Jeremy Denk, piano (in Boston, MA)

NEC's Jordan Hall

Acclaimed pianist and author Jeremy Denk curates a program that unites female composers across the centuries. Works by Louise Farrenc and Clara Schumann, French Romantic holdout Cécile Chaminade, American pianist and composer Amy Beach, and modernist-turned-folk-revivalist Ruth Crawford Seeger sit alongside works by acclaimed contemporary composers Tania León, Meredith Monk, Phyllis Chen, and Missy Mazzoli. 

Denk pulls these diverse works and composers together to tell a story of women’s genius—both recognized and neglected in their times and remembered and forgotten in ours—and lends his insight, technical panache, and expressive style to this era-spanning program. 

This performance will also take place in Groton Hill on December 10 at 3:00 PM.

Program details

First half performed without pause.

Clara Schumann | Romance No. 1, Op. 21

Clara was the daughter of Friedrich Wieck (1785-1873), a piano teacher, and Marianne (1797-1872), a soprano and a student of Wieck. Clara, who was groomed to be a prodigy, first appeared in public when she was nine and held her first complete piano recital at age eleven, followed by an extended tour a year later. She performed extensively and studied piano, voice, violin, instrumentation, score reading, counterpoint, and composition; she also wrote and published several pieces for solo piano. Robert Schumann, who came to live and study with her father in 1830, asked for Clara’s hand in marriage in 1837. Wieck refused, but finally a day before Clara’s twenty-first birthday and only after the young couple filed and won a lawsuit, were they married. Initially, they remained in Leipzig where they both taught in the Conservatory; later, they moved to Dresden in 1844 and then to Düsseldorf in 1853. In Düsseldorf they finally had enough room for Clara to be able to practice and compose comfortably without disturbing her, already by then, very nervous husband. During that summer, she produced several works, among them Three Romances, Op. 21, which were published in 1855 or 1856 in Leipzig. 

Tania León | Ritual  

The piano plays a crucial role in Tania León’s life. “If I have moments where I need some solace, or some support, or some release of any kind, I go to the piano,” she says. Although León is perhaps best known as a composer, conductor, and educator, she started out her musical life as a pianist. “My soul is very attached to the piano,” she ssays. “For the most incredible moments in my life, that’s where I go. It’s like the people that go to church, the people go to pray to whoever they might believe in; for me, the piano is my thing.” 

When she was a young child, she was drawn to music; she absorbed everything from Afro-Cuban street rhythms to the classical music on radio. When she was five, her grandfather bought her a secondhand piano; soon, her grandmother succeeded in having her enrolled in the Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory in Havana. She continued her musical training there until she completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees. In 1967, she received asylum in the United States in a program offered to Cubans who sought refuge in America.  
After a chance meeting with Arthur Mitchell, the first black principal of the New York City Ballet, the trajectory of her life morphed from pianist to composer. She was substituting as an accompanist for a dance rehearsal when Mitchell, who was launching the Dance Theatre of Harlem, invited her to become a founding partner and its first music director.  He appreciated her improvisation skills in accompanying dancers and urged her to follow the choreography without using printed music. Mitchell encouraged León to compose a ballet, which she did; soon after, she knew she would be a composer. Opportunities blossomed, and she broke down barriers as both a woman composer and a woman conductor. 
In this work for solo piano, the brief but striking Ritual, she has assimilated her native Cuban rhythms and also imbued the piece with the knotty modernism and experimentalism of Elliott Carter. Ritual, commissioned by Affiliate Artists Inc., was premiered on March 8, 1987 by William Koehler in Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall. It begins with long, resonating notes that come together into unresolved chords that foreshadow the tumultuous activity to follow. The tempo increases gradually, as the music becomes more strident and volatile. At the end, it resolves in a few firm notes.

Cécile Chaminade
| La lisonjera (The Flatterer), Op. 50   

Heightened respect for French music as well as a serious exploration of female composers brings renewed interest in the music of Cécile Chaminade. Subjects of the kind now recognized as feminist interested her greatly, and among her major works is a big “lyric symphony” for chorus and orchestra entitled Les Amazones.

