It is my conviction that one must fall in love to play Schumann well. I did not at first enjoy practicing his Arabeske, Op. 18; while I understood the piece theoretically, I did not truly understand it emotionally or spiritually until I, like the composer, fell in love. Then, all at once, its nuances and imagery became obvious, for I was better able to empathize with its composer and his situation.
This piece, it became apparent, was born of sweet affection. The story of Robert and Clara Schumann is a familiar one: he was a brooding, poetic soul with a passion for literature and composition and she the prodigious daughter of his piano teacher. Their love was one that overcame distance, disapproval, and even disease as Robert gradually declined due to mental illness.
The Arabeske, Op. 18 was composed during the couple’s three-year engagement while Clara was touring abroad. One of his experiments in small-form writing, the Arabeske is an exquisite example of Schumann’s ability to compact immense ideas into concise creations. In this seemingly-simple piece, reflections of the composer can be discovered. Always torn between his two loves — music and literature — Schumann put elements of both into his work. In the notes of the central motif, we can hear the outline of his beloved’s name: the main theme hangs upon the notes “C” and “A” and might be interpreted as the spelling of “Clara” using the musical alphabet.
Also apparent are the two sides of the composer. In his literary works, Schumann presents himself as both the introspective “Eusebius” and the more extroverted “Florestan.” The opening theme and the first minor passage are reminiscent of the character of Eusebius as they gently flow along but build like an obsession. The more demanding nature of the second minor passage might be considered a Florestian outburst; here the composer is filled with determination! A third character, however, is also present; “Raro,” a name created by combining the last letters of “Clara” and the first letters of “Robert,” is a personification of the balance found in their marriage. This third character resounds in the gentle, bittersweet transition passages and, at last, in the heartfelt conclusion.
There is much more that could be said of this piece. For instance, the ending, comprised of suspensions, sounds like a goodbye across a great distance and the recurring theme carries different connotations with each repetition as the composer considers the same thought with different inflections and emotions. Indeed, I discover something new and lovely with each practice session, but perhaps it is best to let the Arabeske speak for itself, a small love letter from both composer and performer.