Robert Schumann

Symphonic Etudes ("Etudes in the form of variations") for piano (2 versions), Op. 13

    Description by Blair Johnston

    Schumann's contributions to the literature of the piano etude, a genre just beginning to blossom in the middle nineteenth century at the hands of Chopin and Liszt, came in three isolated, extremely productive bursts, after which he abandoned the genre forever. (It is perhaps no coincidence that Schumann was also forced to abandon hopes for a performing career after permanently crippling the fourth finger of his right hand during the early 1830s.) Schumann's earliest such effort, the Studies on Caprices of Paganini Op. 3 (1832), is at best little more than a preliminary essay toward the later, altogether more successful Concert Etudes on Caprices of Paganini, Op. 10 (1833). Even this second set of Paganini-inspired works, however, cannot compare with Liszt's parallel achievement, the Grandes études de Paganini (1851). But with the 12 Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 (1834, rev. 1852), Schumann achieved a remarkable level of expressivity and technical achievement that has made the work a perennial if digitally formidable recital favorite.

    The 12 etudes of Op. 13 originally numbered 18; however, Schumann found the set so exhausting for the pianist that he removed five of the etudes prior to publication, both lessening the work's demands and streamlining its architecture. Johannes Brahms selected five of the additional six etudes for publication during the 1890s, and these have since joined the original 12 in many performances and recordings.

    Schumann also referred to the Symphonic Etudes as "Etudes en forme de variations" (Etudes in the form of variations), and it is largely to this enhanced degree of musical connectivity that the work owes its success. The theme upon which most of the variations are based was composed by Baron von Fricken, an amateur musician and father of Ernestine von Fricken, Schumann's onetime fiancée. The third and ninth etudes bear a much weaker relationship to the theme than do their companions, while the finale is based upon different material altogether.

    The theme, in C sharp minor, is infused by an atmosphere of tragedy, effectively built up into a kind of sepulchral march in the first etude-variation. The second etude is in rolling nocturne style, while the third, marked Vivace, draws upon energetic staccato textures. The fourth is a canon at the octave that uses the first measure of the Baron's theme but soon digresses. The fifth etude is also cleverly imitative, built on impish dotted rhythms (and, for a change, finishing in E major rather than in C sharp minor), while the sixth etude is a study in syncopation. The seventh etude, which like the fifth moves to E major at the end, is quick-witted and repetitive, finishing with a crescendo and a flurry of finger work. The eighth etude employs a thinner texture but is filled with intricate ornamentation. The ninth etude, a scherzo of sorts marked Presto possibile (as fast as possible), is one of the most challenging of the set; the theme is present only in the vaguest outline. The tenth etude is articulate and humorous, the eleventh the only one cast in a key other than C sharp minor; its grim key of G sharp minor and foreboding left-hand texture take the listener into the despairing depths of Schumann's craft. Etude No. 12, the finale, is cast in the altogether brighter key of D flat major, and employs a theme from an opera by Heinrich Marschner as its basic material; its joyful dotted rhythms and Allegro brillante atmosphere make for an appropriately exciting conclusion.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Theme. Andante
    2. Variation 1. Un poco piu vivo [Etude 1 in 1852 version]
    3. Variation 2. Marcato il canto [Etude 2 in 1852 version]
    4. Etude 3. Vivace
    5. Etude 4 [Variation 1 (or 3) in 1852 version)
    6. Etude 5 [Variation 2 (or 4) in 1852 version]
    7. Etude 6. Agitato [Variation 3 (or 5) in 1852 version]
    8. Etude 7. Allegro molto [Variation 4 (or 6) in 1852 version]
    9. Variation 3 [8] [Variation 5 (or 7). Sempre marcatissimo, in 1852 version]
    10. Etude 9. Presto possibile
    11. Variation 4 [10] [Variation 6 (or 8). Sempre con energia, in 1852 version]
    12. Variation 5 [11]. Con espressione [Variation 7 (or 9). Con espressione, in 1852 version)]
    13. Finale. Allegro brillante (1852 version)
    14. Finale. Allegro brillante

    Appears On

    Year Title / Performer Label / Catalog # AllMusic Rating
    2018
    Arco Diva
    UP 01952131
    2018
    Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler
    PH 17067
    2017
    Various Artists
    ICA Classics
    ICAB 5141
    2017
    Blue Griffin Recording
    BG 435
    2017
    Bella Musica
    BM 312468
    2017
    Sony Classical
    88985416702
    2017
    Deutsche Grammophon
    0028947980
    2017
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    2017
    Hungaroton
    HCD 32798
    2016
    Deutsche Grammophon
    002894795516
    2016
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    88875032272
    2016
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    WS 121223
    2016
    Nimbus Alliance
    NI 6318
    2016
    Piano Classics
    PCLM 0104
    2016
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    88875199912
    2016
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    FHR 46
    2016
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    MELCD 1002312
    2015
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    4794350
    2015
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    88875127202
    2015
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    AUDITE 95720
    2015
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    8508016
    2015
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    95020BR
    2014
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    CRC 3367
    2014
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    MELCD 1002234
    2014
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    OC 434
    2014
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    ZZT 352
    2014
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    SOMMCD 0134
    2014
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    8571305
    2014
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    4787697
    2014
    Decca
    2013
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    T2CD 2013018
    2013
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    HMU 907606
    2013
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    ODRCD 304
    2013
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    CC 72597
    2013
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    14144
    2013
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    6044
    2013
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    V 5310
    2013
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    LPCLASSICS 1013
    2013
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    TLS 057
    2013
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    2010
    2013
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    DSD 350070
    2013
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    ACC 24238
    2013
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    88725462392
    2013
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    2013
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    2013
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    542086
    2013
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    4785093
    2012
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    2003022
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    88691912562
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    4790908
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    1035
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    1204
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    586468
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    231661
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    124
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    93772
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    5108
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    470915
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    4090
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    1964
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    2532
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    5631
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    0126
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    0170
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    4089
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    1739
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    9612
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    63039
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    67166
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    7353
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    99351
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    AUR172
    2000
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    122
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    93852
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    37
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    10723
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    100311
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    71001
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    456 751-2PM2
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    444338
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    743
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    9932
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    4743
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    462232
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    9013
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    0068
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    7316
    1999
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    117
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    456745
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    1748
    1999
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    63000
    1999
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    259
    1998
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    459 065-2GCC5
    1998
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    459003
    1998
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    CD1013
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    621
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    9192
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    0091902
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    1069
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    CD 224501
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    446920
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    5013
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    339
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    7022
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    447977
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    295921
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    1983
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    130
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