Sound and vision blog

27 October 2023

Listening to Clara Schumann through her pupils: A pianistic orchestration of tones and rhythms

Franz_Hanfstaengl_-_Clara_Schumann_(1857)Photograph of Clara Schumann by Franz Hanfstaengl 1857

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Yanran Li

            I was fortunate to obtain a fellowship at the British Library last fall. As a pianist, given my interest in Robert Schumann, I was delighted to be able to take advantage of the many unusual recordings of Clara Schumann’s students., a number of them becoming famous in their own right. Mr. Jonathan Summers afforded me access to the rich collection of these audio recordings. He also made available contemporary interviews with musicians, as well as the archive of newspaper reviews of both Clara’s and her students’ concerts in the possession of the British Library.

            As one of the most prominent pianists and educators of the 19th century, Clara Schumann (1819-1896) has made immense contributions to the evolution of modern and contemporary piano performance. Her musical sphere is familiar to a broad range of music practitioners and enthusiasts, creating an entire generation of remarkable pianists. By analysing the surviving musical recordings, one can discern the multifaceted interpretations that these pianists have gained from her teachings. This, in turn, broadens our understanding of how Schumann's piano music can be performed.

            Within a single pedagogical framework, students of the revered educator naturally develop unique styles. Examining diverse interpretations by musicians connected to Schumann’s musical world offers a rich tapestry of insights. This analytical approach aids contemporary musicians in understanding Schumann's piano music by identifying commonalities and differences among Clara Schumann's students, providing profound insights into his compositions.

            Before delving into my in-depth study of performances by several of Clara's students, like many pianists, I was already familiar with some of Clara's teaching principles, particularly her emphasis on touch. Indeed, among numerous concert reviews of her solo and chamber performances that I found in the Newspaper Archive, the most prominent praise often centered on the kaleidoscopic tonal qualities she elicited by her touch on the keys. Additionally, in Nancy Reich's renowned biography of Clara, there are multiple references to the influence of her father, Friedrich Wieck, demanding absolute uniformity in touch, cultivating a fine touch. Clara would use this touch to construct incredibly smooth and nuanced musical phrases.

            As Robert Schumann entered the creative realm of the 1830s, deepening his relationship with Clara, he nearly exclusively envisioned and styled his compositions based on Clara's performance manner. One of the most conspicuous resultant stylistic traits was Schumann's pursuit of orchestral expression on the piano, a direct and passionate tribute to Clara's rich tonal palette. It is the intricate inner voice-leading and counterpoints, which are the most distinctive compositional characteristics in Schumann's piano works, that are closely related to Clara's keeping of her fingers close to the keyboard. From a technical standpoint, this was a consistent feature in both Clara's and her father's techniques. Even when playing demanding passages or powerful chords requiring substantial force, they employed the method to produce sound. According to Clara’s pupils, she often explained the method as playing the instrument through "pressure rather than percussion”, which is a rather unusual concept for a modern pianist like myself.  With access to the Library's resources, I have been able to systematically compile Clara's piano-playing principles, refining them through comparisons of Schumann's piano solo recordings by pianists directly connected to her, resulting in the following insights.

            Edith Heymann (1872–1960), an English pianist who visited Clara Schumann's home in Frankfurt in 1894, provided valuable insights into Clara's approach to piano touch. According to Heymann, Clara was known for her soft, warm touch, particularly in her mastery of intertwining melodies, exhibiting a super legato touch without exaggerating tone or tempo, and she rarely used the pedals except for chords. Clara's technique emphasized sensitive fingers, resulting in a fine tone, and phrasing through subtle tone gradations. Many biographies of Clara highlight her dedication to achieving an even touch and cultivating a refined sense of the use of soft pedal and tone quality in her teaching.

            However, as I explored reminiscences of Clara by pianists like Fanny Davies, Adelina de Lara, and Carl Friedberg, it became evident that Clara Schumann's emphasis on touch had a deeper purpose – transforming the piano into a fully symphonic instrument. Adelina de Lara (1872-1961), in her Farewell Lecture and concert at Wigmore Hall in 1956, recalled Clara Schumann's insistence on treating piano solo works as if they were orchestral compositions. Clara believed that, just like in an orchestra, every minute phrase in piano music could be seen as a separate instrument. Clara encouraged her students to develop "visions" of the music, granting individual life to each musical element within a piece and imagining orchestral effects to enhance the piano's timbre.

            In this context, Clara's requirements for pressing the keys (rather than striking them), which resulted in consistent touch and flawless legato, align with the requirements for flexible and relaxed arm and wrist movements. This approach facilitated seamless coordination between the pianist's key touch and their sensitivity to sound nuances. Such training undoubtedly laid the foundation for executing and distinguishing more intricate and nuanced tonal qualities with pianists’ fingers.

