About this Piece
Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13, is still a work in progress. Or, at least, it is a work that never seems to have settled into a final, permanent form. Beyond the two printed editions which were published during the composer's lifetime, the Symphonic Etudes existed in several forms called variously, Études symphoniques, or "Fantasies and Finale on a Theme by Baron de Fricken," or "Etudes in the Form of Variations," or "Variations pathétiques," or even "Etudes of an Orchestral Character from Florestan and Eusebius." Individual components were deleted and restored over the years.
The version played tonight is the 1852 version, with the addition of five Posthumous Variations, edited and published by Brahms after the composer's death. It is now a performing practice, credited to the great pianist Alfred Cortot, for soloists to restore the Posthumous Variations into the fixed order of the published score in a sequence of their own choosing.
The program listing will show that the printed edition of 1852, now usually found in versions edited by Clara, made no attempt to streamline or standardize the names of movements as variations stand alongside etudes; a legacy of the piece's unstable history. But what is distracting to the eye is ignored by the ear - what we hear is a monumental sequence of contrasting extrovert and introvert episodes, testing the extremes of technical facility and emotional expression, leading to a marching, jubilant finale.
Like archeological artifacts, the original titles tell us something about the inspirations for Op. 13. The Baron de Fricken mentioned in one draft was the guardian of Ernestine von Fricken, Schumann's betrothed before his subsequent infatuation with Clara brought the engagement to a sad close.
Before he gained wide fame as a composer, Schumann was primarily known as a writer and critic. The popular literature of his day was obsessed with stories of secret societies doing battle against the forces of evil and, caught in the current, Schumann created his own fictive league of heroes, alter-egos to vent his creative outpourings. Florestan (outgoing and charismatic) and Eusebius (introspective and dreamy) were the leaders of Schumann's Davidsbund, his imagined troop battling the Philistines of popular culture. Their contrasting personalities are the engines of the Symphonic Etudes, their march to victory its conclusion.
- Grant Hiroshima