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Of Schumann, Chopin and Mahler… January 24, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical.

There isn’t a great deal in common among Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin and Gustav Mahler – except perhaps that they delineate early and late stages of what is often described as the romantic period in music.

In 2010, important anniversaries of their birth bring them together – Schumann and Chopin two centuries ago, Mahler 150 years ago. In fact, in 2011, we also commemorate the centenary of Mahler’s death.

Schumann apparently developed his interest in music when he heard a performance by the Bohemian composer and pianist Ignaz Moscheles, a teacher of Mendelssohn whose Recollections of Ireland, Op. 69, for piano and orchestra I discovered accidentally on a radio programme in Australia.

Well known for many popular melodies, Schumann had ambitions to be a virtuoso pianist, yet had to settle for being a composer after what might have been a self-inflicted hand injury. His Träumerei , from Kinderszenen, op. 15, is said to be one of the most famous piano pieces ever written. Apart from music for the piano, he also wrote a number of symphonies, other choral and chamber works, as well as an opera.

A beautiful but lesser known work by Schumann is Der Rose Pilgefahrt (The Pilgrimage of a Rose), op. 112, “for soloists, chorus, horn and orchestra. Described as “a hybrid work, combining aspects of the choral ballade, oratorio, song cycle and even opera”, this bold experimentation in musical genre at the beginning of the 19th century would have distressed many a traditionalist and delighted others.

The son of a French émigré to the then Duchy of Warsaw (Poland), Chopin is famous for his large volume of innovative and sometimes fiendishly difficult piano works. He is said to have reinvented and transformed many musical forms, for example, John Field’s nocturne and Bach’s preludes and fugues. He molded the étude into showpieces in his own inventive, revolutionary style.

An ardent admirer of Chopin, Schumann is said to have written about his sonata in B-flat minor : “He alone begins and ends a work like this: with dissonances, through dissonances and in dissonances”. The deep emotional and sensual content of Chopin’s works epitomises the romantic period, as Arthur Rubinstein says: “When I play Chopin, I know I speak directly to the hearts of people.”

Although Chopin is almost exclusively identifiable with his piano works, his Polish songs, Op. 74 remain a collection of unappreciated gems well worth some attention. I discovered these while rummaging through second-hand CDs in a shop, and they have remained favourites ever since.

Compared with Schumann and Chopin’s delicate works for solo piano, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler appear gargantuan and assertive. He completed nine of them, each lasting up to an hour or more in performance, and many using choral elements profusely.

Although I learned about Mahler at an early age, I started with his later compositions and worked backwards. The performance of Das Lied von der Erde by tenor Robert Tear and mezzo-soprano Helen Watts that I attended in secondary school was not an easy introduction. It was only fairly recently that I have started to explore his earlier works, such as Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Although Mahler’s writing is said to be highly innovative at times, stretching the limits of conventional tonality, some of his work is very lyrical, for example the adagietto from his 5th Symphony, featured in the film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice.

In celebrating Schumann, Chopin and Mahler’s anniversaries, we are also remembering their perseverance in breaching the boundaries of musical conventions and fathoming the depths of musical expression.



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