            Not only a solid foundation for the execution of a diverse tone quality is essential, but the idea of timing in piano playing is also crucial to ensure the accomplishment of an orchestral-sounding piano which was mutually desired and pursued by Clara and Robert Schumann. Clara, as documented in the Pearl Collection of her pupils and in Adelina's interviews, emphasized the rejection of mechanical or rushed playing.  Whenever the student was rushing through transitional segments, Madame Schumann would point out agitatedly, ‘No Passages!’, from the other side of the room. Viewing musical elements as individual instruments, each with an irreplaceable role, Clara expected her students to master timing – both the overall tempo selection and the precise timing of each musical element's entrance. Upon examining recordings by Clara Schumann's students, I observed distinct timing styles that breathe vitality and a full orchestral dynamic quality into the piano. Subsequent passages will elaborate on these observations.

            One of the most influential pupils of Clara Schumann, Fanny Davies (1861-1934), has demonstrated a most notable rhythmic interpretation through the way she handled the pronounced independence of the middle voices and her creative phrasings. An exemplary instance can be found in her 1930 recording of Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze. Davies's interpretation resonates with the distinctive style of Robert Schumann and aligns with the principles emphasized in Clara Schumann's teaching. In this recording, during the first ritardando, where the melodic line leans on an E flat major chord borrowed from the parallel minor key, G minor, Davies pays special attention to the concluding note, F sharp. She sustains it with a string-instrument-like quality while complementing the fermata effect with a series of arpeggio chords in the left hand. Subsequently, she continues the sustained left-hand note, F natural, from the preceding F sharp, thus weaving a melodic line that traversed F sharp – F natural – E – D – C – E – D – B. This intricate approach intertwined the upper-voice melodic line with the middle voice, infusing it with vibrant tonal colours, especially as it progressed into the "Im Tempo" section.

Fig.1_Davies no.1

Fig.1 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 01 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace), G major, Florestan and Eusebius, mm. 16-21

Davidsbundlertanze 01 Lebhaft

            Another instance can be found in the second piece, “Innig”, from the same work. Schumann's notation suggests a rhythmic pattern ambiguously involving a parallel existence of three and two groupings per measure. Davies enhances the audibility of the middle voice, G, by slurring the second and third eighth notes, E - G, in each measure. Consequently, not only does the small slur of E - G become an independent musical unit, adding another viola-like tonal layer to the sonority, but it also serves as a complement to the high-register melodic line, C sharp - G.

Fig.2_Davies no.2

Fig.2 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 02 Innig: Intimately (Con intimo sentimento), B minor, Eusebius, mm.1-6

Davidsbundlertanze 02 Innig

            In the final movement of the first section of Davidsbündlertänze, No. 9, “Lebhaft," Davies demonstrates another unexpected phrasing technique. This section comprises two groups of four measures forming an eight-measure long phrase. When the low bass melody, outlined by octave intervals in the left hand, first appears in measures five to eight, Davies not only allows the low B flat to slightly precede the right-hand melody, disrupting the straightforward 3/4 rhythm established in the first four measures but also elongates the rhythmic gap between G – D – B in measure six. This guides the listener's ear to the left-hand melody and makes them momentarily forget that it's a repetition. As the music enters a new phrase, she similarly hastens the left-hand F sharp in measure twelve, ensuring a seamless transition of the melodic line to the left hand. The combined effect of tonal variation and the timing of different layers' appearances illustrates one of the key technical approaches in revealing the tonal structural complexity in Schumann's piano compositions.

Fig.3_Davies no.9-1

Fig.3 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 09 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace) (2nd edition), C major, Florestan, mm.1-8

Fig.4_Davies no.9-2

Fig.4 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 09 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace) (2nd edition), C major, Florestan, mm.12-14

Download Davidsbundlertanze 09 Lebhaft

            Fanny Davies' unexpected phrasing in her performances often integrates precise timing of the lower bass notes, creating an independent yet cohesive effect in the low registers, which Clara Schumann highly valued. What is notable in her performance is her interpretation of Schumann’s rhythmic notation, which incorporates characteristic variations within an unchanging rhythmic pattern.

            The nuances of voice layering and timing intricacies shine through in Adelina de Lara's performances, particularly in her rendition of Schumann's polyrhythm. These instances are abundant in her playing, with the most representative example being her 1951 recording of the second movement, "Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch," from Kreisleriana. In this passage, measures cease to adhere to a rhythmically uniform structure; instead, they suggest opportunities for breath and expression. De Lara's interpretation allows for a freer, more flowing sense of rhythm. Both the left and right-hand melodies maintain relatively independent rhythms, and the appearance of triplets and sixteenth notes in the bass melody after the double bar carries an improvisational quality, unburdened by rigid rhythmic divisions. De Lara's approach to ornaments is equally intriguing. These inherently rhythmically complex elements offer a broader canvas for Schumann's polyrhythm. De Lara's fingertips evoke a sensation akin to playing the cello, with the resonance produced by the bow's friction on the strings and subtle rhythmic delays contributing to the overall experience.

