Thursday, October 20th. 2022 at 1:30 pm

George Li, piano




Robert Schumann:                           Arabeske in C Major, Opus 18

Robert Schumann:                           Davidsbündlertänzes,  Opus 6



Maurice Ravel:                                    Valse Nobles et Sentimentales 

Igor Stravinsky:                                 Trois mouvements de Petrouchka



–Rosemary Waller

Robert Schumann: Arabeske, Op. 18

By the winter of 1838-39 Schumann was discouraged about his future prospects, both musically and personally.  He was 28 and in love with Clara Wieck, nine years his junior.  Her father and teacher, Frederick Wieck, was vehemently against their proposed union.  Frederick’s obsessive efforts to end the relationship were based in good part on his desire not to interrupt the significant income he enjoyed from his daughter’s rising stardom as a piano virtuoso, but also on his disdain for Robert’s talents and meager income.

Frederick’s approval for the marriage was legally required by Saxon law.  Robert decided to relocate from Leipzig to Vienna, where he hoped to jumpstart his career and thereby win over Clara’s father.  Neither goal was attained, but when Robert returned to Leipzig in the spring of 1839, he brought with him a collection of new works for piano. The Arabeske was among them, an exquisite gem, even though the composer considered the piece lightweight, bowing to writing in a style more popular with the public.  (During the previous two years his compositions had become more complex and experimental.)

As for the nuptials, they took place at last on September 12, 1840, but only after a successful lawsuit by the couple and an unsuccessful countersuit, filled with lies, by Frederick.  At the urging of Mendelssohn, Robert filed a libel suit to repair his reputation, and Clara’s father was ordered to pay court costs plus damages in a considerable amount.  He did not attend the wedding.

Robert Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6

Davidsbündlertänze [Dances of the League of David] were written in 1837, two years before Arabeske.  The title honors the first famous musician in history, and was also the name of a gathering of friends who met weekly with the composer, to socialize and also to discuss and advance new musical ideas.  There were also two imaginary participants in the group: the passionate and heroic Florestan, and the dreamy, contemplative Eusebius.  This pair represented the often warring sides of Schumann’s creative mind; they figure prominently throughout the composer’s literary writings (he founded, published, and wrote extensively in a highly respected music journal) as well as in his music.  

The Davidsbündlertänze are not really dances, but rather characteristic pieces representing a musical dialogue between Florestan (from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio) and Eusebius, with each movement followed in the score by “F.” or “E.,” indicating which of the two is speaking, though the music itself leaves little doubt.  The theme of the work is based on a mazurka written by 16-year-old Clara Wieck. The suite closes with 12 low C’s to indicate the stroke of midnight, presumably the end of the gathering.  At the top of the score Schumann quotes an old German saying which translates: “Along the way we go/In mingled joy and woe:/In joy, though glad be grave/In woe, though sad be brave.” 

In 1838 Robert told Clara that the Davidsbündlertänze included “many wedding thoughts” and that “the story is an entire Polterabend,” referencing a German wedding eve party featuring the smashing of crockery to ensure good luck. Whether Clara and Robert were thus regaled on Sept. 11, 1840 is unknown, but there would indeed be much “mingled joy and woe” in a future that included eight children; a stellar ongoing career for Clara; and a tragic merging of success, failure and mental illness for Robert. 

Maurice Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales

Nine years before completing his more famous orchestral work La Valse, Ravel published Valses nobles et sentimentales in its original piano version, prefaced with an amusing quotation by Henri de Régnier: “ … le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile [the delicious and forever-new pleasure of a useless occupation].” Named in homage to Schubert’s earlier two sets of waltzes, called Valses nobles and Valses sentimentales, Ravel’s composition was first performed in 1911 in an unusual format, sponsored by the Société musicale indépendante.  In order to introduce more adventurous contemporary works, the program listed only the titles and performers.  The aim was to encourage critics and audience to judge the music solely on its merits, without any bias of knowing who the composer was.  Ravel was chagrined to hear his work receive boos and catcalls.  A friend actually turned to him and asked what idiot could have written it.

The audience was invited to guess the identity of each composer. For Ravel’s piece, the answers included Erik Satie, Vincent d’Indy, and Zoltán Kodály, but Ravel recalled that “a minute majority did ascribe the paternity of the Valses to me.”  It’s not difficult to imagine the reaction of many of the initial 1911 listeners to the work, with its blend of Impressionism and more modern influences. 

In 1912 Ravel orchestrated Valses nobles et sentimentales, followed by a version for ballet, entitled Adélaïde ou le langage des fleurs [Adelaide, or the Language of Flowers].

Igor Stravinsky: Trois mouvements de Petrouchka [Three Movements from Petrushka]

While still in Paris in 1910, working on their first great hit The Firebird, Stravinsky and choreographer Sergei Diaghilev had discussed plans for their next ballet project, Rite of Spring.  So that fall, when Diaghilev visited the composer at his home in Lausanne, he was greatly surprised to find Stravinsky immersed instead in something very different.

His inspiration, as Stravinsky later described it, was to write “an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part—a sort of Konzertstück [concert piece] … In composing the music I had in mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggio.  The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts.  The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.  This bizarre piece having been completed, I sought for hours, while walking beside Lake Geneva, to find a title that would express in a single word … the personality of this creature.  One day I jumped for joy—Petrushka!  The immortal and unhappy hero of all the fairs in all countries: I had found my title!”  (Petrushka is the Russian equivalent of Punch.)

When Stravinsky played the not-yet-orchestrated work for him on the piano, Diaghilev nimbly shifted gears, correctly perceiving its potential not as a concert piece, but as a ballet.  Petrushka would be their next collaboration.  It was premiered in Paris on June 13, 19ll, with Nijinsky dancing the title role.  Rite of Spring would be postponed until 1913.

In 1921 the Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka for piano solo were dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein.  Stravinsky clearly stated that the new iteration was not a transcription, but rather written specifically for the keyboard, and designed for performers to display their technique.  He admitted that he could not play it himself, for lack of adequate left-hand agility.A footnote: this writer enjoyed a small encounter with the great Stravinsky.  During my early years with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra the composer conducted a pair of concerts, featuring concert versions of his ballet music. He opened with The Fairy’s Kiss.  Frail but very competent and genial, he spoke little during rehearsals (always the hallmark of a good conductor!).  He humbly turned the baton over to his able assistant, Robert Craft, for the much more complicated and difficult score of Rite of Spring.  It’s a treasured memory.











Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s