Schumann as aspiring pianist: technique, sonority, and composition

Neergaard, B. (2018) Schumann as aspiring pianist: technique, sonority, and composition. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


In recent decades, the pianism of Robert Schumann’s compositions has increasingly gained recognition. What was previously seen as dense and mid-keyboard centric is now recognised as ground-breaking in terms of sonorous invention, informed by an intimate understanding of the instrument and its playing techniques. Yet, as pianist Schumann has received little credit, primarily due to a short-lived and relatively unsuccessful career. This thesis aims to explore this seeming paradox. I shall argue that Schumann developed rarely discussed concepts of imagined sound and tactile feedback during his days as aspiring pianist (1828–1831), and that these became integral to the pianistic style of his earliest published compositions. Following a general overview of the historical and biographical contexts for this study, I will trace Schumann’s piano practice to establish his overall artistic aims and the primacy of sonority in this regard. This leads to an investigation of his ideals of tone to locate Schumann within prevailing schools of piano playing and of piano making around 1830. Acknowledging his comprehension of playing mechanics, I observe that during an 1831 crisis which preceded his much-debated hand injury, his technique suffered from a series of insurmountable issues relating to the right hand. Disabled as performer, Schumann realised his virtuoso aspirations in his capacity as composer. Two case studies featuring the Abegg Variations op. 1 and Papillons op. 2 demonstrate his use of sound—audible and imagined—to elevate the mechanical virtuosity of piano playing into a virtuosity of the imagination. Not only does this demonstrate a transfer of sound concepts from performance to composition; it offers a timely reassessment of Schumann’s pianistic merits and presents new interpretational paths for future performances of his piano music.

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