Complete Album Notes
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Robert Schumann composed the Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17, between the years of 1836 and 1839 during a most tumultuous time in his personal life. He had lost the ability to play the piano when he permanently damaged his right hand, leaving his career plans to be a concert pianist in shambles. He had also fallen in love with pianist Clara Wieck and had proposed marriage to her, but her father, Friedrich, had opposed their relationship from the beginning. In 1840, after not being allowed to see one another for three years, Robert and Clara married. In a letter to Clara in March of 1838, Schumann wrote, “The first movement of the work is perhaps the most passionate of all I have composed—a deep yearning for you.”
The first movement is a three-part form, or an overall ABA design. The outer sections of the first movement commence with a sixteenth-note ostinato figure in the left hand, providing much of the passionate energy throughout the movement. The opening theme in the right hand is referred to as the “Clara motif,” a five-note descending melodic idea, upon which much of the work is based. The bold, fiery opening reflects several moods: passion, anger, despondency, and angst. A poignant and lyrical secondary theme is also formed from a descending 5-note “Clara” motif. Throughout the second theme areas, the beautiful melody is interrupted by syncopated, jagged figures, suggestive of fits of anger or outbursts. The middle section of this movement is marked Im Legendton, or “in the style of a legend.” This section, beginning quietly in the key of g minor, is reminiscent of a tragic love story. In the coda, Schumann quotes a short phrase from Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, in which the text reads, “Accept these songs [beloved, which I sang for you alone].” Interestingly, the tonic key of C Major is not established until the coda of this movement. The tonal restlessness and lack of a grounded key throughout the movement no doubt parallels Schumann’s state of mind during his separation from Clara.
The second movement is in the key of E-flat Major, a key often depicting heroicism, as seen in Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Emperor Concerto. The lively energy found in this movement comes from the march-like tempo combined with repeated dotted sixteenth note rhythms throughout. A brief hiatus from the intense energy is found in the Etwas langsamer section, or the slower middle section of the movement. However, in this section, rhythmic displacement of downbeats seek to create a feeling of unsettledness and tension. The coda is considered to be one of the most pianistically difficult passages in all of the piano repertoire with its parallel outward leaps in both hands.
After the enormous tension and excitement from the first and second movements comes the sublime third movement. Although the key of C Major is firmly rooted at the beginning of this movement, Schumann’s tranquil and dream-like state comes from the unpredictable harmonic progressions, chromatic meandering, and non-conventional modulations to unexpected keys throughout. Long, soaring uninterrupted lines occur throughout this movement. The solemnity of the final three chords in C Major harkens back to the peaceful ending of the first movement.
Johannes Brahms completed the Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, when he was twenty years of age. It would be the last sonata he would write for the piano. A five-movement work of enormous structural proportions, many have speculated that Brahms stretched the concept of sonata form in this work beyond Beethoven. The work shows influence of Beethoven in its motivic concept and orchestral textures. A principal four-note rhythmic “fate” motif (short-short-short-long) resembling Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony occurs in the first, third, and fourth movements. It was this work that Brahms submitted to Robert Schumann for review. Schumann’s overwhelming endorsement as a composer catapulted Brahms to instant notoriety. From there, Robert and Clara Schumann formed a deep friendship with Brahms that would last throughout their lives.
The first movement demonstrates traits associated with Brahms’ more youthful, extroverted style. The widely-spaced chords encompassing much of the full range of the keyboard combined with the wide dynamic palette create a more symphonic approach typical of Brahms’ piano music from this period. This movement is a typical sonata-allegro with the expected key relationships in the exposition and recapitulation. Brahms extends the length of this movement by creating a much longer development section in which new thematic material not originally stated in the exposition is introduced.
Following a powerful and dramatic first movement comes one of the most poignant slow movements in all of the piano repertoire. The second movement is based on a poem by Sternau and is translated as follows.
Through the evening shade, the moonlight shines,
While embraced in love,
Two hearts beat blissfully.
In this movement, Brahms alternates between three principal keys, A-flat Major, D-flat Major, and b-flat minor. Interestingly, Brahms’ most emotionally moving and tender moments occur in the key of D-flat major throughout the entire sonata. Perhaps the most stirring moment of all occurs in the final Andante molto section of this movement, also in the key of D-flat.
The third movement is a typical scherzo-trio, no doubt following in Beethoven’s footsteps in his treatment of this form. Viennese in flavor, the robust scherzo in the key of f minor starkly contrasts with a warm, rich trio in the key of D-flat where Beethoven’s “fate” motif appears in the lower octaves of the left hand part.
Brahms inserts an atypical slow movement in the fourth movement, putting off the finale for the fifth movement. Brahms titles this movement “Rückblick,” or “Remembrance.” The movement begins with a descending triadic melody, not unlike the opening of the second movement, but this time in the dark key of b-flat minor. The darkness of this movement is created by Beethoven’s “fate” motif, appearing this time as a timpani-like figure in the bass register of the piano.
The sprawling fifth movement of this sonata is the most unique from a formal standpoint. Each section takes on a completely different character from the other, similar to different contrasting scenes in a play. A quasi rondo-type form is employed here: A-B-A1-C-A2-C1-coda. In the opening A section and those that appear later in the movement, phrases are interrupted with sudden changes of register, dynamics, and pauses, creating a feeling of unpredictability and instability. The B section, in the parallel key of F Major, makes use of an intimate, singing melody. The C section is a reverent, noble chorale-like melody in the warm, rich key of D-flat Major. Brahms’ mastery of counterpoint is demonstrated at C1 in the key of F Major, this time with the left hand playing the four-note choral motive from the C section in diminution, or twice as fast as it appears in the right hand. The coda, marked presto, represents the brilliant and virtuosic close to the entire work and is again based on the four-note choral motive from the C section. As is the case with many of Beethoven symphonies, Brahms brings this movement and the entire sonata to a conquering, triumphant close.