Liner notes for CD booklets and concert programs
“These pieces came straight from my heart and were created from the most intimate depths of my family life.”
The Album for the Young is a collection of pieces that Robert Schumann published in 1848 under the title Christmas Album. The origin of the work is closely linked to the composer’s family life and the deep love he felt for his children. Music was obviously a fundamental part of their everyday education in Schumann’s house, and he wrote many of these pieces to teach his eldest three daughters the basics of musical expression at the piano. It would be incorrect, however, to consider the Album for the Young simply as a text for teaching purposes. There is certainly a pedagogic element, but it goes far beyond the mere technical aspects of piano playing. Each piece, in fact, triggers numerous artistic stimuli in the performer’s imagination, whether he is a child or an established concert artist. The poetic range, over and above the title, is so vast and varied as to require deep application and great sensitivity.
We can learn much about Schumann’s intentions in a letter he wrote to Carl Reinecke on 6 October 1848: “The first pieces of the album were written especially for our eldest daughter as a birthday present, and the others were added one at a time. It was as if I had gone back to the very beginning of writing melodies. So you will also find much of my old state of mind. They are quite different from the Kinderszenen, since these were the retrospective reflections of an adult for adults, whereas this Christmas Album contains many forward-looking ideas, the hopes and expectations of young people’s future”.
In writing these pieces Schumann has therefore tried to enter the imagination of a child, and see the world through the eyes and innocence of childhood. This results in an approach that is very tender but at the same time also dispassionate. There is, in fact, a clear distance between the true identity of the composer and the standpoint he adopts in writing the Album, influenced also by the pedagogic intent of the publication. During the period in which he was composing these pieces Schumann also wrote the Musikalische Haus- und Lebensregeln (“musical rules for home and life”) which he published in the Neue Zeitschrift fü̈r Musik in June 1850 and later included in the second edition of the Album, printed in December 1850 with the definitive title Album for the Young. The text consists of 68 short maxims, which are intended as an aid for the young musician in order to study in the most appropriate way and in full respect of the art. One rule stands out above all others: Always study as if a master were listening to you.
Another aspect of Schumann’s approach to teaching can be seen in the titles of the individual pieces, which evoke emotional or rustic situations. Clara Schumann discloses that the titles were added at a later date, with the precise aim of helping young pianists to develop their own imagination through the music. For the same purpose, Schumann commissioned the painter Ludwig Richter to design the title-page of the Album as well as ten engravings to illustrate some particular pieces. In the end Richter just designed the title-page, but his famous painting Hausmusik, which in some ways sums up the spirit that hovers over the whole collection, could well have been inspired by Winter-time I and Winter-time II (n. 38 & 39). And it is surely no coincidence that Richter reports an insightful comment made by Schumann about these very two works:
“All around are woods and fields blanketed in snow, deep snow covers the city streets. Dusk. The snow starts to fall in light flakes. Inside, in the cosy room, the old folks are seated next to the bright fire in the hearth and are watching the merry games of the boys and girls”.
The Album is divided into two parts: the first 18 pieces are “For the very young” and the others, from 19 to 43, “For the older”. However, the order does not follow any real gradation in difficulty, especially as the pieces with the least notes are often the most demanding from a poetic point of view. Right from the very first pieces the performer is expected to know how to handle delicate points of phrasing and to manage the polyphony with a well-developed awareness of timbre and sense of form. The compositions make use of a remarkable variety of musical structures and styles. There are examples of Fugue (n. 40), Chorale (n. 4, and again in the Figured Chorale, n. 42), Canon (n. 27), which pave the way for the study of the more complex polyphonic works of Bach. There are frequent references to popular or exotic musical elements, like the Siciliana (n. 11) and the Tarantella (Song of the Italian Sailors, n. 36).
There are a great many quotations of themes from other sources: the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Sonata op. 24 in the Soldier’s March, n. 2; the trio Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten from Beethoven’s Fidelio in n. 21; the Grossvatertanz (a folk tune already quoted by Bach and by Schumann himself in Papillons op. 2 and in Carnaval op. 9) in Winter-time II. Some pieces are explicitly dedicated to composers who were close to Schumann: n. 28, Recollection, was written in memory of Felix Mendelssohn, the incipit of whose Song without words op. 19 n. 1 is quoted, and n. 41, Nordic Song, is based on notes taken from the name Gade, in homage to the Danish composer Niels Gade (1817-1890).
There are three pieces (n. 21, 26 & 30) where instead of a title there are three asterisks. Eugenie Schumann relates in her memoirs that her mother Clara explained to her the meaning of the asterisks: they were the affectionate and tender thoughts of Robert towards his own children. “Whatever your father might do, see or read, sooner or later he set it to music. When he read poetry, seated on the couch after supper, he would transform the words into Lieder. All the time he saw you children playing, small pieces of music were born from your games.”
Finally, the collection is not without literary references, evident in the titles of n. 32, Sheherazade, and n. 35, Mignon. The latter is certainly one of the most poetic pieces in the whole of Schumann’s output. He later dedicated other works to Mignon (the girl protagonist in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister) including a series of Lieder and the Requiem per Mignon, op. 98. But already in this short piece the composer is able to evoke with great tenderness the yearning of Goethe’s character. Sentiments such as these are perhaps a reflection of Schumann’s own state of mind, who in 1848 looked back on his own happy and hopeful childhood as a memory that was forever alive but now far from his reality, and which only music could still evoke.