Why Another Recording of Schumann’s Fantasy and Liszt’s Sonata?

Lisa Yui
11 min readAug 1, 2023
Album cover (Photo: Chris Lee)

Had Beethoven truly done everything that could be done with this traditional form? Was “the sonata in general, as a species, as traditional art-form . . . brought to its end”? The two masterpieces on this album are a defiant denial of this viewpoint.

This album was recorded over the course of three days in March 2017 in New York City. Six years might seem a long time between recording an album and its release, even considering how the 2020 pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt. The reasons why I waited so long require some explanation.

First and foremost, I wasn’t sure that the world needed another recording of the Schumann Fantasy or the Liszt Sonata. An online search of the Naxos Music Library database yields more than 1000 recordings of the Sonata alone. Among them are some breathtaking performances, many of them historical as well as more recent releases by living musicians. Initially, I didn’t feel confident that I could meaningfully contribute to this already vast and impressive collection. More on this point later.

Trying to decide on the format of the album was another cause for hesitance and delay. CDs, the standard format of the last few decades, were initially superseded by MP3s and have more recently been replaced by streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. However, I was still tied to the idea of an album; I believe that a collection of music is greater than the sum of its individual pieces, and I like to see a tangible culmination of my work on the shelf and to feel its physical weight. Yet I could no longer justify the financial and environmental costs of printing hundreds of physical discs. Eventually I learned to accept that if I truly wanted people to listen to my music, I could not remain obdurate while the world had moved on: I decided to go “all digital.”

Finally, the global protests that exploded in 2020 gave me pause. The national debates prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement extended into the world of classical music. For the first time, music organizations and conservatories earnestly discussed expanding the standard repertoire. At long last, musicians collectively explored works by women and people of color, unearthing and performing a wealth of unknown and excellent repertoire; as an educator, I expanded my piano literature curriculum accordingly, discovering and introducing music to my students that had been ignored for too long. Given this welcome and long-overdue effort to broaden our musical horizons and pay attention to composers from underrepresented communities, I realized that to release a recording of two quintessentially standard pieces of repertoire might feel deeply out of touch. All of this resulted in the six-year incubation of this album.

Robert Schumann in 1839, the year of the publication of his Fantasy, Op. 17. Portrait by Josef Kriehuber.

Given my well-founded hesitance and doubts about the release of the album, why did I ultimately decide to complete this project?

Schumann’s Fantasy and Liszt’s Sonata naturally belong together. The history of the Fantasy, which was composed first, is complicated. Schumann wrote the opening movement originally as a standalone piece in 1836; entitled Ruinen (“Ruins”), it was inspired by the heartache of being forbidden to see his fiancée, the pianist Clara Wieck. In a letter to her, Schumann wrote that “the first movement is probably the most passionate thing I have ever written — a deep lament for you.” This background supports the widely accepted theory that the melody that appears in the coda (track 1, 11:24) is an allusion to a melody in Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (“To the Distant Beloved”).

Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98 №6 “Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder”
Schumann: Fantasy Op. 17, first movement

The presence of this theme in Schumann’s work might have led to the piece being used later the same year as part of the fundraising effort for the Beethoven monument in Bonn. For this occasion, Schumann added two further movements, along with a new and rather lengthy title: Obolen auf Beethovens Monument: Ruinen, Trophaen, Palmen: Grosse Sonate für das Pianoforte für Beethovens Denkmal, von Florestan und Eusebius (“Small Contribution to Beethoven’s Monument: Ruins, Trophies, Palms: Grand Sonata for the Pianoforte for Beethoven’s Memorial, by Florestan and Eusebius”).

Ultimately, Schumann decided he preferred the more succinct title, “Fantasy” (which was also more suitable for reasons that will be explained later); he had it published in 1839, with a dedication to his colleague and occasional friend, Franz Liszt. In turn, 14 years later, Liszt dedicated his Sonata to Schumann. The fact that these two musical titans of the 19th century dedicated their works to each other represents perhaps the greatest exchange in the history of western classical music. [We mere mortals will happily settle for a card and a box of chocolates.]

