Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Schumann's 'Humoreske'

Robert Schumann's Humoreske, Op.20 is a fantastic work in both senses of the word. It swings from section to section and from mood to mood and is as much a carnival as the famous Schumann piano piece which bears that name. 

The first section has a palindromic structure, beginning and ending with a beautiful melody set amidst a golden drizzle of figuration. The fast, teasing second idea encloses an even faster third idea - both modulating enjoyably, though the central passage's modulations are particularly magical (and exciting).

The second movement ('Hastig') has a mystery at its heart - a hidden melody that may be glimpsed by the ear in a strange variation of the shimmering main theme (a dazzling duet between the hands). There's an out-of-phase passage that climaxes sonorously (a stellar moment) and a glittering transition (another star moment) that leads to a march. The ending, however, is unexpectedly tender and suggestive.

The third movement ('Einfach und zart') has as its lead section a lyrical passage which may be called (after Mendelssohn) a 'song without words'. It's a favourite of mine. Of course Schumann's love of contrast means the spell must be broken and an extraordinary torrent bursts forth - an exultation of bells, as I hear it. The song returns though.

What does Robert do next? He re-imagines this movement's structure with fresh material. Significantly marked 'Innig' (inward), his new melody is also a beauty - and another favourite of mine. The rushing interruption this time is startling in its brevity (a gush of enthusiasm from Schumann to his Clara?) and the song resumes, going rich new places in the process - especially in the coda.

Enthusiasm erupts again in the next section - a virtuoso tour-de-force culminating in a veritable whirlwind. Exciting!

A swaggering march barges in, like a bull-fighter (or is its Spanish feel just in my imagination?). This enjoyable section disappeared back into its dressing room and leaves the arena to...! This final section ('Zum Beschluss') always strikes me, for all its mellowness and beauty, as having that quality Brahms-lovers describe as "autumnal" - a wistful quality. Whatever, it's wonderful! Do I feel that the work's surprising coda is out of keeping? No, because this is a Humoreske!

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