Exploring the Shelves, 13: Schumann’s obsessions

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 May 2020 under Inspirations  •  3 Comments

I have tons of piano music by Schumann and in lockdown I’ve been working through the volumes.

Now, I’ve always been a huge fan of Schumann, but I have to admit that when you spend a day going through some of his, shall we say, less focused piano music you become very aware of his tendency to obsess. To hit on a motif and worry it to death. To slip sideways into a lyrical phrase in a deliciously unexpected key and then not be able to think of anything to do with it except repeat it (several times). To work up a storm of energy and then sustain it for so long that you realise he’s got himself trapped and and is struggling in the semiquavers like a fly in treacle.

Recently I’ve been exploring longer sets or ‘cycles’ such as the Humoreske, the Novelletten, the Sonata in G minor, and the five-movement Faschingschwank aus Wien. This last, which means ‘Carnival prank from Vienna’, is a collection of virtuosic pieces intended to be fantastical and humorous in tone. Energetic and ebullient they are, if not actually humorous – at least not to my ears.

Over the years I’ve often thought that I should learn these pieces to concert standard and play them in recitals. I embark on practising them, only to become discouraged by pages and pages of airless figuration. The photo of a couple of pages from the Novelletten will indicate, even if you can’t see the notes clearly, the unvarying nature of the figuration, the lack of rests and silences. All his big pieces seem to have such pages, often in the final movement (where they are not welcome). I can visualise only too well the fidgeting I’ve noticed in the audience when Schumann gets into what modern listeners might call ‘OCD mode’. It happens in his chamber music too.

Yet when I revisit these piano pieces I realise that repetition is only one side of Schumann’s coin. The other side is his astonishing ability to break out of an obsessive pattern and come up with something of piercing beauty, often just when you were getting fed up with him. The slow movement of the G minor Sonata. The lyrical episodes tucked away in the Novelletten. The genius of the ‘Stimme aus der Ferne’ (voice from the distance) which suddenly speaks in a small quiet voice in the middle of Novellette no 8, recalling a tune composed by Clara, at that time estranged from him. The fourth-movement Intermezzo of the Faschingsschwank aus Wien, a rush of completely convincing ardour in the midst of rather dogged repetition in the surrounding movements.

It’s as if Schumann knew he had to work himself into a kind of trance, playing things over and over at his piano, making his ears ring with sound before he could get into the state of mind where a heavenly vision would be vouchsafed him. We, his fans, suffer with him in order to reach those glorious moments.


Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 May 2020 under Daily Life, Musings  •  9 Comments

It’s been eight weeks in lockdown now. (Photo: Edinburgh Castle with no visitors.)

On the whole, I have been coping fine. Long experience of working at home had prepared me for #stayhome. However, it turns out that my peace of mind during solitary periods of preparation was dependent on having complementary times when I knew I’d go out and deliver the fruits of whatever I had been preparing. Performances are the ‘equal and opposite reaction’ which makes it all feel meaningful.

Deprived of performances, it has gradually become more difficult to keep the faith. All my work has been cancelled. At first, it looked as if that would just be for a few months. Then, as various versions of the future were put forward, we all realised that there could be a ‘long tail’ of consequences.  Diaries looked empty not just for weeks but for months … or more. Concert promoters realised that there is no easy way to introduce social distancing into the traditional concert hall.

You may have seen the latest plans for train companies to ‘stagger’ their seating so that each passenger is the only person in a row of four seats (this assumes a train carriage where all the rows are facing the same direction). Passenger 1 takes a window seat in Row 1 on the left. Passenger 2 takes a window seat in Row 2 on the right. Passenger 3 takes a window seat in Row 3 on the left. And so on. The same principle could be applied in concert halls – more easily in some than in others – but clearly, only a fraction of the usual audience could be present. So, would ticket prices have to double or treble to make up for the missing patrons? If not, how long would it be before the system collapsed?

