Today, children in Luxembourg celebrate “Niklosdag” or “Kleeserchersdag”, the day of Nicolas of Myra, a Byzantine bishop of the 4th century, patron of the children. Traditionally, children receive sweets and cookies that “de Kleeschen” has brought during the night, unseen by anyone. A lovely tradition that we perpetuate in our family even though my daughter has by now found out that the full plate of sweets is rather the work of her parents than of a saint long dead. We rejoice at the joy of our child and we celebrate childhood memories – ours and hers.
Reflections of an adult
In 1838, the Romantic composer Robert Schumann wrote a cycle of piano pieces describing scenes from an idealized childhood: “Scenes from Childhood”, Op. 15. Schumann saw them as “reflections of an adult for other adults” and wanted his grown-up listener to immerse himself into the “dream of his own [childhood] days long gone by now”. Andras Schiff has recorded those pieces in 2011.
The Romantic era tended to transfigure childhood as a somewhat carefree and bright period of a human life as opposed to the burdensome existence of an adult. Schumann once wrote: “There is a wonderful depth in every child.” Reality of course was different. Children often died at an early age, children living in less fortunate households had to work, they often did not go to school in rural areas and it was quite common to give unwanted children away to children’s homes.
Music primes words
Schumann’s cycle of 13 piano pieces touches typical Romantic themes that may also be associated with children’s ideas: the longing for countries far away and the lust for adventure, extraordinary or curious events or phenomena, day-dreaming and eery phenomena and finally Weltschmerz, the only theme that is probably not an issue for children. The titles Schumann gave the different pieces are meant to precise the idea that the composer wanted to express through music, he emphasizes that he did not intend to write programmatic music as some of Schumann’s critics argued. Music came first, the words came later. Nevertheless, the perfect consonance of Schumann’s music and the poetic titles of the different pieces is striking and may explain why this piano cycle has remained so popular until today.
The balance between art and artlessness
In a letter to his wife Clara Wieck dated 19 March 1838, he wrote: “I wrote 30 cute little things of whom I selected about 12 and called them ‘Scenes from Childhood'”. He further said that the pieces echoed Clara’s remark that Schumann was acting sometimes like a child. The cycle was the first one “to achieve something approaching commercial success” as Oxford Music Online puts it. “Perhaps for the first time in his career, Schumann struck the delicate balance between art and artlessness that was to take on increasing importance in the works of the years ahead.”
© Charles Thibo