Schumann’s Drei Fantasiestücke, op. 73, for clarinet and piano

performed by two separate teams:
the clarinet and piano duo here

or a truly splendid performance by Capucon and Argerich (cello, not clarinet)

Welcome to part two of our three (and a half?) part clarinet series. Today’s piece was originally written for clarinet and piano, but it seems that it is more often performed on cello. That isn’t against the composer’s wish, though, as he’d directed that the clarinet part could be played either on violin or cello as well.
Schumann is a composer I’m not terribly familiar with, as evidenced by my poor attention to his symphonies I wrote about a year and a half or more ago, which I won’t even link to. They are getting revisits at some point, but for this series, I wanted a chamber piece, a solo or piano accompaniment, and a concerto, and this is obviously the second of those. But there are some unique things about this piece that we’ll talk about shortly. Let’s get to the piece itself.
It was written in the span of just two days in 1849. Two days. The composer had originally decided on the title Night Pieces, but later decided to go with Fantasy Pieces, and it seems he liked the idea of ‘fantasy,’ not only as a Romantic-era concept, but with a sort of freeness of expression, evidenced perhaps by how quickly these pieces were written. The work is made up of three
pieces and plays almost like a very tiny song cycle with an instrumentalist instead of a vocalist.
The pieces are as follows:
I. Zart und mit Ausdruck (Tender and with expression)
II. Lebhaft, leicht (Lively, light)
III. Rasch und mit Feuer (Quick and with fire)

The first one is what seems the most like ‘night.’ It sounds almost like a nocturne for clarinet and piano, something dare I say Chopin perhaps would have written, except it’s still quite German. This piece is in A minor, very lyrical and, as the title demands, tender and with expression. Although it’s in A minor, it isn’t really dark or melancholy anywhere, I feel; it just isn’t a ray of sunshine. It’s night. That works for me. It’s the most lyrical and soothing or somber of the three pieces, but even it finishes in A major; that’s our ray of sunshine.
Just listening to this first piece, it seems amazing that even this one section was written in the span of only a few days, much less all three pieces. Something else you’ll notice about it as you listen is that this isn’t really a clarinet piece with piano accompaniment. The clarinet is the ‘soloist’ but the two are very much on level ground, the piano playing just as important and having just as expressive a role as the clarinet. The two parts are really beautiful, and this equality continues through the whole piece.
The second piece begins where the first left off, in A major. It’s more lively than the first, and feels bright and flowing, but not as much like a nocturne, more almost like a dance here, but never quite falling into that meter. I really love the piano line in this piece. The two performers seem to sing to each other much more in this piece and ‘work off of’ one another. The piano gets a few glimpses of solo moments with the beautiful lines Schumann wrote for it here.
I should say I’m only really familiar with his piano sonatas as far as his solo or chamber works go. I’ve listened to Kreisleriana and Carnaval, but am not really familiar with them at all. At least to my ear, these pieces seem quite different from the other works of his that I’m familiar with. They are softer and lyrical and quite expressive. Perhaps I’ve missed something in some of his other works.
In any case, the second piece ends in the same key it began in, although it modulated to F major at one point.
The third piece begins, and it’s the liveliest of the bunch. It stays in A major and feels quite playful at first, but it gets more and more frenetic. It mimics, to me anyway, some of the lyrical material from the first piece, just in a different mood.
Mood is something else to consider here. References are made in the Wikipedia article to Schumann’s frequent mood changes and mental instability being related to the juxtaposition of different moods and abrupt changes in atmosphere in his music. These three pieces are played almost attacca, save the potential time for page turning.
It’s almost hard to pick a favorite piece of these three, because they all fit together quite nicely, and each has its individual charms. The third is breathtaking in its excitement and beauty. They’re all beautiful.
I feel like this piece reminds me (I guess just in one way) of last week’s piece in that it wasn’t SOLELY featuring the clarinet. Both composers showed wonderful balance and ingenuity in how they used their featured instruments so that we didn’t get sick of their presence during the piece. Granted, Mozart had to do this for a half hour, and Schumann for only ten minutes, but this really is a fantastic piece.
I’ve heard from a clarinet friend who has performed this that the third piece is challenging enough for the pianist that some say they don’t want to play the third movement. I have pianist friends who are pretty laid back about being accompanists because they aren’t often the focus and it apparently isn’t so challenging, but the piano isn’t just in the background here. Obviously Argerich doesn’t bat an eye with it, but it’s a testament to the musicality of this piece that both parts are written so attentively, and that it works equally as well on multiple instruments. I haven’t heard (or looked for) a violin version, but the cello performance above is stunningly good.
So that’s our Romantic-era clarinet piece, and the clarinet-with-accompaniment. The only thing that’s left is a full-on concerto, and from the ‘modern’ era. I can’t imagine it’s too hard to guess what’s coming next week. Stay tuned.

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