Chaminade received her initial musical training from her mother, a pianist and singer. A friend of the family, the composer Georges Bizet called her “mon petit Mozart” and advised her parents to give her a serious musical education.  Her father, however, refused to let her study at the Paris Conservatoire because he felt it was not in accordance with the decorum of young women of her class; nevertheless, he allowed her to study privately with members of the faculty.  
She first introduced her own compositions in a recital in 1878 at her family’s house in Le Vesinet, a village west of Paris. The concert was very successful and served as a model for her recitals for decades. Her repertoire in these performances consisted entirely of her own works, a mixture of piano solos and vocal songs with her playing the piano. She composed more than 350 pieces in almost every musical form and enjoyed amazing popularity during her lifetime. Chaminade was awarded many prestigious honors, and in 1913, received the Legion d’Honneur, the first female composer to receive the honor.  

Chaminade’s music is melodic and accessible, with easy to remember melodies, mild chromatic passages, and clear textures. It is described as emphasizing wit and color and is typically French.

La lisonjera (“The Flatterer”), one of her most famous pieces, composed in 1890, is a charming and witty serenade with a capricious melody that has some Spanish phrasing. It contains many complex leaps and figurations the pianist must negotiate with lightness. Its structural scheme is simple: two sections alternate before a coda, based loosely on the previous music, which concludes the work. 

Missy Mazzoli
| Heartbreaker  

Missy Mazzoli has been called “one of the more consistently inventive, surprising composers now working in New York.” Cheekily, Alex Ross in the New Yorker praised her “apocalyptic imagination.” She has also been described as “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart” (Time Out New York). 

In 2018, she became one of the first two women to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. That year she was also nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Classical Composition for her work Vespers for Violin. Her second opera, Breaking the Waves, was commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and the Beth Morrison Projects in Philadelphia as part of New York’s Prototype Festival in January 2017. The work was described as being “among the best 21st-century operas yet” (Opera News), “savage, heartbreaking and thoroughly original” (Wall Street Journal), and “dark and daring” (New York Times).  

Mazzoli attended the Yale School of Music, the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, and Boston University. She composed and performed several pieces for the hit Amazon TV series Mozart in the Jungle. She also recently created new works commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Young People’s Chorus of New York, ETHEL, Roomful of Teeth and the pianist Emanuel Ax, who has performed her Brahms-inspired Bolts of Loving Thunder on tour around the country.  

Mazzoli, who is an active pianist and keyboardist, often performs with Victoire, a band she founded in 2008 dedicated to her own compositions. The typical Mazzoli piece embraces contrasts, giving forth a feeling of calm while it can also be edgy; it can be slow and hyper-energetic, solemn, intense, hypnotic, and wild, in short often many things at once.  

Heartbreaker for piano, written in 2013, was commissioned by the American Pianists Association in honor of the 2013 DeHaan Classical Fellow. Mazzoli wrote her own note:

“As a composer who started her musical life as a pianist, it was unexpectedly difficult to write a short piece for the American Pianists Association’s competition. I wanted to write something virtuosic but something that stood out from traditionally showy “competitive” pieces. My new work, Heartbreaker, is virtuosic in subtle, unusual ways. It starts out deceptively simple and quickly spirals into something that is just within the limits of the pianist’s control. It requires a virtuosity that is not about playing faster than everyone else, or even about playing more accurately than everyone else, but more about striking a balance between rhythmic precision and the free-wheeling abandon the piece requires.” 

Amy Beach | "In Autumn" from Four Sketches, Op. 15, no. 1   

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) was the first American woman to succeed as a composer of large-scale works of serious music. She was celebrated during her lifetime as the foremost woman composer of the United States. Her mother, a gifted pianist and singer, provided Beach’s first exposure to piano. Beach’s early feats included improvising duets before the age of two, playing by ear in full harmony at four, and giving public recitals at seven. She taught herself composition by studying the great masters. When her family moved to Boston, she studied with experienced professional teachers interested in helping her develop her talents. She made her Boston debut as a pianist in 1883 at sixteen, and in 1884, she played Chopin’s F-minor concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which had been organized only three years earlier.

She learned orchestration and fugue techniques by translating Berlioz and François-Auguste Gevaert’s musical treatises. In 1885, she married H. H. A. Beach, a distinguished Boston surgeon and Harvard professor, slightly older than her father.  Following the mores of Victorian society, he restricted her concert appearances, but encouraged her composing.

Beach completed more than 300 works, including the “Gaelic” symphony, a piano concerto, a large-scale mass, numerous songs and choral works, and many other compositions for chorus, including “Festival Jubilate,” commissioned for the dedication of the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1897. She gathered numerous honors and was twice received at the White House. Many of her works were premièred by major orchestras and often were the first times these orchestras performed music by a female composer.

