In his lighter moments Robert Schumann was quite a joyful fellow! I could not imagine how else he could have written Op. 102. The German title is “Fünf Stücke im Volkston”, which would give “Five Pieces in a Folk Tune” if translated. But the title is misleading, these pieces, even if written for the amateur musician, have nothing simplistic about them, far from it. They are very refined, carefully constructed, permeated by the elegant, graceful version of German melancholia. To compose a melody creating the illusion to be light is one of the challenges – I think Mozart once said this.
Schumann, ever the intellectual, provided a title for the first piece that confirms that his ambition went well beyond writing a pleasing tune or two: With Humour – Vanitas Vanitatum. A warning to the unsuspecting musician or audience. I came across this set on a recording by Jozsef Kiss (oboe) and Jeno Jando (piano) – Schumann allowed for the oboe, the violin and the cello as the lead instrument – and if I had to choose between that version and, let’s say, the fabulous recording by Steven Isserlis (cello) and Denes Varjon (piano), I would be tempted to say I prefer the version with the oboe. For the simple reason that it gives the pieces a playfulness that cheer me up, while the cello always has a sinister element, may the cellists among you forgive me. I love the oboe since I first heard the duck in Sergey Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wulf”.
The year Schuman wrote Op. 102 was a turbulent one. He lived in Dresden at the time, and in April 1849, when he sat down to write these pieces, the revolutionary fever in Germany had come over the city, barricades had sprang up in the streets, ordinary folks and the liberal-minded middle lass asked for a democratic constitution. The Saxonian king had to ask Prussia for troops to help him suppress the uprising. While Franz Liszt at the time gladly participated in the uprising (and had to flee into exile later), the Schumanns left for the country side. Robert needed calmness, assurance, coziness, even if he and Clara secretly sympathized with the liberal ideas.
At the same time Germany celebrated in 1849 the 100th birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Schumann saw himself as one of the leading if not the leading composer of the Reich. As such he saw himself obliged to contribute with excellent compositions that would likely meet a warm reception. In this he certainly succeeded with Op. 102.
© Charles Thibo