Robert Schumann, 1810-1856
Märchenerzählungen (Fairy Tales), Op. 132, for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, 1853
Robert Schumann was a quintessential Romantic. Intensely passionate about literature and music, he devoted himself to both forms of expression, each extensively informing the other. Often inspired by love for his wife, Schumann wrote music for and about Clara with thematic references to her name and musical depictions of her idealized persona. Asserting that great music followed its own intrinsic demands, he produced compositions that were highly individual in form and character, striking many of his contemporaries as irregular, idiosyncratic, even indulgent. Despite his noble, ardent quest, his music was not generally appreciated during his lifetime. Schumann was uniquely suited to fanciful miniatures for the piano, his own instrument, with many of the works bearing novel, extra-musical titles he applied in passing only after completing them in trancelike state of creativity. He is especially praised for his intimate songs that interrelate piano, voice and poetry with tremendous artistic sensitivity. Schumann also suffered the darker side of the Romantic, struggling with mania, depression, hallucinations, and a serious but unsuccessful suicide attempt. He struggled through his final two years alone in an asylum, dying when he was only forty-six.
Schumann also wrote more traditional music in conventional forms including symphonies, concerti and chamber music. Accustomed to composing in bursts of obsessive focus, Schumann wrote the majority of his chamber music in a concentrated period of a single year that yielded his magnificent piano quintet, the highly regarded piano quartet and three quality string quartets. Five years later, he rapidly composed three piano trios, the first of which was welcomed in the standard repertory. Not surprisingly, the chamber works featuring piano are the most successful. Among the very last of his compositions was the charming cycle of four pieces for the unusual ensemble of clarinet, viola and piano titled Märchenerzälungen, generally translated as Fairy Tales. There are only two other notable works for this distinctive combination of instruments: Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, and Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces.
The title Fairy Tales evokes several aspects of Schumann’s highly Romantic art including his fondness for literature, fantasy, and the colorful expression of mood, character and story in musical miniatures. If there were any, the specific topics or references in the music are unknown, as Schumann would surely have preferred. While the notion of four brief fairy tales suggests a loose collection of individual pieces, they create a balanced whole complete with a lively introduction, a march, a tender slow movement and an animated finale with cyclic references to its predecessors. Schumann dedicated the work to a young musician, Albert Dietrich, who, along with the young Johannes Brahms, brought new friendship and fresh inspiration to Schumann during the final weeks of his artistic productivity.