Jacob_Hilsdorf_-_Carl_FriedbergCarl Friedburg

            The flexibility of tempo serves as a potent expressive tool in Carl Friedberg's musical interpretations. Friedberg (1872–1955), who met Clara Schumann and maintained a close connection with Brahms, has left a limited body of recorded material. However, Mr. Allan Evans compiled and published a set of two CDs about Brahms in 2015, which includes precious recordings of Friedberg's performances. This album even features a remarkable performance segment of Brahms' Piano Trio in C minor by the Trio of New York in 1939. Among others, one of the most impressive recordings is a brief excerpt on Disc 2, less than two minutes long, featuring Friedberg's rendition of Schumann's Arabeske.

            In Minore 1, in e minor, of Arabeske, Friedberg demonstrates a flexible sense of rhythm. This enables him to delineate layers within what initially appears to be a straightforward eighth-note melody. First, there's the slightly impulsive melodic line of B – C – B – F sharp – G. Then, he lingers briefly on the highest note of the melody, transforming the descending scale in the second measure of every two measures into an inner voice that enriches the upper-register melody’s colour. His musical consideration also makes the arrangement of every three harmonies in a small phrase more musically sensible and natural to the listener's ear.

Fig.5_ArabeskeFig.5 Arabeske op.18, mm.40-48

Arabeske Friedberg

            Having written above, a significant moment during the entire fellowship experience was the discovery of recordings by Australian pianist Elsie Hall (1877-1976). Her farewell concert at the age of 90 not only showcased the highly infectious musical expression and extraordinary technical prowess of a mature and eminent pianist but also embodied the soul of the Schumann era and a unique personal touch. Originally from Australia, Elsie Hall relocated to Germany at the age of 11 to pursue her piano studies. Following a performance by the young Elsie in England, Fanny Davies encouraged her to play for Clara Schumann. In 1896, Elsie had the opportunity to perform for Clara Schumann. This encounter did not directly propel Elsie's performing career, and they did not show much mutual interest - Clara's remark, as later recalled by Hall in interviews, was that she “…is much too delicate ever to be a concert player…hasn’t got the particular stamina for it.” Though the meeting with Madame Schumann was not entirely harmonious, the Classical musical world of the late 19th century definitely left an indelible mark on Elsie Hall's musical journey. Not only did she receive patronage from Marie Benecke, Felix Mendelssohn's eldest daughter, Elsie Hall also once mentioned that she gained the most musical inspiration and advice from Joseph Joachim, the Hungarian violinist, an intimate friend, and collaborator of Clara and Brahms. Hall's ability to seamlessly combine the nuances of phrasing, timing, and an extensive palette of tonal colours resulted in a continuous and captivating musical narrative. Her musical style perfectly aligned with Clara Schumann's emphasis on orchestral quality and her insistence on “no passages.”

            Even though Elsie publicly stated (multiple times on various occasions) that she “did not like the Schumann coterie at all”, during her farewell concert, she gave Schumann's Fantasie, op. 17 a prominent place. She performed the first and third movements of the piece. The performance was grand and impactful, exuding orchestral tonal qualities and volume. The separate treatment of the left-hand bass and right-hand melody, both in terms of tone and rhythm, maintains their independence while interweaving with each other, a characteristic performance style emblematic of the 19th-century era. Furthermore, Elsie Hall's meticulous handling of internal layers ensures that not a single note goes unnoticed. For instance, in the first movement, when “Adagio” transitions back to “Im Tempo”, falling into a C major chord, she carefully leads dynamics from piano to fortissimo over six measures, assigning each note of every chord a distinct position. Her attention to detail is equally evident in the opening passage of the third movement with chromatic signs. Hall’s interpretation does not overly indulge in any of the chromatic signs, neither rhythmically nor sonorously, yet she thoughtfully incorporates every harmonic colour outside of C major, capturing the audience's attention. The most sublime musical treatment is in the ritardando of the third movement. Her ritardando is executed with an absolute legato while preserving the individuality of inner and outer voices. The rhythmic complexities, such as two against three, presented her with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate her mastery of polyrhythm.

Fig.6_Fantasie

Fig.6 Fantasie op.17, mm. 272-278

Elsie Hall Schumann Fantasie extract

            Concluding this discussion with admiration for Elsie Hall is a deliberate decision. My immense gratitude to Mr. Summers and the British Library for providing this enlightening and educational opportunity. This research journey, initiated with profound respect and curiosity for Clara Schumann, has illuminated diverse facets of the 19th-century classical music universe. The Geist, or spirit, embedded in this music continues to inspire generations, a testament to Clara Schumann's steadfast training methods, the harmonious collaboration of musicians from varied backgrounds, and the relentless pursuit of artistic excellence worldwide. And all these precious spiritual experiences and artistic insights are transmitted vividly and directly to our ears through precious historical recordings, through the medium of sound, almost two hundred years later, continuing to fascinate musicians, inspiring us to explore tradition and the progressive evolution of musical expression.

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