Written as a collaboration with the father of his first fiancée, Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes have long posed a great challenge to all who have crossed its path. In 1834, Schumann met and became engaged to the young pianist Ernestine von Fricken. Driven by his predictable passions, Schumann hoped to unite the two families within a piece of music, and set out to write a set of etude-variations for piano based on a theme written by Ernestine’s father, Baron Ignaz Ferdinand von Fricken. Though the first version of the work was finished in 1835, it was not published until 1837. Shortly after completion, however, Schumann’s personal life took a drastic turn—his relationship with Ernestine was terminated. Naturally, the piece received a new dedication to one of his dear friends, William Sterndale Bennet.
Piano etudes, traditionally, were sets of exercises that isolated a few key technical skills with the hope of bolstering a student’s virtuosity and athleticism. Though blisteringly difficult and uniformly uncomfortable for the pianist over the course of twenty-five minutes, the Symphonic Etudes may be most appropriately understood as a study in orchestral sound and variety—exercises in the creation of individualized, novel sound worlds. Each etude possesses its own distinct character, ranging from operatic laments to skeletal grooves. Though the etudes are defined by a sense of endless variety, they are unified by the theme presented in the opening Andante. In the course of this work, one can expect to hear the exciting synthesis of personalized characters, orchestral, vocal, and chamber-ensemble textures, and shocking, pianistic bravura all bound together by a single musical impetus. As one might expect, the marriage of these musical contrasts is not without conflict—electricity sparks between etudes in sudden shifts between the major and minor modes. This friction inspires the ultimate transformation of the opening dirge to transcendental heights in the form of a victorious march. At the core of this work, there is a driving force of action and rejection of complacency—nearly every second of it seeks to struggle with and overcome adversity, whether it be technical, musical, or emotional. While cast on a grand scale, this early masterpiece by Robert Schumann encompasses the human, personal struggle of rising from the ashes of our past, broken selves, and charging fearlessly into the unknown.
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