Patience is required. We have boarded the plane, the doors are closed, seat belts are fastened and we are waiting. The clearance to start the engines and to taxi to the runway still has to be given. My golden rule: Whenever I get on a plane, I always take a book with me to pass time once we have reached cruising altitude. And for the minutes the plane needs to taxi, take off and climb through the clouds, I always, always have some music on my iPhone. When I flew to Amsterdam lately, my choice fell on Robert Schumann’s Schumann Andante and Variations in B flat minor, Op. 46.
Schumann wrote this piece in 1843. The scoring is unusual: two pianos, two cellos and a horn. The sound, ah, the sound… Take this live recording with Martha Argerich, the sound is soft, voluptuous, passionate, elevating, melancholic, foolish – all at the same time. The composer himself described as very elegiac. “I think I was somewhat melancholic when I composed it”, he wrote to a friend. His wife Clara played it with Felix Mendelssohn a first time during a private concert. “After a few trials, I managed the part, but the sound was not yet delicate enough”, she noted. “I feel how Robert meant it, but one cannot expect this from others, even Mendelssohn interpreted it in a too material way.”
Schumann himself was not satisfied with the piece. He withdrew it from publication and struck out two variations. Upon a suggestion from Mendelssohn he rewrote the remaining score for two pianos only and had it republished. Johannes Brahms however recognized the virtues of the original version and had it performed for the first time in its original shape with Clara at the piano in 1868, twelve years after the composer’s tragic death.
1843 was another busy year for Schumann. He saw himself as a hardworking, indefatigable artist, fully devoted to his craft. He would retire for hours in his room in Leipzig and work. His wife Clara, pregnant once more, didn’t see him much. The project on his mind was the oratorio “Das Paradies und die Peri”. Richard Wagner regularly met Schumann this year, two antipodes. Schumann would stay silent most of time, while Wagner never stopped talking, preferably about himself.
In December then the premiere of the oratorio, the reconciliation with Clara’s father and last-minute preparations for a three months journey to Russia. And the Andante? The French musicologist Brigitte François-Sappey attributes it to an inspiration by “the angel or the devil”. Schumann considered chamber music as the most noble form of composition and wanted to break new ground after he had demonstrated his talent and his application in other disciplines: the symphony, the oratorio, the solo piece for piano. The Andante and Variations was a very daring piece for its time and perhaps the composer was a little afraid of his own courage. Anyway, he knew what he did and he got it right. As Virgil knew: Audaces fortuna iuvat. And with that: Wheels up!
© Charles Thibo