Liszt expressed his gratitude in a letter to Schumann: “The fantasy dedicated to me is a work of the highest class, and I am really proud of the honor you do me in linking my name with so imposing a composition. And so I intend to study it and absorb it thoroughly, to draw all possible effect from it.” He later claimed that he gave a private performance to Schumann, who then embraced him after the second movement with tears in his eyes. Although Liszt never played the Fantasy in public, stating that it was too difficult for the audience, he taught it to his pupils, many of whom went on to perform the work.

Liszt’s Sonata was not accepted as warmly. When the Schumanns received a copy in 1854, Johannes Brahms played it for Clara (then Mme Schumann), and she wrote in a letter: “Liszt sent Robert today a sonata dedicated to him and several other things with a friendly letter to me. But the things are dreadful! Brahms played them for me, but they made me utterly wretched.… This is nothing but sheer racket — not a single healthy idea, everything confused, no longer a clear harmonic sequence to be detected there! And now I still have to thank him — it’s really awful.” Despite her disgust, 170 years later, Liszt’s Sonata has secured its place definitively among the greatest works written for piano.

The Fantasy and the Sonata are historically significant in the evolution of the keyboard sonata. In Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus (1947), Wendall Kretzschmar, the town organist and musicologist, declares Beethoven’s Op. 111 in C minor — his final piano sonata — a “farewell to the sonata form.” Indeed, after Beethoven, musicians composed markedly fewer multimovement sonatas: Compare Haydn’s 62 keyboard sonatas to Chopin’s and Schumann’s output of just three sonatas each. Had Beethoven truly done everything that could be done with this traditional form? Was “the sonata in general, as a species, as traditional art-form . . . brought to its end,” as Kretzschmar proclaims? Had it “fulfilled its destiny”? The two masterpieces on this album are a defiant denial of this viewpoint.

I’ve heard it said that “the Schumann ‘Fantasy’ is actually a sonata, whereas the Liszt ‘Sonata’ is more of a fantasy.” On the contrary, I believe these titles were thoughtfully and accurately chosen. Like a traditional sonata, the Schumann Fantasy is in three movements, and the tripartite structure of the first movement vaguely suggests the exposition, development, and recapitulation of the sonata form. Nevertheless, the Fantasy is most definitely not a sonata — at least not according to the conventions of Beethoven’s time. Fundamentally, the opening movement does not follow the core essence of the traditional form — i.e. two opposing tonalities in the first section reconciled by the return of the primary key at (or near) the start of the third and final section. If you analyze the first movement as a sonata form, you will quickly get lost trying to locate the secondary — or perhaps even the primary — key. If “recapitulation” is essentially a resolution of the tensions introduced in the exposition between two (or more) keys, we find no such release in the final section until the very last measures.

The sense of agitation and longing felt throughout this opening movement is created by constant avoidance of harmonic rest; note how frequently and lengthily Schumann prepares a cadence, only to evade its resolution. Relief is achieved moments before the end of the movement, at the appearance of the An die ferne Geliebte theme (track 1, 11:24), where Schumann resolves to the home key of C major for the first time. Would it be overly sentimental to suggest that Schumann’s yearning could only be (literally) resolved at the appearance of his distant beloved, namely Clara? The central tenet of the sonata principle, the opposition of key centers, plays little role here.

The first edition title page of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, with its dedication to Robert Schumann.

Liszt’s B minor Sonata, on the other hand, is a textbook sonata form; it has the three requisite sections (exposition, development, recapitulation, track 4, 1:36, 12:02, 21:05 respectively), as well as secondary themes modulating to the expected keys. Its revolutionary aspect lies in how Liszt created an expansive yet traditional sonata form while simultaneously overlaying a four-movement sonata, complete with a weighty first movement, a slow movement (track 4, 12:02), an impish Scherzo (19:15), and a virtuosic finale (21:05). He wove this all together employing thematic transformation: motives presented in numerous variations with vastly different textures and characteristics. Liszt had already used this technique in his symphonic poems and other large-scale piano works, but never with such thoroughness and complexity (perhaps with the exception of the Faust Symphony, composed in 1854, a year following the Sonata). One can argue that practically every measure of this 30-minute piece is based on at least one of its five themes (0:00, 0:45, 0:56, 3:26, 12:15).

