R Schumann: Op. 94 – A Hidden Sonata? (3/3)

After having seen this cycle for the first time this way, one cannot understand it differently ever again. Schuman brilliantly makes use of the classic sonata form in order to condense proportions and the dramatic structure in a most confined space.

“… which one would want to call Schumann’s secret idea; namely to intertwine the classical forms with romanticism or, put differently, to capture romanticism’s spirit in classical spheres …” (… was man den geheimen Gedanken Schumann’s nennen möchte, nämlich die classischen Formen mit Romantik zu durchdringen oder wenn man will, den romantischen Geist in classische Kreise zu bannen …)
– Franz Liszt in his 1855 article “Robert Schumann” for the “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik”

Franz Liszt’s statement precisely describes how the Three Romances, Op. 94 work: Concealed as fantasy pieces, Schumann composes a cycle in which nothing is left to chance. The three movements function as a whole: A clear arc of suspense guides the listener through the music. The idyll is deceptive – Schumann intentionally breaks it at a crucial point.

During his time in Dresden, Schumann starts to “invent and elaborate everything in his mind” (alles im Kopf zu erfinden und auszuarbeiten) (diary), beginning with the strict fugues for piano Op. 72. This retreating and at the same time consolidating approach is clearly reflected in the Opus 94: Here, he uses the possibly most established form of musical tradition at the time, which is the sonata. Typically, the first movement in sonata form is followed by a slow movement in song form and, finally, by a conclusive rondo. A short form analysis is meant to explain how masterfully Schumann transfers this structure to the assumed free fantasy pieces.

Romance I – Sonata Form

In the first ten bars, the musical idea that provides the basis for the entire romance is introduced. This section represents an “exposition”, which presumably is the reason for the double bar at the end of bar 10. Without introducing a second topic, a development-like section follows directly (bar 11 – 59), in which the motif is being altered, finally moving to C major, the tonic parallel (bar 33). Does this longer C major section maybe also replace a second subject that should have stood in this key? A short scherzando transition subtly leads to the recapitulation (bar 56) which repeats the exposition in a slightly altered version and eventually to a coda (bar 67) concluding the piece on two pedal points (Small A from 67 onwards, Great A from 80 onwards).

Romance II – Song Form

The second Romance is composed in a typical song form that could not be clearer: A three-part song form followed by a short coda. When regarding the three Romances as a whole, one discovers that the F sharp minor middle section has a special position, namely in the centre of the entire cycle. Simultaneously, it is strikingly different: No other section as these 18 bars of the Romances is composed in such a nervous manner one could almost describe as being chaotic. Thereby, this section forms a strong contrast to the previous A major idyll. Maybe it is a hint letting one glance at the inner conflict smouldering underneath the peaceful surface?

Romance III – Rondo

The last Romance is written in a rondo form resembling a classical Third Rondo with a continuously recurring theme (bar 1 – 4). Two similar sections form the frame for a contrasting middle section. At the end, there is a coda which does not refer to the last Romance but to the entire cycle: A quaver motif from the second Romance returns (bar 72). Schumann, while looking retrospectively at the past and the whole, masterfully completes the circle.

Thus, he subtly uses a large-scale form in order to create a miniature in which an entire cosmos is concealed. Never does he lose sight of the whole picture. The proportions and arc of suspense are meticulously balanced out and concentrated in the smallest possible space. After having seen this cycle for the first time this way, one cannot understand it differently ever again.