Thursday, March 24, 2011

Persistence of Melody

What I probably value most about living so close to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is the number of times I have been able to get to know music that I would otherwise know only through the inadequacies of recording technology.  Even when a composer becomes a major focus of attention, as was the case during the bicentennial of the birth of Robert Schumann, the Conservatory students were teasing out compositions that were being either ignored or avoided in the major venues.  This was particularly the case with his chamber music to a point where I often feel the urge to draw upon my recordings before hearing the music in concert.

That is why I set aside some time today to listen to his second piano trio, the Opus 80, which will be performed in an all-Schumann recital at the Conservatory this coming Monday evening.  I have come to know this trio, because it shows up with some frequency at student recitals and master classes;  but I still need to refresh my memory with my Beaux Arts Trio recording to set my expectations.  What always triggers a memory is Schumann’s recollection of one of his song themes in the first movement.  The song is “Intermezzo,” the second in the Opus 39 Liederkreis collection based on text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff.  I remember student-written program notes suggesting that Schumann drew upon this theme to trigger Clara’s memory of the words of the poem (“Your wonderful, blessed portrait I carry in the depths of my heart”).

Recently I realized that Brahms may have also drawn upon this theme.  I say “may have,” because it appears in the first movement of his A major “Opus 0” trio, whose attribution has been questioned by some.  If Brahms did indeed compose this trio, then the dating would appear to be around the time that he first met Robert and Clara Schumann, which would raise some intriguing hypotheses.  One is that he invoked the theme to honor the mentor relationship he hoped that Schumann would establish;  but another is that, like Robert, he was trying to get Clara’s attention!  These are matter that are unlikely to be resolved well enough to withstand rigorous reasoning, but they are still amusing conjectures.

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