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Robert Schumann and the art of musical cryptography

Composer embedded names in music

The composer Robert Schumann wrote only three piano sonatas, unlike the composers before him such as Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, who wrote volumes of piano sonatas. Schumann's three sonatas were all started in the same year, in 1833, but remarkably it took five years to complete all of them. The first was finished in 1835, and the next two in 1836 and 1838 respectively, but Schumann's lack of interest with the piano sonata may have stemmed from his perception that it was a dying art. "It seems that the form has outlived its life cycle," he wrote, but accepting that this was how things were. "This is of course in the natural order of things: we ought not to repeat the same statements for centuries but to think of the new as well."

Born in Zwickau, Saxony, Schumann's early life was tinged with tragedy. His father died when he was 16, and the tragedy was compounded by the suicide of his sister as a response to that death. While his early intentions upon enrolling at Leipzig University were to study law, he was unfortunately told by the professor that he had no talent whatsoever. He did continue on with his music studies and later on his life he dreamed of becoming a virtuoso, but the crippling of his left hand, limiting his ability to play, eroded those hopes. Fortunately he had become fairly established as a composer by that time.

One of Schumann's quirky tricks was to encode the names of people (mainly women he was infatuated with) into tunes. An early love, the Countess Pauline von Abegg, provided the inspiration behind Schumann's Opus 1 variations, known as the Abegg Variations. The notes A-B-flat-E-G-G form the main melody and are used as the basis for each variation. (In Germany the note B denotes B-flat while the letter H denotes the note B.) Ernestine von Fricken, whom Schumann met when he was twenty-four years old and was engaged to, had her birthplace immortalised in his work Carnaval. The work is a mask ball in which characters take it in turn to hold centrestage. Various permutations of the notes A, E-flat, C and B fill the score and form the thematic material for the characters. The E-flat and B in German are represented by the letters S and C, so Schumann was spelling out von Fricken's birthplace, Asch.

But Schumann did not merely restrict these cryptic musical references to women he was in love with. He also wrote six organ fugues based on the theme B-A-C-H (which is represented by the note B natural). You may think it a weird practice, to use notes to spell references to people, but at least Schumann did not go all the way into masking sentences. Imagine what his work would have sounded like if he had decided to use the statement, "D-a-d F-e-d A-g-a B-a-d C-a-b-b-a-g-e"!

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