Schumann: Variations on the name Abbeg, op. 1

performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, or below by Christoph Eschenbach

On to Schumann!
Schumann was born the same year as Chopin, on June 8, 1810, and as we’ve stated with some of Chopin’s pieces, he made glowing statements about Chopin’s early works in his own early days as a music critic, even inspiring his own future father-in-law to sing the praises of Chopin’s op. 2, embarrassing its composer in the process.
While Chopin marked the end of our really hefty address of some of the earliest piano works of really significant composers, I couldn’t help but add a few things to the tail end of the month-long stretch of pieces (well, it’s not for another couple of days that we reach a full month of pieces and another few days after that that they’re all piano pieces), so as a bit of an epilogue, we will be tacking on three more composers’ first (and for two of them, only) piano concertos, all (with one exception) preceded by early piano works as before. Today is Abegg.
It’s a set of variations. I wonder if the prevalence of variation pieces with low opus numbers is an indication that they’re a really good way for a composer to cut his/her teeth. In any case, this piece was composed in 1829-30, meaning the op. 1 was published the same year-ish as Chopin’s piano concerto of yesterday. I seem to recall that some of his other early opus numbers might have had completion dates before this, but I could be wrong. I don’t remember. In any case, it’s his op. 1, and we begin to hear one of the other most significant Romantic era composers begin to do his thing.
The piece is in F major, which is important. The theme ABEGG uses the German naming of the notes, with the B in reference to what we refer to in English as B flat, the key signature for F major. The name Abegg is thought either to refer to the surname of a fictitious friend of Schumann’s whose first name, Meta, originates from ‘tema’ (Latin for ‘theme’), or perhaps, according to notes by his future wife, one Pauline von Abegg, a girl to whom the work was dedicated. Isn’t that pretty clear? It’s on the score. Perhaps she didn’t exist. I don’t quite know where the actual confusion lies. In any case, ABEGG is the foundation of the piece from tip to tail.

See? Do you see it?

The opening theme has the rising ABEGG melody that’s presented a few times before it’s flipped around to a descending melody and we reach a cadence. This marks the end of the introduction.
After the theme is presented for us, there is a set of three variations.
The first variation after the theme is a mildly dizzying busy trinkly bit that I think can best be described as youthful. It’s virtuosic and busy, but not cluttered. It, too, ends with clear punctuation before the second theme begins. It is a quieter, calmer, more subdued expression. This variation avoids the higher register of the piano in favor of a warm, rich tenor tone, with both staves in the bass clef for a time. Looking at the score, this seems… quite plain, almost repetitive and boring on
paper, at least compared to the first variation, but it’s really quite nice, and relies more on rhythm and the Italian marking “il Basso parlando” at the beginning, something about the bass ‘speaking.’ (Interestingly, Schumann’s German hasn’t appeared in notations for this piece yet. The so rasch wie möglich; schnell, schneller, noch schneller stuff doesn’t come until later, I guess.
The third and final variation is the busiest, with almost nonstop sixteenth triplets, chromatic runs and tons of notes in the upper register, marked at the beginning as ‘corrente.’ The right hand is marked at one point with ‘con accuratezza’ (with accuracy) and the left hand shortly thereafter marked ‘marcato e legato.’ It ends abruptly after a few repeats.
By the time the fast-slow-fast variations are over and we’re into the cantabile, we are at about the halfway mark of the piece. The cantabile, as one would expect, is a broader, more spacious place, but runs and trills fill most of that space. It’s certainly lyrical, but not at all that kind of lazy, lullaby-ish slow-movement stuff. It’s still got plenty going on. It’s ornate and melodic and flowing, and at times, almost Chopin-sounding in its freedom of rhythm and expression, with some 11- and 10-note figures (32 notes!) as we finish with a trill and begin the last section.
The finale alla fantasia is aptly named, and begins cleanly, with both hands in sync playing a nice, strong heartbeat at a vivace tempo, but it isn’t long before our right hand runs come back. It has a virtuosic, playful almost carnival-like festive passages, and certainly takes up the most pages of the score. There are a few places (easily visible in the score) where the action stops and the toll-like beginning of this section is repeated, marked ad libitum leading to a crescendo with a ‘a tempo vivacissimo’ marking. The sixteenth in the right hand continue down in to the bass register and an Italian ‘disappearing’ marking all the way down to ppp before the piece kind of clicks quietly to an end.
It’s a nice little opus one, a quaint idea with plenty of material packed into an eight-minute package. What I like about it is that there is nothing pretentious or difficult to it. The music sounds to be written for sheer pleasure, without an agenda or any purpose aside from enjoyment. Almost to a fault, it sounds like someone sat down at the piano and riffed on ABEGG: introduction, a few variations, and then two longer, more rounded out, developed passages. It’s also easy to understand as a theme-and-variations movement (like Beethoven’s posthumous work based on Dressler’s march), and one where perhaps a beginner can start to train their ear to identify a theme or idea when it appears with different masks on.
Something else of interest is the ‘voice’ of this piece. I’m far less familiar with Schumann than I am with Chopin (as I would assume is true of most of the average non-professional population), but what’s almost immediately noticeable is two things: one, Schumann’s voice is decidedly Romantic. Even with an opus one like this, it’s very clear what era this music comes from. Secondly, it is also distinctly different from Chopin’s easily-identifiable Romantic style. Sure, they have some similarities, but you’ll (hopefully) see in just the few pieces of Schumann’s that we discuss that while they are both iconically Romantic-era composers, they are also distinctly different in thought, style and manner. This is perhaps an inherently obvious point, but it’s one worth stating anyway, because two composers working in a similar idiom (be it the Romantic era, post-tonality, 12-tone, neoclassical, whatever) will (or should) always have their own voices, but this can be easy to forget when you’re listening to something like what we’ll be talking about next month, or things we’ve talked about before. Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, as the ‘founding members’ of the Second Viennese School all had similar ideologies and use of similar ideas, but in very different ways, and this becomes even more apparent in their later works. Chopin and Schumann were contemporaries and even commented on each others’ works, but that doesn’t mean for an instant that they were “the same.” Not at all. A small point, and one easy to see here, but it stands true in many other areas.
For tomorrow, we’ll be having a look at a fuller piece of Schumann’s, one that I have begun to feel is a good representation of his style. See you then.

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