Apart from their historical and musicological significance, Schumann’s Fantasy and Liszt’s Sonata are among the most moving forms of expression in piano literature. Some have theorized that the Sonata is programmatic: describing the fall of man, an autobiographical account of Liszt, the Faust legend. We will probably never know whether Liszt had a specific program in mind. We must take into account that this composer, who almost always provided descriptive titles, gave his largest and most consequential work for solo piano the austere title “Sonata,” emphasizing its colossal structure rather than any poetic imagery. Nevertheless, for anyone who has experienced this piece, as either a performer or a listener, it is apparent that it is an epic life-or-death struggle: a battle between good and evil, where good is ultimately victorious and redemption is attained. Liszt presents this tumultuous, emotional drama with total compositional control. I often say (only half in jest) that if one can play most of its notes (not an easy task!), keep a steady pulse, and follow the dynamics, the performance will come off well. Add a dash of temperament and you’ll have a rather good performance.

Not so with the Fantasy. Its essence lies in the nuanced flexibility of the pulse and the ability to be wholly, terrifyingly vulnerable. This piece, particularly in the outer movements, is a work of utter tenderness in which we are required to present the most intimate part of oneself. The technical challenges, although not insignificant, are secondary.

Why did I record and release these two pieces, despite all the good reasons for not doing so? I did it because they are examples of the greatest legacies of the human mind and heart.

At a certain point in one’s life, the repertoire we choose reflects why we play the piano. Today, I no longer have to enter competitions or play for school juries. The simple truth is that I now choose to study works that make me feel deeply, and for no other reason than to experience them. I play for reasons of neither politics nor personal legacy: my goals have become much smaller and simpler in scale. I play pieces that challenge me to feel more fully human.

The past six years have been globally traumatic in so many ways. We were struck by one crisis after another — social, political, economic, or health-related. The simplistic and biased news sources we access today make it nearly impossible to know if our actions are truly serving the needs of “good” or “bad” — if one can even define those terms. I switched from dairy to almond milk to help lower greenhouse gas emissions, only to discover that almond milk requires more water than any of the other dairy alternatives. We might attend a fund-raiser for “a good cause,” unaware that the event’s red carpet and plastic cups are financed by morally questionable oligarchs. We might be donating money to causes that indirectly support something we believe to be unethical. It’s all enough to keep us up at night. Can we ever really know whether something is absolutely good or right? Once we accept that we can’t, then the moral relativism depresses us. What I’m realizing is that terms like “truth,” “right,” and “good” are really complicated.

I sometimes wonder if there is any action or activity that we know for certain is good. The only answer I can provide with absolute confidence is this: playing the piano is good. When I practice, I feel that I totally get what it’s all about. Musicians create order out of chaos; we weave together a bunch of dots on a page, and we decide how the foundational bass should ring at the bottom; we work to balance the rhythmic texture in the middle and explore how to make that melody soar gloriously at the top. Each note, no matter how insignificant it may seem, plays a role in this cosmos. We create reason out of incongruous chaos; it all makes sense — and it’s beautiful. What an incredible privilege and a blessing it is to play the piano.

Allow me to lead us back to our initial question: why did I record and release these two pieces, despite all the good reasons for not doing so? I did it because they are examples of the greatest legacies of the human mind and heart. Because the chances of this album harming anyone or anything are slim to none, and because my pleasure in creating it might indirectly contribute to something good for the world. One can hope.

One late evening many years ago, I played the third movement of the Fantasy for my mentor*. It was the first time I ran through it in its entirety, and also the first time I felt fully “into” the universe — the heartbeat — of this piece. The arpeggios in the last two pages rose to an ecstatic apotheosis, triumphantly landing on the closing cadence. I played the final three chords piano, echoing the concluding measures of the first movement. My mentor and I remained quiet as the sound dissipated into silence. After a while he said, quietly, “Beau.” I nodded.

New York, summer 2023

Special thanks to:
*Giovanni Valentini
Joseph Patrych
Yamaha Artist Services
Kaz Tsujio
James Irsay

Schumann Fantasie in C major; Liszt Sonata in B minor is available on Bandcamp and will be released on Sep. 7, 2023 on all major streaming platforms.



Lisa Yui

Yamaha Artist Lisa Yui enjoys a multifaceted musical career as pianist, lecturer, educator, author, and musical director. http://lisayui.com