Much of Beach’s work shows the influence of American late Romantic composers Horatio Parker, Edward MacDowell, Arthur Foote, and George Chadwick, but her music is also indebted to that of Brahms and Debussy. The majority of her compositions, however, display her own idiomatic style and her gift for melody. The author of an important history of music in the United States once asked Beach if she resented being called an American composer. Her reply, he reported, was, “No, but I would rather be called a composer.”  

She was widely known for the broad range of her strong musical mind, which led her to translate European theoretical works into English, for example, and to mount a campaign in favor of the work of Brahms when his music was still considered to be difficult and modern. She was engaged as soloist eleven times by the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the orchestra also premiered her “Gaelic” symphony on October 30, 1896.  It is believed to have been the first symphony by a woman performed in the United States.

After her husband’s death, in 1910, Beach spent four years in Europe and returned to her path as a performer, using recital appearances to establish her reputation and support the sale of her compositions both in America and in Europe. She returned to the US on the outbreak of the First World War; for most of the rest of her long and fruitful life as a busy composer, she lived in New Hampshire.   

Beach composed her Four Sketches in 1892. One of her many works for solo piano, its four movements each have a title, and each piece in the set is headed by a quotation from a French poet. For “In Autumn,” the first of the four sketches, the lines are drawn from Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem Autumn. Beach chose the line, “Feuillages jaunissants sur les gazons épars” (“With yellowing leaves scattered on lawns”) an evocative phrase that she illustrates with music that frequently changes tempo and key, beginning in a minor tonality but modulating into a major key, and back, but ending in major, somehow echoing the frequent changes of weather in the fall or perhaps as a metaphor for the irregular rhythm of the leaves that, episodically and at different rates, fall off the trees in autumn. 

In this short sketch Beach adheres to late 19th-century Romantic characteristics including the representation of nature as well as programmatic elements. The brief piece is suggestive of the nostalgia and melancholy of the fall season. 

Meredith Monk | Paris 
Meredith Monk is a composer, singer, director/choreographer, and a creator of new opera, music theater works, films, and installations. She pioneered what is now called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance.” During a career that spans more than 40 years, she has been acclaimed by audiences and critics as a major creative force in the performing arts. 
Since graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964, Monk has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award in 1995, two Guggenheim fellowships, a Brandeis Creative Arts Award, three “Obies” (including an award for Sustained Achievement), two Villager Awards, two “Bessie” awards for Sustained Creative Achievement, the 1986 National Music Theatre Award, the 1992 Dance magazine Award and a 2005 ASCAP Concert Music Award. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary Doctor of Arts degrees from Bard College, the University of the Arts, the Julliard School, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the Boston Conservatory. She is also a fellow of the MacDowell Colony. 
As a child, Monk was enrolled in Dalcroze Eurhythmics classes, in part to help her spatial coordination impacted by strabismus, a condition that affects ocular alignment. Dalcroze method uses full body movement as a pathway for learning the fundamentals of music. The lessons for Monk, however, were slightly different as she came from a musical family: “They were learning music through their bodies and I was learning my body through music. I came into the classes feeling confident about music and rhythm.”  

Paris, which she wrote in 1972 for piano solo, was her first piano piece. She says of it, “I wrote it out by hand. The whole score. I bought a piano that was the same kind of piano I had when I was a child, which was a Hardman Peck, a 1940s Art Deco-looking piano, those brown pianos. . . . The first thing I did when I got that piano was to write Paris. I’ve always felt that the piece holds up by itself as a piano piece.” Of the performance of the work, she recalls, “I had just moved into this loft. And the audience came and we were up in the sleeping loft and we had little curtains and there was a little face that came out and we did, ‘Mesdames et Messieurs, welcome to the house!’ We had this whole little prologue...and then the first thing that happened was this man came out and bowed to them and opened up his music and played Paris. Later on, it became the accompaniment for a movement section, but I always felt that it was a piano piece.  

“I had just come back from Paris. I was very into Buster Keaton and silent comedy, and I wanted to have this piece be episodic, almost like a silent film. You know, it’s probably my most episodic piece. I always think of it as it as this little man that kind of goes from one thing to another, from one episode to another.’’

“It’s very lurchy and awkward, and I was trying to convey that. When you listen to the music, you don’t have to know that. It has a kind of witty, happy/sad kind of quality.” 

Louise Farrenc | Mélodie in A-flat Major

Louise Farrenc was a distinguished but neglected French 19th -century composer, pianist, and teacher. Born Jeanne-Louise Dumont, she came from a line of court sculptors and from a member of a bohemian Parisian family that was very open to allowing women to explore their artistic abilities. Because of this, Farrenc had the freedom to express her musical passions right from an early age.

