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.