poco piano: Schumann Demands Program Notes!

So you’re at the door to a concert, anticipating a night of beautiful music full of romanticism and grandeur. Someone stops you at the door. They give you a booklet. What is this?? Reading material for the concert? Will the concert be so tedious that the audience is handed a short story to occupy themselves with? At the top it reads “a listener’s guide to Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze”. Hm, a program note, how precocious!

Program notes help contextualize music and are helpful to even the most educated of audiences. For unfrequent concert goers, these program notes ground unfamiliar music to real life, the conception of the piece and what the composer might have wanted to get across. In most cases, program notes are welcome. Only in exceptional cases are program notes unwelcome, cumbersome and hindering the many different interpretations of the music. However, Schumann demands Program Notes!

Here’s Why:


Schumann is a German romantic composer, pianist, and influential music critic who lived from 1810-1856. He wrote a prolific amount of piano music, chamber music, songs, and symphonies. Despite his notoriety as a composer today, during his lifetime, he was mostly known as a music critic. He brought many prominent composers to fame including Chopin and Brahms. That being said, his writings were very important to him and the public. He was very well versed in literature and often would incorporate them into his works. Schumann was a romantic at heart and would include descriptive titles like, “Entirely redundantly Eusebius added the following, but his eyes spoke with rapture” which is the title of the last movement in Davidsbündlertänze. Without program notes, the audience is left in the dark about the context of his various titles.


I think the Schumann’s most inventive and descriptive titles come from his piano music. Since both him and his wife are pianists, this genre was probably the most accessible genre for him to write. It is also one of the most intimate instrumentations to write for as he generally wrote them for his wife to perform (he could not perform due to a hand injury). Generally, his titles for his movements reflect the tempo or speed at which he wants it to be played at. However, there are two key instances where he deviants from this in Davidsbündlertänze, the last movements of each book

no. 9 Here Florestan stopped and his lips trembled

no. 18 Entirely redundantly Eusebius added the following, but his eyes spoke with rapture

two sides of Schumann

An average program note on Davidsbündlertänze would explain who Florestan and Eusebius are. A good program note would explain why they are placed at the end of each book. A great program note would explain how Schumann’s writings pertain to the piece and bring meaning to this romantic masterpiece.

Other depictive titles would include movements in Kinderszenen such as “child falling asleep” or “the poet speaks”. These types of titles only need a translation and any other explanation would be extraneous.

However, titles in Carnaval are names and an explanation of the event and who these people are would be necessary to give the context of the piece.

(one of my favorite movements from Carnaval)


Sometimes we need to include program notes to notify the audience of what is written before the piece. In both the Fantasy in C, op. 17, and Davidsbündertänze, there is an epigraph.

In the Fantasy, he prefaced the work with a quote from Schlegel:

Durch alle Töne tönet
Im bunten Erdentraum
Ein leiser Ton gezogen
Für den, der heimlich lauschet.
“Resounding through all the notes
In the earth’s colorful dream
There sounds a faint long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret.”

Davidsbündlertänze is prefaced with this “old saying”

Alter Spruch
In all und jeder Zeit
Verknüpft sich Lust und Leid:
Bleibt fromm in Lust und seid
Dem Leid mit Mut bereit

Old saying
In each and every age
joy and sorrow are mingled:
Remain pious in joy,
and be ready for sorrow with courage.

Both are quite poetic and foreshadow much of the music to come. But are these meant to be read to the audience? Are they to be privy of the communication through the score from composer to the performer? Without a program note or a direct reading of the epigraph, the audience would be left in the dark, none the wiser. Is the inclusion of these simply to help the performer find a clearer aural image of the piece? I am of the firm belief that these poems while not necessary for the audience, can add a lot to their reception and conception of the piece. It adds meaning and draws out even more romanticism from the music. It can guide the listener in search for that “faint long-drawn note for the one who listens in secret”. That being said, I would advise to include a translation in the program notes rather than read it aloud before the piece. Any reading of the poems would fade from an audiences mind by the end of the piece.

Musical allusions

As I mentioned before, Schumann was an avid music critic. He consumed music voraciously. Schumann would plant little Easter eggs in his music, quotes of melodies from other pieces, either quoting himself from the same piece, a past piece, or entirely new music.

In Davidsbündlertänze, he uses quotes the entire no. 2 Innig (inward) in no. 17 Wie aus der Ferne (as from the distance). Any audience member paying attention will recognize the tune right away and it’s such a magical moment anyway that mentioning it in the program notes would spoil it.

In Carnaval, he quotes his earlier piece Papillions op. 2 in no. 6 Florestan. I think it’s worthy to note because this quote gives more context to Carnaval as a piece. The inclusion and recognition of the quote would place the audience in a masquerade ball.

My last example of a musical allusion is the most poignant. In Davidsbündlertänze, Schumann uses the theme from Clara’s Mazurka to start the entire 30 min piece. He pays homage to her and signals that Clara is the starting point and inspiration of the piece. Schumann writes in another Clara homage in his Fantasy op. 17. Written for the Beethoven Monument, Schumann pays tribute by quoting from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant Beloved) at the very end of the first movement. He quotes the melody in Beethoven’s last song “Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder, die ich dir, Geliebte, sang.” (Take these songs/which I to you/Beloved/sing), unifying his love ode to his Beloved, Clara Schumann.


So, now you’ve found your seat and settled in for the concert about to happen, waiting for some beautiful Schumann melodies to wash over you. Read through those program notes and slip into the mind and shoes of Robert Schumann. Listen to the rhapsodies of love and desire with astute ears, a well-informed mind, and an open heart.


Just a pianist;)

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