Schumann’s Arabeske: A Musical Love Letter

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(video performance at link below article)

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.

Study Break?

What should I be doing? Studying for my 20th Century Music History midterm.
What am I doing? Learning to write rondel poetry.

But, if I use the poetry (below) as a way to discuss the artistic philosophies in this class, does it count as studying?

 

“A Rondel to Order in Art”

It is ‘oft thought that to create

we must rebel against all rules

that only traditional fools

would think those the artist’s first mate,

.

That to follow them is to fate

ourselves to repeating the schools

and that if we are to create

we must forsake all former rules,

.

But order we must not equate

to primitive, unneeded, cruel

for it indeed is proved a tool;

to use, not recapitulate,

and in adapting, to create.

The Eroica 10k

Calling all runners and musicians!

Thanks to my music history class, I have of late become obsessed with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55, better known as the “Eroica Symphony.”

“Eroica” means “Heroic” in case you did not figure that out for yourself and this musical adventure is just that: heroic. It traces Beethoven’s personal development and victories over the trials of mortal life, as well as mirrors those of humanity as a whole. It might be considered a distilled version of the entire “triumph of the human spirit” genre…or perhaps even the epitome of this genre.

There are many ways to process a piece of art such as this: analyze it visually, internalize it through listening, taste it if you are brave and nobody is looking, etc. However, I firmly attest to the power of movement (no pun intended) when it comes to studying music. Often this leads me to dance around the practice room, but the incredible power and hero’s journey found in the Eroica is something beyond dancing awkwardly by myself.

It demands power. It demands perseverance. It demands running. 

Are you a runner? Are you a musician? If you answered yes to either of these questions, I (and possibly Beethoven) challenge you to take on the Eroica 10k. 

The Eroica 10k

(performed by Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic)

  1. Lace up your running shoes and turn up your music. As soon as the conductor’s baton strikes the first beat, you are off and away!
  2. The first movement is perfectly timed (about 16 minutes) so that you can complete two miles during it if you run at a steady 8 min/mile pace. This is fairly brisk, but it is possible if each step is in time with the beat! (Pro tip: Increase your stride length as the dynamics increase; this will add interval training and speed boosts.)
  3. The second movement is not as rapid; after all, it is more reminiscent of a funeral march. Slow your pace slightly and catch your breath, but continue to run in time and increase your stride during crescendos.
  4. The third movement provides a nice pick-me-up after the sombre second movement, during which I became oddly philosophical even whilst running. This movement, a “scherzo” (joke), is vibrant and quick. AND SO ARE YOU! Pick up speed, but allow your stride to stay short so that you do not overtax yourself.
  5. The fourth movement signals only about 2 miles left, depending on your average pace. You’re almost there and the humor of this opening is sure to put some bounce back into your step. Don’t fight this; instead, allow your stride to be more bouncy as it will actually help energize you through the remaining distance.
  6. Continue to increase your stride length as the music builds, returning to a comfortable pace as it settles down again.
  7. The ending of the symphony will surprise you with its drama and inspire you to finish strong. If you have the urge to conduct while you run, go right ahead. Who cares if the soccer players give you weird looks as you conduct dramatic cadences? You are a runner and a musician and you deserve to add a little flare to the end of your workout! Now sprint!
  8. As the symphony ends, check your distance. If you still have a lap or two to go, never fear! Turn on some light music and run in the spirit of Nike! (Not the shoes…the goddess of victory. But by all means, the shoes are wonderful too.)
  9. Congratulations! You ran an entire 10k and reached a deeper appreciation of Beethoven’s most renowned symphony within the same hour!

Do you feel heroic? You ought to! 6.213… miles (a 10k) is something to be proud of, especially at Beethoven’s relentless pace! Both this symphony and running are exercises in overcoming life’s obstacles, as well as celebrating personal victories; they are both heroic journeys.

I sincerely hope that you enjoy this experience as much as I did, for it served my development both as a musician and an athlete.

Nike!

-Ryanne