The common challenges of the Kinderszenen and the Hammerklavier

Two of the works I am playing most this season are Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata. Both works are among my favorites in the vast piano repertoire, and both have occupied my thoughts for years, which is why I consider myself more than fortunate to be able to play them back to back multiple times during the year, making each performance a preparation for the next. Both require a tremendous amount of work: the manifold challenges presented by Beethoven and Schumann translate into countless hours at the piano and away from it, during which I attempt to do a range of things, from finding optimal fingerings to attempting to decipher the hidden clues and messages passed from the composer to the performer. It is while doing the latter that I began to notice a curious similarity between these two contrasting works.

Needless to say, the Kinderszenen and the Hammerklavier are radically different in many regards. The most obvious differences are in scope and dynamic. To put it bluntly, the Hammerklavier is a louder piece of music than the Kinderszenen. One could say that the defining punctuation mark of the Hammerklavier would be the exclamation mark, something one wouldn’t be able to easily say about the Kinderszenen. To refine this point, Schumann looks inward, and enters a space of confession, intimacy, and vulnerability, whereas Beethoven embarks on a Herculean quest of truly cosmic proportions. In the process, he doesn’t shy away from using forms such as the fugue and bending them mercilessly and relentlessly, whereas Schumann doesn’t really break any conventions in the Kinderszenen (he was certainly no stranger to breaking conventions in other works). A less noticeable but still significant difference between the two is that the Hammerklavier is a quintessentially pianistic work, even though it is symphonic in character, and at times physically awkward to play. Hammerklavier literally means hammer-keyboard, and the capabilities of the instrument are exploited to the maximum. By contrast, the Kinderszenen, while perfectly suited to the piano, is not by nature pianistic. Schumann wrote it in 1838, two years before the famous Liederjahr, in the course of which he wrote most of his best-known song cycles, including the Op. 39 Liederkreis, Frauenliebe und Leben, and Dichterliebe. I think that the form and inner grammar of the art song clearly show themselves in certain movements of the Kinderszenen, and I almost get the feeling that Schumann is preparing himself for a creative burst of putting words to music. (I heard the great English tenor Mark Padmore posit that the main difference between Schubert and Schumann songs is that while Schubert wrote for voice with piano accompaniment, Schumann wrote piano pieces with text. In the case of the Kinderszenen, I like to turn that idea around, and consider some of the movements to be songs without words).

Which brings me to the similarities. Part of preparing any musical work for performance is “making sense” of it. To be able to convincingly perform a work, we must not only be able to identify the various techniques employed by the composer, but we must also attempt to understand why the composer decided to employ them. That can be called “analyzing” the work, but I prefer to think that in doing that, I am “dissecting” it. This entails, among many other things, the search for patterns throughout the work—recurring motivic connections that appear in places where we might not expect to find them.

Looking at the Hammerklavier, we are faced with a cobweb of such connections. Murray Perahia eloquently explains some of these connections in the first movement in the following masterclass (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bcCUwODTaQ), but looking at the last two movements we also see a great number of motivic links. In my opinion, the most crucial one is the manner in which Beethoven uses the consecutive tones C-sharp and D (in whichever order). First appearing in the fourth bar of the slow movement, these two tones continue to almost define the rest of the movement. They appear as melodic notes, in harmonic progressions, and in structurally pivotal points. When one looks for them, one can find that the movement is bestrewn with these consecutive tones. Moving onward to the finale, this motif isn’t as abundant as in the slow movement, but if one scratches below the surface, one can find it in some of the key moments in the turbulent movement, namely in the two “oases” amidst the tumult – the slightly lamenting B minor section in which the theme is inverted, and the ultimate oasis of tranquility which is the D major section preceding the return to the tonic key. Looking back at the opening movement of the Hammerklavier, we see that these two tones precede the slow movement, as we hear them at a structurally pivotal point (the appearance of the opening theme in B minor in the recapitulation). Beethoven surreptitiously plants the seeds of this motivic link in the first movement, to fully develop it later. It is precisely this sort of vast architectural thinking that made Beethoven so inescapably influential for nearly every composer who came after him.