From age six, she studied piano and was taught by her godmother, who had studied with Muzio Clementi. When she became interested in composition at age fifteen, Farrenc applied for entry to the Paris Conservatory. That year, she began private lessons with Anton Reicha, a friend of Beethoven’s who, as a professor at the Conservatory that barred Farrenc from entry as a composition student, also taught Berlioz, Liszt, and César Franck. She was allowed to study piano at the Paris Conservatory, the only female in her class. She then began a career as a concert pianist, achieving considerable fame in the 1830s. In 1842, she became the only woman in the entire 19th century to be appointed to the position of professor at the Paris Conservatory. As a scholar, she completed editions of early music. 

Like Mendelssohn, Farrenc was praised for working within the confines of older traditions. When the prestigious Institute de France awarded her a chamber-music prize in 1869, it cited her for works that “glow with the purest classical style.” Her success as a published composer was partially due to the fact that her husband, Jacques Farrenc, was a leading Parisian music publisher who was not afraid to promote his wife’s music through publication, but Farrenc’s development was cut short. After the death of her daughter in 1859, she retreated from composition, writing just a few miniatures; she turned instead to beginning an early-music revival.

This brief, lyrical Mélodie in A flat, composed in 1846, is a character piece, a song without words, written in a style or genre that became popular in the 1830s. Its structure, melody plus accompaniment, represents a feature of domestic music-making of the time that usually was performed on two instruments, but in this piece, the pianist performs both. Very poetic, this work has depth and profundity that is very affecting. Nils Franke, a German-born pianist, has praised the love-duet voicing in this attractive work.  

Ruth Crawford Seeger | Study in Mixed Accents

Ruth Crawford was the child of an itinerant Methodist minister and his wife. After graduating from high school, she entered Foster’s School of Musical Art to study piano; in 1921, she continued her study at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Originally planning to take a one-year teaching certificate in piano, she stayed until 1929, studying composition and theory. 

She developed her own unique “ultra-modern” voice and was recognized early on as a woman composer who did not fit the sentimental stereotypes of what it meant to be a woman composer. In Chicago, she joined the circle of Djana Lavoie Herz, pianist and ex-follower of Scriabin; through him she met Henry Cowell, who arranged for performances of her music in New York and also published her music. Crawford worked as a piano teacher for the children of poet Carl Sandburg, who interested her in American folksongs; she eventually set some of Sandburg’s poems. When she married Charles Seeger, a composer and musicologist, she took on the responsibility for his children of a previous marriage, including his son Pete, who became America’s best known folksinger.  

By 1930, Seeger had become an American modernist whose work distinguished itself in its uncompromising use of dissonance, contrapuntal ostinati, striking choice of texts, and formal construction. That year she won a Guggenheim Fellowship for travel to Europe and was the first woman so honored.  

Her unique Study in Mixed Accents for piano is a very, very short piece (only a bit over a minute long) but it is a work that required much technical mastery to create it. It consists of an almost continuous stream of parallel octaves always moving, following a basic arch shape from the lower keyboard register up to the highest and back down. Within this seemingly simple design are carefully crafted rhythmic articulations, much like jazz inflections.  

Phyllis Chen | SumiTones

Described by the New York Times as “spellbinding” and “delightfully quirky matched with interpretive sensitivity,” the music of Phyllis Chen, a composer, pianist, and sound artist, draws from her tactile exploration of object and sound.  

Chen began playing the piano when she was five and did not come across the toy piano until she was an adult. As a pianist, she immediately fell in love with the instrument’s possibilities. The toy piano helped her to develop her personal voice, one that reflects her “third culture kid experience.” The unrefined and raw tone of the instrument inspired Chen to create very personal miniature theatre works (“The Memoirist,” “The Slumber Thief,” and “Down the Rabbit-Hole") in collaboration with her partner and video artist, Rob Dietz. One of her interdisciplinary solo works, “Lighting the Dark,” the New York Times described as “by turns poignant, humorous and virtuosic. Chen’s performance offered a slyly subversive take on issues relating to femininity, technology and power…the looping, spellbinding music…became a fitting tribute to the modest, repetitive, yet quietly heroic work of women.”   

In 2022, she was honored as a Guggenheim Fellow; in 2019, she was awarded a Cage-Cunningham Fellowship. Chen is one of the founding members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, based in New York City; she has received commissions from them. 

