whereas the theme of the finale is reminiscent of the “march in triple time” typical of Schumann, I like to call the “B” section “not quite a waltz” (also typical of Schumann). After development of the limp dancelike subject, the main theme reenters, this time in E-flat major’s relative key, C minor. The music eventually finds its way back to A major and to F-sharp minor in a series of tumultuous and volcanic episodes, after which the beginning of the movement repeats itself (in the same key). The transitionary bars reappear but with a slight alteration that leads us into C major, where the “B” section reappears, leading to the entrance of the main subject in the relative key of A minor. The rest of the movement seems to repeat itself once more, but in the wrong keys. Schumann, in a moment of genius in the form of musical amnesia, repeats the “B” section in E-flat major once again (marked Un poco più lento this time, to add to the confusion), and hence the stormy development is repeated, this time centered around E-flat major rather than A major. From there, however, the composer finds his way to the conclusion of the work in the most agonizing manner, as in order to reach F-sharp major, the theme must be introduced in its parallel key, D-sharp minor (given the modulatory nature of the theme). Hence, redemption through suffering.
Are all these keys in the least relevant? Do they help us grasp the intentions of the composer? I think they are, and they do. There is a simple reason for this, and it behooves us to ask yet another question: why did Schumann choose to write episodes in E-flat major, C minor, C major and A minor? Aren’t these, after all, arbitrary keys? Well, they aren’t. These keys have something in common in the context of this sonata—there have not been any episodes in these keys in any of the previous movements. Even though the first three movements have been harmonically daring, Schumann did not veer too far off harmonically, writing episodes in F major in the second movement (which is in A major), and in D major in the third (which is in F-sharp minor). With every new tonal center, a new emotional and expressive landscape is uncovered, which, in Schumann’s schematic mind, will lead us eventually to the work’s painful conclusion.
This is, in my opinion, the reason why Schumann is both so difficult to perform, and somewhat less embraced by the general public than are Brahms and Schubert. I am convinced that in Schumann’s mind, this movement is not at all chaotic, but organized and even didactic, and I could say the same about much of his piano music. The logic of having episodes in previously unvisited keys goes hand in hand with the emotional affect of the movement. But whereas these concepts were most natural and obvious to him, they are most remote to us. As for us performers, we are faced with the almost Sisyphean task of bridging the gap between the composer’s mind and the ears of the audience.
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