Kinderszenen consists of thirteen short movements, each with a descriptive title and a metronome mark (no tempo markings are given). When we hear them, it seems to us that there is an inevitability to them being together in the same cycle. But what, besides Schumann’s compositional acumen and instinct, actually binds them together?

The outer movements are in the key of G major, and no other movements are in that key. At times, G major is alluded to, hence we get an impression of a lost soul yearning to return home (although, ironically, the first movement is titled Von fremden Ländern und Menschen, Of Foreign Lands and People). Between these two “bookends,” Schumann takes us through his kaleidoscope of characters, emotions, forms, and styles, so that by the end, we feel like we have truly have been on a journey. The variety of the movements is key to the greatness of the work. For example, Wichtige Begebenheit (An Important Event), has the mock-pomposity to make us feel stuffy and over-dressed, while the ensuing Träumerei (Dreams) and Am Camin (At the Fireside) take us into the intimate world of the Lieder that Schumann would write just two years later. Schumann also greatly exploits rhetoric, making some movements act as questions that can only be answered by succeeding movements. Bittendes Kind (Pleading Child) seems to plead to go to D major, ending on a dominant seventh chord, and Glückes genug (Happy Enough) grants it permission, but the evasive nature of the instances in which we do get a root-position tonic chord contains an implied and tender warning of the unknown, which in turn is to be exposed in the following movement as something of a ruse, as the middle section of Wichtige Begebenheit boisterously explodes in D major (the first fortissimo marking of the work). But besides these rhetorical threads, Schumann conceals thematic threads that put the different movements “in conversation” with one another. The rising fourth that opens the Träumerei becomes the opening motif of Am Camin, binding the two F major movements together and making us feel as though we flipped a page of the same story in the silence between them. But the most fascinating motivic connection is first laid out in the second movement, Curiose Geschichte (A Curious Story). It opens with a figure of two steps, one going up and one going down, with the interval of a third between the two steps. This figure is definitely not the epicenter of the Kinderszenen’s “plot,” but it does appear in three consecutive movements—Fürchtenachen (Frightening), Kind im Einschlummern (Child Falling Asleep), and Der Dichter spricht (The Poet Speaks), which happen to be the three last movements. In fact, it is the theme that opens Der Dichter spricht. In the previous two movements it appears hidden and inverted, so that the listener can’t possibly notice it. Why, then, is it there? I think its purpose is to subconsciously prepare us for the homecoming back to G major. Thus, Schumann plants the seed of the return home already in the second movement, which is when our imaginary main character springs out from the cocoon of G major into Schumann’s fantastical and quirky kaleidoscope. However far we may venture in the course of the Kinderszenen, Schumann knows that our homecoming is inevitable, and through the various thematic threads, he directs it, and makes it gratifying, intense, and organic.

Working on the Kinderszenen and on the Hammerklavier in parallel, and trying to bring all of these somewhat arcane conclusions to life in my playing, I couldn’t help but notice that the efforts I put into both works, at least when it comes to building a cohesive interpretation, are somewhat similar. Therein lies the difficulty of both: to make all of the aforementioned matter. Were I to try and explain all of this to a random audience member, I would likely be stared at as if I were an unhinged gibberish-talking maniac, and rightly so. On its own, none of what I just mentioned is of the slightest importance. (One of today’s greatest musicians is quoted to have said: “If I were to go up to Mozart and tell him: ‘After decades of studying your last three symphonies, I finally figured out what is the common compositional technique you use, which makes all three symphonies sound so vivid and original,’ I think he would reply: ‘You know, it’s actually none of your f—ing business’”). Yet, it is my duty to make the audience experience the inexplicable greatness of the composers I play, and to do that, I must try to get as close to the composer’s point of view as I possibly can. I believe that finding connections such as these brings me closer to the composers, but bridging the gap between these cryptic connections and the act of delivering on stage is an enormous, yet greatly satisfying, challenge. The inexhaustibility of the great composers is such that we can only begin to scratch the surface of what they offered us, and connections and threads we haven’t previously noticed are bound to appear.

Ideally, I would want to bring myself to the point where, on stage, I can empty my head of everything I just discussed, and all these connections would somehow instinctively emerge. When I go off stage, they would pop back into my head and I’d be reminded of how baffled I was when I first discovered them.

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