I read in the New York Times the other day that there are two ends to any pandemic: the medical end, when the disease dies out in the general population, and the social end, when people cease to be fearful about catching the disease. The social end always comes later. This is the problem facing the arts world. I ask friends when they think they’ll feel confident to attend, say, a concert or a play. Their replies tend to indicate dates further and further away. They used to say, ‘In the summer, I hope’, and now they mostly say, ‘Probably not this year.’ I have caught myself wondering if I’ll ever step out onto a concert platform again without wondering whether virus particles are circulating in the hall.

These are big worries for any musician. The one I’m thinking about today is identity, that mysterious sense of ‘What is my role in the world? What particular thing do I have to contribute?’ There’s only so long we can go on telling ourselves that we ‘are performers’ if we’re not actually performing and have no idea of when we might next perform. If we cannot actually interact with audiences, and if audiences are starting to express anxiety at the idea of going to concerts, the feeling of ‘being a performer’ starts to become latent rather than active. Our sense of ‘having a role in the world’ becomes a bit hazy.

Work-wise, I have two identities – pianist and writer.  In lockdown, I’ve noticed that my sense of identity as a writer hasn’t been damaged at all – if anything, it’s been enhanced, because I’ve been able to communicate with quite a few readers and correspondents who have more time than usual to discuss things. But my identity as a performer has been rattled (just temporarily, I hope). On some days I feel I’m just that woman down the road who plays the piano day after day in her living-room. My sense of having ‘something particular to contribute’ is shaken by having no opportunities to contribute it. (Don’t say the word ‘Zoom’.)

Of course, we all hope that the next chapter won’t be as bad as we sometimes fear. But this mini-loss of identity is another example of the effects of lockdown. It’s hard to feel that we must keep practising our instruments because someone somewhere is looking forward to hearing us next week, next month – and because we are looking forward to playing to them, hearing their  silences and murmurs as they listen.

Exploring the shelves, 12: Dvorak’s Humoresques

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 May 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  5 Comments

Another find in a secondhand book sale was a volume of Dvorak Humoresques. Who knew there were eight of them for piano? I confess I only really knew the Humoresque made famous by Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and others in arrangements for violin and piano. Kreisler’s luscious ‘slides’ from one note to another ring in my ears as I think of his recording.

But the Humoresques were actually written for piano. Dvorak was in the middle of a three-year stint as Director of the Music Conservatory in New York. He looked forward to the summer holidays when he could take the boat back to Europe, travel to his summer house in Bohemia and compose without interruption. In 1894 he took with him the sketches for some pieces which, it seems, he had intended to call ‘New Scottish Pieces’. They emerged eventually as Humoresques, a title suggesting ‘good mood’ or ‘good humour’ rather than something amusing.

The Humoresques are charming, folk-like, songful, with an open character. Yet almost all of them are in ‘difficult’ keys with forests of sharps and flats. No 7, the famous one, is in G flat major (six flats). It’s quite tricky to skip about (‘Scottishly’) on the black keys without slipping off and hitting other keys you didn’t mean to hit.

When I was little, I enjoyed sightreading books of piano music, but I used to flick through the pages, checking for key-signatures bristling with sharps or flats and bypassing those pieces in favour of ones in ‘easier’ keys. It was a long time before it dawned on me that some things are actually easier to play in ‘black-note’ keys. It’s to do with the fact that the black keys on the piano lie a little higher than the white ones. If you are playing mainly on the black keys, the white keys lie ‘below’ and don’t get in your way as you move about. Conversely, if you are playing something complicated on the white keys, your fingers may stumble against black keys as you move about. So although it seems counter-intuitive, ‘black note keys’ do sometimes make the pianist’s task easier.

G flat major is the key of one of Schubert’s loveliest Impromptus (D899). Some old editions transpose it into G major, so that the music is easier to read. Easier to read, yes, but not easier to play. I learned it in G major and was mortified when I discovered Schubert wrote it in G flat. When I re-learned it in G flat, I realised that some of the rippling patterns actually lay better under the hands.

In Dvorak’s case, though, I’m not convinced that his use of ‘difficult’ keys was entirely for the pianist’s sake. His choice of six flats for the lovely Humoresque no 7 seems a little bit forced. This one probably is easier in G major, the key in which violinists like to play it. I’ve heard string players play it in various keys, actually – none of them G flat major!

