Schumann: Kinderszenen, op. 15

performed by Luka Okros, or below by Maria João Pires

(cover image by Annie Spratt)

I have been waiting for your letter and have in the meantime filled several books with pieces…. You once said to me that I often seemed like a child, and I suddenly got inspired and knocked off around 30 quaint little pieces…. I selected several and titled them Kinderszenen. You will enjoy them, though you will need to forget that you are a virtuoso when you play them.

Schumann, to his wife Clara

Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Childhood’ was published in 1838, when the composer was already in his late 20s. As the above quote mentions, he had originally written thirty, yes thirty, small pieces to be included in this set, but later (thankfully) whittled it down to only 13, with the remainder (all of them? just a portion?) being organized into his op. 99 and op. 124.

The set was originally called Leichte Stücke, and the titles were only added after composition was completed. As the composer says, they are “nothing more than delicate hints for execution and interpretation,” so perhaps we shouldn’t read into them too programmatically. That being said, and trying not to raise a ‘chicken or egg’ question, it seems like either could have come first really, music based on the titles. The little captions, if you will, for each piece are so perfectly suitable that they make me wonder if Schumann didn’t have some kind of visual in mind before he set pen to paper.

If you’re in the mood for something really beautiful, Romantic, but not maudlin or affected, cozy up to these little ‘scenes from childhood.’ You could almost think of them as the musical version of flipping through a photo album, reminiscing on simpler times. The works themselves are indeed straightforward, but not meant for children to play. The 13 movements are as follows:

  1. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples)
  2. Curiose Geschichte (A Curious Story)
  3. Hasche-Mann (Blind Man’s Bluff)
  4. Bittendes Kind (Pleading Child)
  5. Glückes genug (Quite Happy)
  6. Wichtige Bebebenheit (An Important Event)
  7. Träumerei (Dreaming)
  8. Am Camin (At the Fireside)
  9. Ritter vom Steckenpferd (Knight of the Hobby-Horse)
  10. Fast zu ernst (Almost too Serious)
  11. Fürchtenmachen (Frightening)
  12. Kind im Einschlummern (Child Falling Asleep)
  13. Der Dichter spricht (The Poet Speaks)

The word would be innocence, or perhaps purity, rather than simplicity.

The first of the set gives us the main theme that we’ll hear at various points throughout this set in various ways, giving at least some unity to the individual pieces. It’s like a lullaby, the beginning of a story that a grandparent might tell, but gets playful with the second; the bounce in this piece sounds like a child (or maybe even a cat) peeking around a corner, or behind a pillow as a story or game unfolds. The third is quick and more ornate than the others, and maybe sounds like the threat of being held down and tickled if you were a young child.

With the fourth, we get the same melodic progression as we heard in the opening movement, but rephrased. I tried to think if maybe there’s some programmatic connection between the titles of these two pieces, but I don’t know. It’s like a freer version of the same sound. Is the fifth the answer to no. 4? It sounds almost like one of Chopin’s mazurkas, doesn’t it? Quite happy, but never… silly or giddy.

What’s the ‘important event’ of no. 6? Who knows? Maybe a graduation? There’s a stately weight to it, like something a child would take very seriously that parents would think is so very adorable and put photos of it on the fridge later. The seventh is the most popular of this whole set, and does indeed sound like a dream, dozing off for a nap in a quiet house in the afternoon. It’s hymn-like, and if you haven’t already appreciated the superb touch for the piano that Schumann has, this is where you will. Just savor its tenderness.

The eighth obviously is in an entirely different mood, but can you hear how (at least to me) the musical material sounds the same, just now sped up, rephrased, so that we’re still relaxed but now awake in front of crackling logs? Maybe.

Does the ninth not sound like a game with a child, maybe accompanied by expert storytelling by a grandparent? It’s obviously one of the more virtuosic of the set, but hits the spot for that playful moment. The ‘almost too serious’ marking for no. 10 seems a little odd, as this feels quite like a Chopin nocturne, supple and expressive; no. 11 also doesn’t sound very frightening, save for  a contrasting mood that bursts to bustling life, like a game of tiptoeing hide-and-seek, perhaps.

No. 12 is almost shockingly funereal for a ‘child falling asleep’, but it does lighten up, thankfully, returning to the sweetness, tenderness of the set as a whole, but there’s a twinge of gloom that lingers for just a bit.

The final installment begins with what I think may be the most deeply felt, shall we say… poetic, theme of the entire set. There are some dramatic pauses, really spacious, almost spiritual moments, like listening to the music disappear into the air. It’s quite a solemn ending to what was otherwise a very lighthearted set of works, giving some added weight to the music, a sense of foreshadowing, almost.

We’re seeing how a collection of pieces has different dynamics. Beethoven’s was a smattering of stuff he gathered, both old and new; Chopin’s was four pieces dating from around the same time, in the same form, and Schumann gives us a collection of pieces most strongly unified by idea, not even really atmosphere, but the set overall very much has an effective emotional import. It certainly helps that Schumann had an exceptional touch for the piano.

But that is not all for this week. As we said, we’re doing four pieces midweek, so who else could you possibly imagine might round out this week of pieces from Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann? Stay tuned to find out, and thanks so much for reading.

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