“They are very imaginative, but difficult to grasp, they transport a very peculiar mood”, Clara Schumann noted in her diary. The composer himself, Robert Schumann, explained in a letter to his publisher: These are pieces of music narrating the sensations when the morning [twilight] is approaching and growing more intensely, conceived as a feeling rather than as an image.” The letter was dated 24 February 1854. Three days before Schumann tried to commit suicide. Which morning did Schumann think about?
Schumann wrote these “Gesänge der Frühe” (Songs of the Early Morning, op. 133) in the second half of October 1853 in Düsseldorf; it was the last composition of which he personally supervised the publication. He wrote this set of five piano pieces unde the impression of the talent and the daring ideas of the young Johannes Brahms, a friend and a regular guests of the Schumanns.
The composer himself spoke of a poetic concept being at the origin of the songs. One can distinguish different song types: The first and fifth correspond to a choral or a choral-like piece, the second and the fourth to a duet and the third to a war song, writes the researcher Michael Struck. And while we are at it: Number 3 has in my opinion a link to Franz Schubert’s “Winter Journey” and more specifically to the song “The Post”.
I would like to come back to Clara’s characterization. Yes, the pieces exude a peculiar mood. A kind for vague, diffuse premonition. A certain tension, a look back, an incredible sadness, balanced by an unexplainable element of serenity marks the first piece. The second piece is lively, insisting, but what is the message? It feels like the composer is searching for words, without success, and resigns. The third – there’s Schubert’s horn of the post coach, the hope it may bring a sign of life, a sign of love, a hope that will be invariably frustrated. Is Schumann trying to reach out in his isolation, a helpless cry for help?
Song number four, a lyrical chant with two voices, on fast and lively one, a slow and solemn one, a horse running fast and elegantly until exhaustion, it rears a last time and falls, dying. Robert, is that you? The last piece starts like a funeral march, until a second voices begins to dominate the dark mood, the triumph of light over dark, the hope for the light of another morning?
With op. 133 Schumann wrote a bewildering, irritating, even frightening work. Very honest, very emotional, very personal. His legacy? The sum of his joys and fears? You may judge yourself. The “Gesänge der Frühe” have been recorded by Maurizio Pollini.
© Charles Thibo