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On Schumann’s Kinderszenen – Practising the Piano

It is summer time, and rather than present my usual type of post, I am planning something a little different for the next few weeks. The first is a selection of recordings of Schumann’s Kinderszenen I particularly like – I hope you enjoy them too!

Kinderszenen, op. 15, is a much-loved set of 13 pieces written in 1838. Schumann dashed off the entire set in just a few days. He originally wrote 30 pieces – “pretty little things”, as he called them – from which he chose 13. The unused movements were published years later in Bunte Blätter, op. 99, and Albumblätter, op. 124.

Several of Schumann’s piano works are made up of short movements that make up a whole, but you wouldn’t really think of presenting, say, Chopin (or any other movement from Carnaval, op. 9) by itself, or indeed any of the numbers that make up Papillons, Kreisleriana, etc. However, some of the individual pieces from Kinderszenen are often taken out of context and may be played as stand-alone pieces – not just as encores.

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These are simple, unpretentious pieces  – most are less than a page long. Despite the title of the work they were not intended for children, although children may of course play them! Schumann’s purpose was to create a tender representation of childhood for adults. We know he was very proud of these pieces. Clara was delighted with them, writing to him saying “they belong only to us”.

By way of an introduction, I can do no better than invite you to listen to Murray Perahia discussing the pieces and illustrating them at the piano.

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The most famous piece of the set is probably Träumerei (Dreaming). When Horowitz played it as an encore there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium.

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And now over to Martha Argerich…

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Next Clara Haskil

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And finally Alfred Cortot

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Here is a rare clip of Cortot giving a masterclass on the final piece of the set – Der Dichter Spricht (The Poet Speaks). Cortot, as we can hear, was quite the poet too.

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In case you are wondering why Artur Rubinstein is not included in this selection, don’t worry – he is! In 1947, MGM made the biopic Song of Love about the Robert and Clara Schumann, also featuring Brahms and Liszt. In one scene Katherine Hepburn supposedly plays Träumerei but the actual playing is Rubinstein’s.

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Of great historical interest is Adelina de Lara‘s 1951 recording of the work. De Lara was a student of Clara Schumann, and close friends with Brahms during her studies.

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When you play these pieces, forget you are a performer. Rather than project outwards, invite your listeners to eavesdrop on your own private world.

One general book on Schumann I can highly recommend is Peter Ostvald’s psychobiography from 1987, Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius. You will find out what was going on in his inner world with each piece he wrote – a fascinating read and a great resource.