Robert Schumann

Variations on an original theme, for piano in E flat major ("Geister-Variationen"), WoO 24

    Description by Joseph Stevenson

    This set of theme with five variations is inextricably linked with deterioration of Schumann's nervous condition that was to lead to his death two and a half years later. He was already suffering from a severe and painful hearing disorder when he dreamed or imagined that an angel (either Mendelssohn or Schubert) descended and dictated a "spirit theme" to him, which he wrote down. The always manic-depressive composer was elated and immediately started writing a series of variations on it.

    It is probably a symptom of his condition that he did not recognize this theme, which was in fact one of his own. He had used it in his op 41 no 2 string quartet in 1842, in his Lieder-Album fŸr die Jugend in 1849, and, finally, in the slow movement of his violin concerto, just four months earlier. These Spirit Variations are unusual in that for the first three variations no changes at all are made to the theme itself. The first and third variations put the theme into different triplet accompaniments, while the second uses the theme in canon. It is as if Schumann was unwilling to sully the "angelic gift." In the fourth variations, at last, there is some change in the melody itself, but these are minimal. The harmonies have a curiously static effect, and the reluctance of the melody to be altered creates an impression of a memorial.

    At this point Schumann plummeted to the opposite end of his manic-depressive disorder and, in despair, cast first his wedding ring and then himself into the freezing waters of the Rhine in a suicide attempt. He was rescued and taken back home, soon thereafter to voluntarily commit himself to an asylum. While still at home, the very day after the attempt, he finished the fifth and final variation. The theme is now altered, hidden, more and more submerged in other textures of the piano until it has disappeared. The music faded into the distance. The hope Schumann thought had been offered by the angels is gone.


    1. Thema
    2. Variation 1
    3. Variation 2
    4. Variation 3
    5. Variation 4
    6. Variation 5

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2017 Warner Classics 0190295888558
    2016 Hérissons LH 14
    2016 Naxos 8573540
    2015 Harmonia Mundi HMX 290873941
    2015 Brilliant Classics 95020BR
    2015 Somm 150
    2014 Harmonia Mundi HMC 902171
    2012 ECM / ECM New Series / Universal Music Group ECM 2122/23
    2012 Alpha / Alpha Productions ALPHA 813
    2011 ECM B 001611502
    2011 Avi Music / CAvi-music 8553217
    2011 Alpha Productions 169
    2010 MSR Classics 1338
    2010 Ars Musici 232409
    2010 Berlin Classics 0016682
    2010 Brilliant Classics 94008
    2010 Ondine 1162
    2010 Palexa 0542
    2010 RCA Red Seal 72036
    2009 Document 231752
    2008 Bella Musica / Zebralution
    2007 Elatus
    2007 Claves 502603/04
    2007 Warner Classics
    2007 Warner Classics 69967
    2006 Koch 7650
    2005 Oehms 366
    2004 Oehms 336
    2004 Thorofon CTH 2523
    2000 Athene 23
    1998 Teldec 14566
    1997 Fleurs de Lys 3043
    1997 Melodiya 33213
    1995 Gega New 131
    Melodiya 33230
    Analekta 9203
    Gega 131