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9 minutes reading time (1882 words)

Character Conundrum: Literary Lessons for Pianists in Schumann's Kreisleriana

Robert Schumann's oeuvre owes structural and inspirational credit to the works of numerous German romantic authors. However, some aspects of his literature-inspired compositional style are more often discussed than others.1 Numerous authors have written about the highly fragmented nature of Schumann's piano cycles, including Kreisleriana, Op. 16, as a tribute to German poet, critic, and scholar Friedrich Schlegel. 2 But character analyses of the piano cycles, including how Schumann related to the dualistic characters of E.T.A. Hoffmann, is lacking in the existing literature. Hoffmann's dualism is evident throughout Op. 16 in such features as the conflicting attributes of Schumann's imaginary characters of psyche, Floristan and Eusebius, as well as the usage of humor bathed in violent hostility. By analyzing these lesser-known characters and qualities of Kreisleriana, this article will reveal the complexity and extensive use of literary borrowing that Schumann designed in all his works, and provide inspiration for pedagogical interpretation. 

Hoffmann's Characters: A Pianist's Quick Guide

More than any other Romantic author, E.T.A. Hoffmann related dualistic ideals to his own life and identity, and devoted his writing to the portrayal of conflicting qualities and characters. His masterwork in this vein revolves around the character of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler. In the novel, Lebensansichten des Katers Murr (The Life And Opinions of the Tomcat Murr), Hoffmann preserved his own personality and charisma in the character of the Kapellmeister by instilling him with the qualities of one who is half genius, half lunatic. Throughout the novel, Kreisler and the tomcat Murr, subject their literary peers to the inconsistent consequences of their reckless behavior, which often breed hope and grief, success and embarrassment, bliss, and misunderstanding all at the same time.3 At times the text is light-hearted, sarcastic, and ridiculous, and within a few lines a dramatic change to despair, intrigue, and violence occurs. Although numerous Romantic authors shared Hoffmann's methods, no one else used conflicting characteristics to such an extreme,4 and it is clear that Schumann applied the same principles in his experimental piano cycles.

Editor's note: For more inspiration, visit en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_ and_Opinions_of_the_Tomcat_Murr to view an etching of Tomcat Murr's death by Ferdinand II of Portugal.

Another key component in understanding Hoffmann's masterwork is the structural basis around which he positioned conflicting interests and ideas. The tale is written in double novel structure. It is supposedly an autobiography about the tomcat Murr, but through a printer's error the autobiography has been spliced and intertwined with a book about Kapellmeister Kreisler. The two stories alternate and break away from each other at key points in the drama of the text, bringing out comparisons between the brawl-loving, confident-scholar tomcat and the moody and lonesome Kreisler. 5 This highly complex web of entangled plot lines and characters provided inspiration for Schumann as he delved into the dense layers of Op. 16.

Schumann's Relationship with Romantic Literature

Robert Schumann was deeply committed to interdisciplinary inspirations for his music. He once wrote that, "the well- educated musician can study a Madonna by Raphael, the painter a symphony by Mozart, with equal benefit."6 Until the age of twenty, he seriously considered writing as a career, and his father's work as a bookseller and part-time author exposed Robert to a wealth of German romantic titles at a young age. In 1838, Schumann completed work on a set of simple pieces, the Kinderszenen, Op. 15, which were based on the happiness he imagined with his future bride, Clara Wieck, and a comment she had once made about how he often seemed to act "like a child."7 Having completed this work, he displayed one of his numerous reversals in mood, and embarked on Kreisleriana, which is neither simple nor happy.

Taking roughly five months to complete, Op. 16 is one of his more eccentric compositions.8 The cycle, subtitled "Fantasies," consists of eight pieces that are linked through the harmonic relationships of D minor, G minor, and B-flat major. By combining several entries from Schumann's journal written at the time he first discovered the works of Hoffmann, with the birth of Op. 16, we can see that he conceived of his composition as a completion of "new worlds" discovered by his literary predecessor. Although Schumann maintained that the title was only attached to the music upon its completion, we can draw distinct parallels between the paradoxical moods of Kreisler and this music. It is also easy to identify similarities between Schumann's own mood swings—often demonstrated in his compositions—and those of Hoffmann's characters. Perhaps it is because of these strong connections to his own emotions that the composer declared in 1839 that of his latest compositions, Kreisleriana was his favorite.

Character Analysis and Interpretation

The first section of Op. 16 is a continuous revolution against the method in which a Classical-era keyboard work should be introduced. Rather than a straightforward presentation of a theme or cadential harmonies that guide the performer and audience in the exposition, Schumann insisted that constant sixteenth-note triplet figures introduce listeners to Kapellmeister Kreisler at his most volatile. His lyric qualities of yearning and the distress of his genius combine with uneven, rocking phrases that join the final note of each triplet and the first note of the next with accents occurring on the beat. 9 A paradox ensues when the ear feels as if this unevenness interrupts the progression of the harmony, when in reality it is the force that drives the music forward. From the beginning, the conflict between aural and kinesthetic motion is evident, as Schumann focused his writing around the dualism of its literary model. This first movement in D minor initially introduces the audience to Florestan, Schumann's passionate, explosive self. But in the B section and second movement, listeners become subject to Eusebius, Florestan's polar opposite, as Schumann allowed his lyrical, lieder-prone persona to take control. A dreamy, reflective octave theme recurs throughout the second movement and indicates that Kreisler is a torn individual, split between a fiery exterior and a melting heart (see Excerpt 1). This longest movement in the cycle is written in ABACA rondo form with a lyrical A section, brief and disruptive B-section intermezzo, and also includes a dialogue or argument between the hands in the C-section intermezzo. The final iteration of the A section combines the opening theme with a foreboding step-wise tenor line as a dichotomous critique of the overall lyrical mood. Audience members may hear Schumann's writing through the juxtaposition of lyrical and disruptive characters, as well as the opposing ideas presented by each hand.

