April 25, 2021
The pianist Amy Yang treated MEA Zoom attendees to a stunning performance following her insightful commentary on Robert Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor. With the magic of screen sharing, and the help of MEA’s Richard Allaway, the meeting Zoom facilitator, we could follow the score during Ms. Yang’s lecture and performance. In her introduction, Ana Berschadsky, program committee hostess, mentioned some of Amy Yang’s impressive activities as performer, recording artist, and teacher (Curtis, University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College).
See also https://www.amyjyang.com/about
It was astonishing to hear that Amy Yang had only recently tackled this fiendishly difficult sonata. Engaged in a study of Robert Schumann, (1810-1856), she was intrigued by the work. She sought to understand the motivation or driving forces of his creativity (there were many) and how his life and his art intersected (“a chemical process of transformation”).
Amy Yang considered the backstory of this Sonata in F Minor (1836). Schumann worked on it during a 20 month separation from Clara Wieck enforced by Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck What feelings did the composer have then? Schumann described it as “the darkest period” in his life. Amy wondered if impulsivity, loss of inhibitions, and bipolar disorder fueled Robert Schumann’s creativity. What of his underlying motivic ideas like ASCH or his character pieces in Carnaval evoking feelings of infatuation or passion? What of the literary influences: Jean Paul Richter, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heine, Goethe? Schumann often worked on musical projects in pairs; while composing the Op. 14 sonata, he was also working on the Fantaisie in C Major, Op. 17, a musical tribute to Beethoven. So Beethoven may have influenced some passagework in Op. 14.
The sonata, dedicated to Ignaz Moscheles, originally had five movements, but two scherzos were eliminated in the first edition. The publisher, Tobias Haslinger, probably questioned the length and difficulty of a larger work. One scherzo was included in the 1853 edition. In that same edition, there was an aim to simplify. So the original 6/16 meter of the Prestissimo possible, was replaced by 2/4. Some notes were changed! Even the title underwent changes: Concerto for Piano without Orchestra became Third Grand Sonata. We were shown markings in the score calling for accents and crescendo or decrescendo (sometimes differing in left and right hands) that reminded us of the importance of the composer’s intentions and of accurate editions.
Amy Yang commented that Schumann chose the same key for all the movements: the key of F minor, which, to her, “connotes doom.” Was the choice of F minor influenced by Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 57 (Appassionata) or Schubert’s Impromptu No. I, D 035, Op Post.143? She then delved into the score. The opening descending bass octaves are soon followed by a soprano melody, a plaintive outcry with syncopation, and a scale that is reflected by the inner voice. The dynamics of the next measures are crucial as the bass builds tension. Then, in m. 22, we hear a bridge passage, a kind of flutter that recurs later in the movement sounding more like a Schubert “stream of consciousness passage” than a classical construction. The second theme enters in m. 22, in the bass voice before repeated in the treble. The melody, in two sets of six bars, prominently features the tritone, perhaps “alluding to the unresolved Schumann romance.” Then, in mm. 38-46, we hear the thicker texture of a Beethoven passage and the dotted rhythms of the second movement of Schumann’s Fantasie. A section follows that is very much like string quartet writing with each part delineated. Then, m. 68 introduces four measures full of the doubling of stems/voices and sustained or dotted notes, followed by the Animato... a stringendo... and return to a tempo. After a reiteration of the opening bars, (m. 113), there is a “pivot” on a G-flat chord (m.118) interrupting the repetition, creating “an important detour.” Schuman uses this particular chord in many places, propelling the excitement. In m. 230, just before the third stating of the opening bar, both hands descend in sixteenth notes “plummeting into despair.”
We became aware of the effusive, occasionally explosive quality of this music “It’s a feverish style. It’s totally nuts. I love it. It’s a lot of fun, a challenge to play,” Amy exclaimed.
These contrasting elements are reworked in the course of the movement, but this movement is not in sonata allegro form; it is closer to binary form. There is little development of thematic material, and no middle development section.
The Quasi Variazioni, a movement based on an Andantine theme by Clara Wieck, begins like a funeral march. There are three sections, each eight measures long: AA, BB, and CC. In the third section, the left hand “is liberated from the dotted rhythm.” The theme ends on the dominant (C Major chord) suggesting love unresolved. The entire theme is not always presented in the variations, and unlike the usual set, there is no variation in major. The second variation features a poignant two against three, In the third variation, the repeated high tones shine forth like the striking of bells. The solemn ending of the movement, with repeated chords, recalls the funereal beginning.
The closing movement, designated Prestissimo possibile, with subsequent commands to play even faster than “as fast as possible,” is, according to Amy Yang, “absolutely nuts! ” It is also exhausting to play. But Schumann cares not about writing playable music. And he really intended the meter to be 6/16, which just sounds more frenetic than the 2/4 meter that replaced it in later editions. The remarkable use of rests in the bass recalls the pizzicato of a cello. The sketchiness there is intentional. In the course of this tumultuous movement, the top voice, inner voice and bass alternate as if in conversation.
After this thorough discussion, the artist performed the entire work. Her interpretation was thrilling: the dazzling technique, the articulation, the dynamics, the attention to detail, the phrasing, every aspect of her playing was pleasing. The lecture prepared us to be better listeners. Ms. Yang had a most appreciative audience. Kudos goes to Programs Chair Sophia Agranovich and her committee.
Bertha Mandel, writer
Joan Bujacich, layout, screen shots