She created “SumiTones” in 2019 for solo piano and has written the following program note for it: 

“This piece was written for Jacob Greenberg and is dedicated to my grandfather, a lifetime calligrapher. My grandfather wrote under the pen-name Nong-san which translates to mean ‘mountain full of green trees.’ The Japanese word sumi means ‘black ink’ and refers to a particular style of ink wash paintings. Gradations of black are created by mixing water with ink. As I view my grandfather’s old calligraphy paintings, I ponder each stroke imprinted on the page, recognizing each line as a captured moment of a choreographed gesture.” 

Amy Beach | "Dreaming" from Four Sketches, Op. 15, no. 3 

Like “In Autumn” (see above), this brief piece is drawn from Beach’s Four Sketches. It is the third piece in the series of four. The poem Beach chose to quote for the epigraph of this piece is by Victor Hugo; she heads the music with the line “Tu me parles du fond d’un rêve” (“You speak to me from the depths of a dream”), the first line in the poem entitled A celle qui est voilée. 

The piece begins in the lower range of the piano with a soft rocking figure, much as if it were a musical “metaphor” for “the depths of a dream.” The poignant piece has smooth long lines and beautiful exotic harmonies as well as great passion. 

Brahms most likely composed the Klavierstücke early in the summer of 1893 in Ischl, his country retreat in Austria. In that summer and the summer before, he composed twenty short piano pieces and published them as Opp. 116-119. Since Brahms felt generally uncomfortable with descriptive titles for his collections of pieces, he often used the non-specific general title Klavierstücke instead of anything more descriptive. These works do not require the technical facility necessary to play many of his earlier works, but the miniatures display a pianist’s musicality and bring together a lifetime of experience in very short, focused pieces, which are some of his most personal and emotive works.

No discernible feature binds together the pieces within Op. 119. (Brahms described them as “lullabies of my pain.”) The reason for the final grouping has never been discovered. They were published in Berlin in 1893 by Simrock. The earliest recorded public performance of the Op. 119 group was in London on January 22, 1894, by the pianist Ilona Eibenschütz (1873-1967), who studied with Clara Schumann for four years. Schumann seems to have been a little jealous of Eibenschütz because she had had the privilege of being acquainted with this music before her. Perhaps to calm Clara, or else simply out of his habit of belittling his new works, Brahms wrote to her that they were “not worth much discussion,” yet there has been no question that they display the mature composer’s skill at musical economy with confidence, mastery, and intense concentration. 

The individual pieces within the general grouping also have vague, indeterminate titles: there are three intermezzos and a rhapsody. The distinctions among the first three are slight. A single basic structure suffices for all four of them: they have a simple three-part form in which similar opening and closing music, with some variation on its reappearance, surrounds a contrasting middle section. The three Intermezzi are generally rather slow, compact, lyrical pieces; the Rhapsody is rather more expansive. 

Brahms described the poetic mood of the first Intermezzo in B minor, Adagio, in a letter to Clara Schumann in May 1893, “I have been tempted to write you a little piano piece well knowing how it will please you. It is seething with dissonances! … The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is by no means an understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard, as though melancholy would be drawn in from each, with sensual pleasure from these dissonances!" In fact, this intimate miniature is delicately constructed with every note and articulation important in creating and then altering the mood. The center of the intermezzo is warmer than the initial sections and is in a major tonality.

No. 2, Intermezzo in E minor, Andantino un poco agitato, is a variation-like piece of great rhythmic ingenuity with a contrasting E-major section in which the fairly austere main theme is converted into a soft, sweet Viennese waltz, Andantino grazioso. The rhythmic shifts give the music of the outer sections a feeling of nervous agitation and anxious searching. 

No. 3, Intermezzo in C Major, Grazioso e giocoso, is a lighter-toned piece with an interesting layout of the “voices,” so that the theme occurs at first in the middle of the texture, not at its top. Brahms creates a mood of playfulness and again manipulates the rhythm subtly. The gracefulness of the beginning is contrasted by the middle’s more energetic section. 

No. 4, Rhapsodie in E-flat Major, Allegro risoluto, which has been criticized for its austerity, is perhaps the most well-known and even the most effective of the four works. It is the longest of the late piano works; commentators have suggested that it may even date from earlier in Brahms' career. More dramatic than the preceding pieces in the opus but also in three-part form like the others, the first section itself is also ternary and begins with what has been variously called a heroic declamation or a march-like rhythm. The second subject, “grazioso,” appears in longer phrases than the first. The central episode is more lyrical; then Brahms produces some variation before the recapitulation with the opening section sounding in the “wrong” key before the actual reprise. The Rhapsody's ending in E-flat minor is very unusual and is an inversion of the traditional practice of moving from a minor key to end in a related major key.

