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Symphony Listening Diary—Schumann 3

I’m actually intimidated by Schumann’s music. The complexity is in the harmony, and I know from the scant keyboard works I've dabbled with that he is rarely forgiving of the player (I never got round to finishing Träumerei because of the fiddly nature of the fingering).


I decided early on in the first moment that this must be programmatic in some way. The reason being that I had no the fuck idea how it was organised. My understanding was that Schumann was a member of camp absolute music, so I was a bit surprised by that. Maybe my music history knowledge is a bit off.


But anyway, the transcendence of form is a good thing—you learn technique and forms so that you can one day transcend them. The point I’m at with my own learning is acknowledging the fact that I'm stuck for ideas for how to develop material. I need to study pieces like this in which melodic development and variation appear to sustain an entire ten-minute movement without the kind of organisational principles you learn from textbooks (to my ear—see next paragraph). This is what I'm most interested in at this stage in my development—what rules and logic are composers using to build large-scale forms? Leaving the rules behind is hard, what are you thinking of or referring to that allows you compose across five, ten, fifteen minutes and still be cohesive and sensical without adhering meticulously to inherited rules and principles? As you start composing, you realise how effortless it is to write bad music: repeating something once too many times makes for boring music, too little variation makes for boring music, absence of detectable principles and structure makes for boring music. Rules can be crutch and can serve as the scaffolding on which you build musical structures, but still five minutes of music is a lot. You're in real danger in that territory of boring the listener. Once you’ve tried, you gain profound respect for composers who have not only mastered technique but have done so in a language that is their own. Stravinsky is daunting for that reason—how do you metamorphosise technique into as fluent a language as the one on which the Rite of Spring is based? It happened purely in his imagination, he did not have the benefit of being able to listen to and analyse the Rite as we do. That comes from a musical intuition that can’t be learned.


Anyway, this first movement seemed to me more of a sequence of ‘feelings’ rather than being dictated by logic drawn from the material itself, which is where my assumption that the organising principle was something extramusical. Subsequent research shows me that the movement is in fact in fairly standard sonata form, so I was not only wrong but actually couldn’t have been more wrong. But still my point kind of stands—the development section must kind of do what I was talking about and Wikipedia says that the piece came about following a countryside trip with Clara that he left a very nice impression on him, so there perhaps is evidence of something borderline extramusical in the formal design. And movements two to four are like a single melodic development. How do you do that? I need to study Adagios, where it is not possible to hide behind flashiness and showiness. Flaws in skill and creativity cannot be concealed in slow movements.


This is what I’ll be trying to answer for myself as I listen to more symphonies. My music is a bit ‘blocky’ at the moment, with sections and phrases a bit too clearly marked. I’ll be thinking about how composers achieve the seamlessness of transition found here. I’m also going to return to the end of the second movement because there was a bit of harmonic variation on repetition of a melody that I'm very interested in plagiarising.


One final note to say that I found the ending a little underwhelming. Maybe this is due to my own lack of imagination? I've perhaps been poisoned by my years of Beethovenian music studies—there is no reason why music has to conclude with a massive weighty fanfare. I’ll be thinking about this as I do more listening as well. I need to unlearn my teleological thinking and absorb other ways or organising music.

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