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 Harmony: functional and dysfunctional

 by Professor Wilfrid Mellers

 Part II: Three classical romanticists:
 Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms (B)

Although Schubert wrote piano sonatas throughout his life, he also produced rather more short or at least self-contained piano pieces, modestly termed 'impromptus' or even 'moments musicaux', these being directed towards a rising middle-class public whose tastes were easy because less educated. Even so, he didn't pander to this public; and the Drei Klavierstücke written in the last year of his life (1828) begin with a nightmare ride in darkest E flat minor, and end with a piece so metrically as well as tonally frantic as to suggest that Old Vienna was on the brink of an abyss - as indeed it was. Robert Schumann, a German romantic a dozen or so years younger than Schubert, also dreamt dreams and, in his case, literally went mad, dying in a lunatic asylum at the age of 42. His earliest musical passion was for Schubert; and he too cultivated friendship as a bulwark against a hostile world. In his youthful cycles of piano pieces the human population is winnowed down to himself, the women he loved who, because he loved them, became both a part of himself and a barrier between himself and the world outside, and a few musical friends and colleagues who merged into mythical characters like Harlequin and Columbine. In Carnaval a dream-world becomes more real than reality; and all Schumann's typical piano music might be described as Fantasiestücke - the title he gave to the set of pieces he loved to play to his friends at twilight. The opening number - in fact called Des Abends - reveals how Schumann creates half-lights and ambiguities by way of rhythmic and metrical, as well as harmonic and tonal, means, for the piece's time-signature is 2 8, though the figuration is in 6 16, through which is defined a melody in 3 8! This metrical ambiguity leads to harmonic mysteries created by the figuration which drifts, rather than modulates, from D flat major to E major:

Ex. 1: Des Abends from Schumann's Fantasiestücke, played by Adrian Williams. Schumann: Des Abends

Being magical, Schumann's dreams, like those of Schubert, sometimes turn into nightmares. It is interesting that the Kreisleriana cycle, inspired by E.T.F. Hoffman's weirdly autobiographical wizard, was confessedly 'about' himself in relation to his beloved Clara, who told him that she often thought of him as a child. The self-sufficiency of a child's world is refuge from the turbulence of adolescence, the gallimaufry of sensuous impressions being (just) controlled by the unity of the variation principle, since all the pieces are dominated by permutations of the whirligig phrase with which the work opens.

Ex. 2: The first movement of Schumann's Kreisleriana, played by Adrian Williams. Schumann: Kreisleriana, first movement

Unlike Schubert's, Schumann's youthful genius for the most part relinquished sonata form; and perhaps we can understand why, in the light of his formidable early piano sonata in G minor; for it was possibly in practising the extraordinary, near lunatic presto finale of this work that Schumann injured his hand so seriously that he had to abandon his career as a professional virtuoso. Schumann's friend Brahms, the next master in the succession, was hardly a confessed romanticist, regarding himself as heir to and conserver of the classical tradition. His first piano sonata, in C major, begins with an act of homage to Beethoven, since it opens with a nearly literal quotation of the start of the Hammerklavier Sonata, and bases its first movement sonata-conflict on the same tonal oppositions that dominate the Waldstein Sonata. Even so, Brahms's Beethovenian aggression is often countered by Mozartian lyricism, and still more by Schubertian nostalgia; even in his avowedly Beethovenian symphonies it is significant that the Third, in F major, has an elegiac coda mainly in F minor; while the fourth and last symphony in E minor offers no triumphant apotheosis in the major, but ends with a big minor-keyed passacaglia - a deliberate regression to a classical baroque, supposedly obsolete, principal of unity. Brahms's strength usually involved a stoic resignation: as is most conspicuous in the songs and piano pieces of his last years. The Four Serious Songs of 1896 set words from Ecclesiastes that mirror his own death-sense, the third number being based on the same descending third that characterizes the Passacaglia of the Fourth Symphony. In the B minor Intermezzo from opus 119 the triadic figuration again roots the harmony to the earth, as dust returns to dust. The drooping thirds, interlacing and overlapping, form suspended triads that create a polytonal evanescence. If in the third of the Serious Songs the body returns to the earth, in the B minor Intermezzo it is as though human dust were disintegrating into air and rain. The subjective romanticism of such music sounds the more poignant in the context of the hard-won fortitude of Brahms's creative life.

Ex. 3: The intermezzo in B minor from Brahms's op.119, played by Adrian Williams. Brahms: Intermezzo in B minor from op.119

Copyright © 1999 Wilfrid Mellers

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