© Susan Halpern, 2023

Robert Schumann, a composer of the Romantic era in Germany, began his musical training early. He took piano lessons as a young child and completed his first composition when he was eleven years old. Like several other composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, he studied law, but abandoned it to pursue music. After permanently injuring his hand, he abandoned his hopes for a career as a pianist and earned his living as a composer, conductor, and editor of an important musical journal that he founded in 1844. In 1840, Schumann married Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher. Clara was one of the renowned pianists of the era and one of the first women to achieve prominence as a composer. 

“To understand the Fantasie,” Robert wrote to his beloved Clara several years later, “think back to the summer of 1836, when I was separated from you.” But the background of this Fantasie is rather more complicated than that, for it involves many ideas and people dear to the Schumanns. It had a multi-layered presence in their musical and emotional lives.  

One of the causes that occupied all of musical Europe at the time was the erection of a monument to Beethoven in Bonn, where he was born. Franz Liszt was one of the musicians most active in this important step towards the near‑deification of Beethoven. Schumann intended to participate by contributing his earnings from the sale of his Fantasie as his “pennyworth for Beethoven,” he said.  He dedicated the Fantasie to Liszt, whom he greatly admired and who was then still a friend. (Later, unfortunately for history, the Schumann-Brahms and Liszt‑Wagner circles came to dislike and distrust each other, on both personal and artistic grounds.) 

The Fantasie is, in fact, a freely shaped sonata that ends with its slow movement, but despite all Beethoven's radical innovations, it was easier for Schumann to change its title than to explain its difference. It is also a confidential communication from Robert to Clara, with a secret reference to their separation. This separation had escaped notice until 1920, when a German scholar noted for the first time that embedded in the “most passionate” first movement is a musical quotation from Beethoven's song cycle, To the Distant Beloved. This fragment of melody is there sung to the words, “So take these songs that I have sung for you, beloved.” At one time, while the work was in progress, Schumann also considered inserting something from a Beethoven symphony too, perhaps the Eroica, so that he and Clara would be secretly united (through Beethoven), in this music.

Schumann thought at various times of other extra-musical associations for the Fantasie.  One early idea was to present it as a Grand Sonata, heroic in character, with subtitles for each of the three movements, which are generally translated quite literally as “Ruins,” “Triumphal Arch” (or “Trophies”), and “Starry Crowns” (or “Palms”). An English‑speaking composer, however, would probably have called them something like “Destruction,” “Spoils of War,” and “Victory.”  These designations gave an idea of the Beethoven‑like, heroic aspect of the work, but when the time came to publish it, Schumann deleted them. He replaced them with a bit of verse by the poet Franz Schlegel (whose wife was an aunt of Schumann's revered friend, Mendelssohn): “Throughout all music there sounds the colorful dream of the earth, one quiet note played for a secret eavesdropper.”  Clara, he told her in a letter, was “the note” of his life, but at the same time, she was the eavesdropper, the secret listener; she, he felt, would know the secret of the piece. 

In the music itself, there are no problems for the modern listener who is carried away by its sweeping power, its sustained lyricism, and its forceful contrasts. The first movement starts almost abruptly, as though a door has been opened on a discourse already in progress. It is a work of “fantasy and passion throughout” say the instructions to the player, although the music shifts for a while to a style that is “legendary in tone,” by which Schumann presumably meant that it has the character of a folk song. 

The second movement, which follows without pause, is to be played at a moderate tempo, but energetically or vigorously. It is a great march in which powerful chords alternate with complex counterpoint. When Clara was learning it, she said that it made her “hot and cold all over,” and added, “If only I could hear it played by a great orchestra!”

The Fantasie ends with a long, gentle poetic reverie that forges a historic link between the spacious calm of late‑Beethoven and the intimate passion of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. It sometimes seems tempting, too, to find a connection with Schubert's song setting of the Schlegel poem, which Schumann may have encountered in manuscript. It was not published until 1885, almost twenty years after his death.  

© Susan Halpern, 2023

“One of the most thoughtful and reliably interesting artists of our time. ”

Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A remarkable figure, as much a thinker as a player...and as much admired for his pioneering, sometimes challenging programming as he is for his brilliantly perceptive playing. ”

The Scotsman

Jordan Hall Venue Information

This performance is generously supported by
Stephen C. Perry & Oliver Radford.

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