poco piano: summer plans

As the semester is coming to a close, I’ve been thinking about what I want to play in the summer. It’s a strange time of year, days the never end; lazy and unkempt days, unstructured and amorphous. I’ll be staying in Ann Arbor for some of it, to soak in the sunlight and float along the Huron. I think I will give myself a week of break to do whatever my heart desires. No plans, just do whatever pops into my mind- roll around in the grass of the Arb or make some smores with some friends. I think I’ll live life at large and really savor everything in life. The bird songs I hear when I first crack open my eyes, the quiet rustling of trees as I lay engrossed in a book, the simple pleasure of running in the rain– careless and spontaneous.

Then I’ll make a schedule for practicing- work hard and perhaps prepare for a recital and competition.

This recording above is a competition I decided to do on a whim last summer. It’s a new prelude composed for this competition and we just had to learn it and record it for the composer to hear. It was a strange experience, without any guideposts to listen to or reference and I truly had to study the score to see what the composer really wanted.

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.

poco piano: davidsbündlertänze part I

Davidsbündlertänze is a piece written by Robert Schumann that I’ve been working on lately. I’ll be playing it on my senior recital next year and also using it for graduate school auditions.

Davidsbündlertänze is one of the crown jewels of the romantic piano literature. It’s a work composed of eighteen character pieces divided into two books, each representative of Florestan or Eusebius– Schumann’s characters. Florestan represents the manic, masculine, and passionate side of Schumann while Eusebius represents the dreamy, melancholy, and introverted side. Throughout Schumann’s music and life these characters are used to express his opinions on music (he was a music reviewer for a journal). In fact, these characters are fleshed out in the earlier more well known piece Carnaval. It seems impossible to separate the composer’s life from his music. Music was Schumann’s life. His family had wanted him to study law, yet while doing so, he was irresistibly drawn to making and writing music.



These two characters are different sides of the same coin. Florestan and Eusebius guide use through the eighteen movements which are noted with either or both of their initials at the end of each movement much like a writer would sign his letters.

I’m playing the original version of the piece which is the one more often played. Schumann revised this work but somehow excised the most original and innovative material, as if in rejection of his manic genius. This work is a culmination of Schumann, his personality, his love, and his despair. I want to focus on his love: his love for Clara and his love for music. To understand this all consuming love, we first have to understand his personality and the characterization of Florestan and Eusebius. Florestan is the masculine side of him, the conquering hero of the legend, powerful and fearless. Eusebius is his feminine side, a quiet poet, spinning dreamy and ethereal tales of love and despair.

What in the music indicates these two opposing characters?

The Piece is prefaced with this quote

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.


The opening movement is a movement that portrays both F and E. It also incorporates a quote from a Mazurka written by Clara Schumann in the very opening. The “motto von C.W.” is referring to the piece that Clara Wieck (maiden name) wrote. As you can see, it’s a direct quote.

figure 1
figure 2

This is a homage to his future wife and is in a way paying respect to her. It’s quite the choice to open with such a strong and masculine opening. It contrasts and balances with the feminine idea of her character. In his eyes, she is the ideal woman that drives his desires and is ultimately the end goal. Clara is a child prodigy, the daughter of his piano teacher, and his future wife. He had to fight to marry her as her father was very opposed to their union.

So why exactly is the representation of Clara in this piece so masculine driving?

Robert felt emasculated by Clara in many ways. She was the hands down the better pianist. She was world famous and would tour Europe on the regular. Robert dreamed of her life and skill at the piano- yet ended up injured and becoming more of a writer and composer instead. Clara was also a working woman- capable of making more money than Robert could.

Perhaps the inclusion of the quote is just to keep Clara on his mind as he wanders through his psyche and the night of music to be held. With this opening movement, he introduces three characters, Clara, Florestan and Eusebius. F and E trade remarks throughout the first page, melding into each other. They use the same phrase and notes, as if they are talking and using the same words but with a completely different meaning and context. The only divergence that indicates either character is the different harmony and dynamic.

