I remember that first evening. It was a cold autumn day, and I had nothing to do. I decided to visit a woman I hadn’t seen for a long time. She had bought a house, and I was curious about her, the house and her life in it. It was the very house I live in now, but it looked very different then. The focal point of the living room was a red couch that now serves as a guest bed. And while we sat on that cozy couch, a funny incident in the kitchen made me jump. The woman laughed out loud and before I could say anything, she got up and said: “Dinner is ready!” More laughter.
Some time passed, I moved in, I stayed. Occasionally we recall that first evening, we still find the incident funny. The beginning of a romance. I had to think of it when I listened to Robert Schumann’s Romances for Oboe and Piano, op. 94. Schumann wrote it in 1849 and explicitly mentions on the score that the clarinet part can just as well be played by a violinist. While I am writing this, I am reading a biography of Schumann’s wife, Clara Wieck. Schumann had a deep longing for peace, for intimacy, for a calm family life and for time to devote to music. He found it in Clara. The three pieces of op. 94 reflect this.
Schumann started late to write works for chamber music. Perhaps because this art form is of an utmost sincerity; it can transport a confession, a moment of fear, an accusation, a demand, a desperate cry, a pure emotion expressed in an unambiguous way. Such honesty requires courage and Schumann was a rather timid, unobtrusive person, not inclined to talk much. As a composer and a writer, Schumann had a lot to say and he was excellent at speaking out, but otherwise he was rather withdrawn outside the circle of his family. His chamber music was meant as “delicate, fragrant flowers, not meant to march triumphantly through the salons, but rather [rather] meant to comfort the soul in an intimate circle.”
The Romances for Oboe and Piano were Robert’s Christmas present for Clara in 1849. He had been asked by his publishing house Simrock whether he could not write a version for clarinet and piano to accommodate the fashion of the day. He refused categorically and with good reason. The clarinet is brash when compared to the oboe, better suited for an intimate atmosphere and the expression of delicate feelings. And though Schumann had not envisaged that a cello could replace the oboe, Stephen Isserlis (cello) and Denes Varjon (piano) have recorded a variant almost as sensitive as the recording by Eric Le Sage (piano) and Francois Leleux (oboe). A recording of the piano/violin version has been released by Kolja Blacher (violin) and Vassyily Lobanov (piano).
© Charles Thibo