Excerpt 1: Robert Schumann, Kreisleriana, Op. 16, II, mm. 1–4.

A Quintessential Example of Schumann's Lyricism

In the third movement, Schumann continues to draw from Hoffmann's novel by shifting between agitated "cat-like" gestures and excessively emotional lyricism. Once again, by combining his two divergent characters, Schumann wrote a lively introduction in G minor and brings back the sixteenth-note triplets of the first movement. However, here the accents highlight a foreboding inner theme that, when coupled with the staccato bass line, present a very grim picture of what lies ahead for Kreisler. The brief opening to the third movement is devilish in nature as it combines the two strands of Hoffmann's novel. The ABA form effectively strays from the bipartisan view of melancholy versus cheerful by exploring new ironic territory, and maintains Schumann's consistent duality.

The tempo markings of the fourth through seventh movements display the pendulum-like swings between slow and lively personae. However, characters are not only represented in the "big picture" of overall tempi, but also in the micro details within each movement. For example, the opening of the fifth movement begins with sneaky and mischievous voice entrances before these motives are overtaken by a powerful and lyrical new theme. Although this movement is energetic and harmonically diverse, it ends with a rhythmically simplistic dominant-tonic cadence. The overall complexity of the fifth movement flies in stark contrast to the opening of the sixth, which begins with a simple melody that is reminiscent of Schumann's works for voice. The contradictory characteristics of the piece continue incessantly in the seventh movement, which includes a dramatic buildup of increasingly fast playing until a pastoral and hymn-like chordal section disrupts the surge (see Excerpt 2).

Excerpt 2: Robert Schumann, Kreisleriana, Op. 16, VII, mm. 1–2.

Characteristic Ending

Unless one understands the characters at play in this work and the influence of Hoffmann's double novel structure, the final movement of Kreisleriana may be unexpected and shocking to listeners. 10 Schumann sets up his audience to expect an ending that is either deeply lyrical, or dramatically energetic, but the eighth movement is actually an abstract rondo that fluctuates between ominous and thundering characters. Instead of completing a climactic finish for the most exciting and bombastic themes, the cycle ends with a repetition of the playful, but sneaky, A section of this movement. There is no dramatic coda or satisfying resolution of themes—only the inevitable fade of multiple references finalized in silence. Schumann remained true to his literary characters and finished this work not only with competing emotions and juxtaposed images, but also with an ironic and sinister twist to the cycle as a whole. The tonal continuity of the cycle is what holds it together thematically, as it assists listeners in hearing a work of duality within a larger tonal construct—rather than disjointed fragments. The dichotomy of conflicting personalities, Romantic irony and humor, fluctuating tempi, contrasting and mismatched harmonies, big picture ideas versus micro details, and many other dualistic character qualities can be heard throughout this piece.

Conclusion

The works of Robert Schumann have often been labeled and analyzed according to the dictates of German romantic literature that held such a strong presence in the composer's life. E.T.A. Hoffmann's characters instilled in Schumann a deep appreciation of how music could convey conflicting qualities. Borrowing from complex literary models to fuel his already paradoxical tendencies, Schumann's Op. 16 provides a perfect example of the depth of literary meaning in piano works of the Romantic era. The density with which Schumann wove his thematic material in and out of the opposing personalities of the Kapellmeister showcases how inspirational Hoffmann's works were during the compositional process.

Although the in-depth character analysis provided in this article may seem overly complex, it is important for pianists to at least attempt to merge their own interpretations with historical context. Interpretation should involve artistic liberty, but pedagogues and performers can only do so when they are well informed of the music's literary source material. Schumann's commitment to literary inspiration may serve as an example for all musicians and pedagogues as they connect their craft with both personal identity and interdisciplinary influences in art, society, and culture.


NOTES

1. Erika Reiman, Schumann's Piano Cycles and the Novels of Jean Paul (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2004).

2 Lora Deahl, "Schumann's Kreisleriana and Double Novel Structure," International Journal of Musicology 5, (1996): 131.

3 Ibid., 8.

4 Ibid., 9.

5 E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Life And Opinions of The Tomcat Murr(London, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1999), vii-x.

6 Eric Frederick Jensen, Schumann (Oxford U.K.: OxfordUniversity Press, 2001), 39.

7 Ibid., 168.

8 Ibid., 169.

9 Carolyn Maxwell and William DeVan, Schumann Solo PianoLiterature (Boulder, CO: Maxwell Music Evaluation Books,1984), 124.

10 Deahl, "Schumann's Kreisleriana and Double Novel Structure," 131.


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