2. innig (intimate/heartfelt)

The expressions of his future with his Clara are seen through the lens of each Florestan and Eusebius. With each movement, we see a different future, thought, or feeling that he has on his future marriage.

with 2. Innig, we see his doubts creeping in. A sense of impending loss and despair are in these lines. Eusebius is lost in thought, dreaming of happy future yet unable to realize it or act upon it. He’s not the conquering hero, he’s the damsel in distress here, filled with anxiety and despair of his current situation.

It’s a simple movement with a plain melody. Yet the complexity of his emotions are seen in the repetitions, dark harmonies, and undulating accompanying material.

It’s as if he pines for her but their future together is unknown.

3. Etwas Hahnbüchen (somewhat cockeyed)

As if in direct retaliation and opposition from the previous, Florestan here bursts of bravado and tomfoolery. The large jumps and independence between the hand are quite hard to nail down. To me, it sets the mood for the rest of the character pieces that are under Florestan’s influence. The fiery passion and bouts of naïveté are very typical of a young man. It’s as if Schumann is portraying this ambitious passion as himself yet still failing to convince himself it’s him. It has a strange inflation of dynamic here. It’s always getting louder, getting bigger, yet a performer would strain themselves to follow his markings religiously and continuously get louder and bigger.  


In the first book, (1) 3,4,6,8,(9) are all under Florestan’s name. 1 is under both F and E while 9 is unmarked. Personally, I think that 9 is full of passion and eagerness that is definitely very Florestan. The first book of Davidsbundlertanze is dominated by Florestan and his male energy. The exceptions are the intermittent breaks brought about by 2, 5, and 7.


Eusebius foils Florestan and brings some calm to the overall structure. No. 5: Einfach (simple) brings a childlike joy and melody to all of the passion and seriousness of love. It has a simple feminine nature that cannot be sullied by a performer’s indulgence. I have been scolded several times by my professor to keep it simple and not to dirty it with too much rubato or time.

What makes 5 seem feminine to me?

I think the simpleness and the frankness of the music that just speaks without the frills or bravado is feminine. Its also a movement that sings the most. It sings kindness that is very appealing. It doesn’t have that Seductive Feminine nature but perhaps a hint of coquettishness.

poco piano: sweet dreams

I’ve been teaching this girl online and this is one of the pieces that she brought to me. It’s important to be familiar with the piece in order to teach it so I’ve played through it a couple times. It’s a simple piece full of youth. It reminds me of daydreaming in classroom, thinking about all the other places I could be. The melody is innocent and full of child like longing. When I was teaching this piece, the thing I emphasized the most was the singing line. It’s easy for the other notes to clutter the melody hindering it from singing it’s little heart in circles.

poco piano: siren call

What is so alluring about the sea?  a voice calls from the unknown of the water. it rings languidly, seductive and secretive. it shines with the reflection of ourselves in the water.

“what is your deepest desire?”

Ondine calls to you. She is water in all forms. She beseeches you to become her lover at the bottom of the lake. She is fickle and seductive, wily and unpredictable, yet her song sings on.

My first attempt at this beast of a piece. Quite possibly one of the hardest things I’ve played. It’s so delicate and shimmery; it’s a bit hard to grasp.

poco piano: underwater

The water is rippling ever so slightly. It glimmers of the sunshine of possibilities. It glitters with the darkness of secrets. It ripples endlessly. The sea has always been here and will exist long after the bones of our offspring return to dust. Out of the calm rivulets of water is a voice so sweet and enchanting. Its purity and beauty is unworldly and strikes at your heart. You cannot help but lean into the water, perhaps to gather more of its ethereal sounds into your ear. Wide eyed in wonder, you are drawn to the water as the voice invites you in. Its purity is blemished by a hint of desire that vanishes before you can capture it in your mind. Who possesses this enchanting voice that has taken hold of your heart?

‘Tis the water nymph Ondine.