Schumann: Scenes from Childhood

At the dawn of the Romantic era, Schumann’s rich musical imagination takes flight in enchanting works for solo piano.


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When?

In 1838, when Clara Wieck accepted Schumann’s proposal of marriage (notwithstanding her father’s vehement disapproval of their relationship), Schumann poured out his joy in a series of pieces including Kinderscenen and Novelletten. Meanwhile:

  • Queen Victoria is crowned in Westminster Abbey; some 400,000 people travel to London for the celebrations.
  • Lorenzo da Ponte, the opera librettist who wrote the texts for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte, dies in New York.
  • Around 28 Indigenous Australians are murdered at Myall Creek in central New South Wales. The first trial of 11 accused stockmen acquits them all; the second convicts seven, who are hanged.
  • Max Bruch is born in Cologne. His first Violin Concerto will become one of the most popular Romantic pieces of music.

Fast Facts

  • Schumann began his musical life as a pianist, hoping to pursue a career as a virtuoso performer, but an injury to the middle finger of his right hand when he was 21 put paid to those plans. He refocussed his energies on composition, and also on music criticism: his concert reviews are full of insightful observations on the new music of the day.
  • His own compositions include symphonies, concertos, quartets, songs and choral works, but the piano was at the heart of his creative life. In fact, he wrote almost exclusively for the piano until he was 30 years old. These early pieces reveal his wild and whimsical imagination, and show him searching for new forms in literature: the fragmentary, fleeting moods of his suite Papillons (Butterflies) — many of its movements barely a minute long — draw their inspiration from the swiftly changing scenes in one of his favourite novels.
  • Kinderscenen (Scenes from Childhood), another early work, written under the spell of his adoration for Clara Wieck, herself a talented composer and already an internationally renowned concert pianist. The two were passionately in love but Clara’s father disapproved of their affections, and had banned Schumann from having any contact with Clara at all. After 18 months of this separation, the two had been able to begin an exchange of letters in which they dreamed of their future life together. (The pair were finally able to marry two years later, after a very ugly court battle with Clara’s father.) According to Schumann, it was a comment from Clara that prompted him to write Kinderscenen, a series of affectionate musings on how the world looks through the eyes of a child.
  • The Novelletten — the word means ‘little stories — date from the same year as Kinderscenen and, like most of Schumann’s piano music, were written for Clara to play. Novellette №2 begins and ends with fiery, bravura writing for the piano, but in the middle the music is slower and dreamier: a reflection of the two sides of Schumann’s personality.
  • Schumann’s Fantasie was begun as a contribution to a memorial for Beethoven, but it also contains hidden messages to Clara, who had been sent by her father to live in another city in order to keep the two lovers apart: Schumann quotes a phrase from Beethoven’s song ‘To the Distant Beloved’, and the piece is dedicated to ‘the one who listens secretly’.