Thursday, May 6, 2010

Album for the Young 3

Album for the Young
For Piano
, op. 68
by Robert Schumann

Here is probably the first work that occurs to most classically-minded piano parents when they see the words "Album for the Young." Schumann set the mark high for future composers of short piano pieces for children in this collection of 43 Romantic miniatures written in 1848, when its composer was at the height of his mastery. Early in his career, Schumann had written another album of piano pieces titled Scenes of Childhood, which are of a more sentimental nature. Now, in his maturity, he surpassed himself by writing a young pianist's musical guide through life.

In the Schirmer "Centennial Edition" of this book, which I own, the music is prefaced by not one, not two, but three introductory essays, including Philip Hale's critical preface to Schirmer's first edition of 1893. Hale claims that Schumann actually revolutionized writing for the piano in this book, among others. So to call the pieces "miniatures" is no quibble on their artistic significance. Schumann was a master of small-scale forms, as Hale quotes Saint-Saƫns saying: "Where Mendelssohn painted water-colors, Schumann cut cameos." I find this remark all the more interesting after playing through the whole book. Schumann's music strikes a unique balance between picturesque expressiveness and clarity of line, between textural intricacy and matter-of-fact concision.

These are indeed brief pieces, most of them one page long or less, only a handful of them requiring a page-turn, and all 43 of them adding up to only 69 pages of music (per Schirmer). They are character pieces with evocative titles such as "The Happy Farmer," "First Loss," "Roaming in the Morning," and "Vintage-Time." They are pieces in which formal structure is less important than the expression of mood and the execution of harmonic, textural, and rhythmic novelties that could set even a seasoned pianist at difficulties. Only the first third, or perhaps the first half, of the book is really accessible to children, but adolescent pianists - particularly ones of special precocity - will appreciate the swift progress beyond sugary nursery-tunes to romances, dances, musical images of sailors, hunters, and battlefields.

Three of the pieces have no title apart from three asterisks and a tempo marking. There are two pieces titled "Winter-Time." There is a "Little Song in Canon-Form." There is a "Little Fugue," actually a Prelude and Fugue inspired by the Well-Tempered Clavier of J. S. Bach, and at four pages the longest piece in the book. Early in the book there is a very plain "Choral[e]" (an arrangement of the hymn tune Freu dich sehr, known to many of us through the hymn "On my heart imprint Thine image"); near the end, in "Figured Choral," the same tune returns with a much more interesting arrangement. There is a spot-on impersonation of Schumann's dear friend Mendelssohn, titled "In Memoriam" (Erinerrung) and superscribed with the date of Mendelssohn's then-recent but untimely death. There is a "Norse Song" dedicated to another friend of Schumann, the Danish composer Niels Gade, whose last name whimsically spells the notes of the piece's main theme.

There are pieces that your child will come across in second- or third-grade piano books, and pieces that may resonate best with an adult's life experience. There are pieces loud and soft, fast and slow, easy and hard; pieces simple enough for a child to play at sight, and pieces challenging enough to reward years of practice, technical and artistic growth. There are several pieces early in the book where the accompaniment hums along in an almost monotonous way, while one piece, "15. Spring Song," may tie you up in rhythmic difficulties. There are pieces where you may lose yourself in harmonic richness, while in such pieces as "34. Theme" the harmony is so daring that Schumann seems to belong to a later generation of composers.

The word "sonority" may come to mind as you play pieces such as the deep, dark, velvety "39. Winter-time II." On the other hand, there is nothing subtle about the dynamics of "31. War Song," in which the pianist hauls off and hits the keyboard for all (s)he's worth in a display of violence and anger, and where levels of extreme loudness furnish what little dynamic contrast there is to be had.

The few pieces longer than a page do require the player to negotiate instant changes of key, texture, tempo, and style. Other pieces are more consistent within themselves, but they offer so much variety! Young pianists exploring this book must navigate such obstacles as marcato signs (upside-down V's that, most often, indicate an accent combined with separation), dynamics alternating suddenly between ff and pp, arpeggiated chords, richly chromatic harmonies with moving inner parts, melodies crossing from one hand to the other, passages in bare octaves, and pieces with more sharps or flats than Junior may be used to seeing.

E-sharps, B-sharps... now and then a double-sharp sign... continuously rolling triplet eighths... pentuplets, sometimes written as a "grace note" flourish... Big, thick, heavy chords... very specific pedaling... rhythms that alternate between triplets and dotted figures... Rapid runs of parallel thirds in the R.H.... trills... one place marked "Ped. sempre, una corda," which means that you have to hold down the pedal and let everything ring because there are simply more notes than you can physically hold down at the same time.... Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but being able to play all this stuff isn't something he'll leave in your Christmas stocking. You're going to have to work at this, perhaps all your life.

It will be rewarding, in the long term. In the short-term, however, while you or your child is learning to play the piano, this is not a book you're going to work straight through. You'll have to attack it piecemeal, as your developing technique gets you over the next hurdle, and the next... It's an "Album for the Young" (if not the Album) that I would regard as essential for any family that nurtures a budding pianistic talent in its bosom; but not all of the book will apply to where Junior is at, at any one point in his or her musical growth. He or she will be living with this book for a while. But believe me, there are far worse things a parent may have to hear his child practicing for hours, weeks, years. This is wonderful music that will give more and more pleasure to everyone in earshot as the young musician masters it and matures.

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