I’ve often felt that for Dvorak, writing in ‘difficult’ keys had some sort of emotional meaning. It’s as though he felt his great melodic gift would mislead people into thinking that composition was easy for him. He wanted to be thought a serious composer in the classical tradition. His mentor Brahms was fond of writing piano music in ‘difficult’ keys, and it may be that Dvorak somehow associated a phalanx of sharps and flats with serious artistic endeavour.

Exploring the Shelves, 11: Haydn’s little jazz riffs

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 May 2020 under Inspirations  •  1 Comment

I do have some volumes of Haydn piano sonatas, but I confess I didn’t realise until quite recently that they didn’t contain all his sonatas. In a charity book sale, I came across a slim volume of selected Haydn sonatas which contained a couple of early works I don’t think I’d ever seen or heard. Out of curiosity, I bought it.

One of the works new to me was an early sonata in B flat,  catalogued as Hoboken XVI:2. It probably dates from Haydn’s younger years, before he got that all-important appointment to the court of Esterhazy.

All through his life, Haydn seems to have been acquainted with a succession of female keyboard players, for whom he wrote new pieces. These female musicians were prevented by social convention from playing in public, but some of them were excellent players and had opportunities within the home, or the ‘salon’, to perform to a small but discerning audience. At the time of the B flat sonata, these young ladies may have been Haydn’s pupils. It seems that he gave away new keyboard pieces without even trying to get them printed, and this sonata might be one of them.

To be honest, the outer movements – while modestly charming – don’t really hint at the inventive genius that Haydn displayed so magnificently in later works. But the slow movement was a lovely surprise. It’s a Largo in G minor, three crotchets to the bar. Those bars are generally divided into three pairs of ‘walking’ quavers, over which a melodic line undulates with an effect akin to gentle sobbing.

After eight bars, the mood suddenly changes. Still with the walking quavers in the bass, the right hand becomes skittish. And a few bars later (see photo), it breaks out into what I suppose is the 18th century equivalent of a little jazz riff. For three bars, it skitters between the quaver beats in a rhythm so complicated that I had to stare at it and do some mental arithmetic before I saw how it worked.

Once I’d got the hang of the playful rhythm, I realised how clever the phrasing is. Plodding quavers continue in the left hand but now, instead of each bar consisting of three pairs of quavers, the shape of the little riffs in the right hand divides the bar in half – into two groups of three quavers. This has the effect of making it seem as if the speed of events has suddenly doubled. The bars seem to go by twice as fast. It’s all over in a flash, but leaves behind a slightly heady feeling, as though we had just had a gulp of champagne.

In later years, Haydn gave free rein to the ‘jazzy’ side of his personality, especially in his string quartets. His late piano sonatas are full of jeux d’esprit, passages of wayward humour which some find endearing, while others find them perplexing. I like to think of them as moments when he allowed himself to go off the rails in a way which would make his friends smile.

Scotsman Sessions #30: a bit of lockdown music-making

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 May 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  1 Comment

The Scotsman newspaper is offering readers some lockdown entertainment, or solace, in the form of contributions from various artists who’ve recorded themselves playing, reading poetry, singing, or whatever in their own homes. There’s an accompanying article written by one of the newspaper’s critics; in my case, by music critic David Kettle.

My contribution, The Scotsman Sessions #30, went live this morning:


I recorded myself playing Schumann’s Romance in F sharp major opus 28, using just my old phone, which is fairly basic. So the sound quality is limited, but it was nice to be able to offer some freshly-made music-making to others in lockdown. Listening back to it on my phone, I wasn’t sure the sound quality was acceptable, but I later found that listening to it through computer speakers was a much better experience. That’s what I’d recommend if you can do that.

Some friends have reported that they had to submit an email address to The Scotsman before being able to click on the video. Others have been able to listen without needing to sign up. It’s a mystery. I hope you’ll be able to hear it without problems.

If you are on Twitter, you can also find it by looking for The Scotsman Sessions @Scotsman_Arts