Clara Schumann’s Op 6 no 1 – When was it written?

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Clara Wieck (later Schumann) published her Op 5, 6, and 7 in 1836, having sent them all to the publisher in August, about a month before her 17th birthday. Op 5 and Op 6 are collections of pieces for solo piano, the former consisting of four character pieces with programmatic titles, the latter of six pieces identified by genre labels: Toccatina, Notturno, Ballade, Pollonaise, and two Mazurkas. Op 7 is her Piano Concerto.

I’m primarily interested in Op 6 at the moment, but it’s worth thinking about all three works together as they were published at the same time, and were being worked on in parallel. We don’t have a lot of evidence about their genesis (no autograph score of Op 6 has been found), but a handful of mentions in Clara’s diary* give us a few date stamps to work with. The catalogue of works in Nancy Reich’s biography is invaluable here; I am once again grateful to the hardcore musicologists who dig down deep and dirty into the source material and process it in ways that make it useful to those of us who come along afterwards with questions.

The reason I’m puzzling over this is because my first impression on getting acquainted with the Op 6 Soirées Musicales was that the first movement felt a lot less mature than the others, and I was surprised to find little or no commentary in the literature on this discrepancy.

Generally the composition dates for the work as a whole are given as either 1835-6 or 1834-6. There is mention in her diary of having performed ‘several mazurkas’ and the ‘Hexenchor’ from Op 5 on 24 May 1834, and it isn’t unreasonable to assume these included the two mazurkas from Op 6.

We also know that Clara started work on her piano concerto in January 1833, writing what was to become the 3rd movement as a standalone Konzertsatz, with help on the orchestration from her father’s then student Robert Schumann. This was finished by November of that year, and she was working on the first movement the following June.

Given the maturity and assurance of the work Clara was producing in 1833-4, then, I can’t help wondering if the Toccatina might have been an earlier piece, brought in to complete the Op 6 set as an appropriate introduction. There’s an intriguing similarity between the melody in the Toccatina’s central section and the main theme of the Notturno, which may also have suggested its inclusion; thematic unity creating a link between pieces otherwise stylistically disparate.

There’s a limit to how much earlier it could have been, of course, given how young she was at this time, but whilst it is clearly a more mature work than her Op 1 Polonnaises, published in 1831, you’d have to say that some of her Op 2 Caprices en Forme de Valse, published in 1832, are at least as polished and more harmonically adventurous than the Toccatina.

And this brings us on to the musical features that got me onto this hunt for dating evidence in the first place. The most obvious thing that makes the Toccatina stand apart from the other pieces, as mentioned above, is how different it is in style. The other pieces in the set are clearly responses to the music of Chopin: not only in their generic references, but in their textures and approaches to ornamentation. She could have picked up the wide-spaced left-hand accompaniments, under the singing-style melodies embellished by delicate fioritura from John Field as Chopin himself did, but given that she both performed more of Chopin’s music and met him in person suggests his work as the direct model she is working with. I note that his Nocturnes and Mazurkas entered her performing repertory in 1833.

The Toccatina is quite different. Its outer sections present a crisp, brillante, texture based round broken chords, and the middle section, while presenting a singing melody, uses a texture that lies much more under the hands, with figuration in the alto/tenor register. It feels more like a Beethoven scherzo than anything Chopin would write; the textures are much more continuous than you’d find in Beethoven of course, but there are all kinds of fleeing moments of kinship in the gestures.

Stylistic variety does not necessarily entail an earlier date of course; it could just have been conceived as not part of the same project. But several features also seem less developed than the other pieces. First is the primary theme being based so literally around the circle of fifths. It works fine (and indeed makes it easier to learn!) but in terms of both progression and chord choice, she is less formulaic even by her Op 2.

There’s also the sense that it doesn’t have version control completely in hand. There are multiple versions of the primary theme, all a bit different, giving the feeling that it could have gone in a number of different ways and she hadn’t fully decided between them. This is, in my teaching experience, a classic hallmark of a composer still learning their craft. In later life, as a teacher, she would advise never to present material exactly the same way twice, and this is a principle you see going through all the pieces in this collection, but in the later ones, the differences become more expressively salient. In the Toccatina, some of the different versions stand out to make an ‘aha’ moment as they play with our expectations (e.g. heading round to the Neapolitan harmony instead of straight back home towards the end of the first section), but others just seem like alternate versions of the same idea.

You get some similar issues in the central section, though here there is a more distinctive compositional voice coming through. The harmony works in 4-bar phrases, while the melody drapes itself over that in more subtle and flexible ways. But you still have very similar gestures appearing in slightly different forms, in ways that are quite cognitively expensive to learn.

I’d note that the mazurkas, which are the earliest pieces from the collection of which we know the probable date, also have a touch of this – the G major one in particular doubles back a bit on itself – but there is overall a much clearer sense of expressive strategy, escalating the embellishment of ideas through the musical narrative. The Notturno, Ballade and Polonaise are much more assured in this aspect, as well as being more ambitious in scale and expressive range, placing them as probably the later items to be composed.

One final piece of external evidence. By the time these pieces were published, and Robert Schumann wrote a review of them, he and Clara were a year into their battle with her father to allow their love. In that context, his review can read as strangely patronising, referring explicitly to her youth, and giving the judgement:

Are they, finally, a result? Yes, the way a bud is a result before it breaks out in the splendid colors of the blossoms, fascinating and important as is everything that harbours a future.

Alongside the fairly open expressions of his own adoration of the pieces’ creator, these comments seems unsettlingly dismissive; maybe it’s just me, but the combination of desire with condescension always feels somewhat sleazy. But if he knew that some of the pieces were composed when she was actually significantly younger than the woman he was at the time of writing seeking to marry, his comments make more sense. My feelings about Robert’s attitude and behaviour towards Clara are still distinctly mixed, for reasons I may go into another day, but having reflected on the compositional craft in the pieces, I’m prepared to take this at face value as recognition of the process of artistic maturation to which they testify.

Anyways, to answer the question in my title, I’m going to guess 1832.

* Clara’s diary was started by her father, and he wrote a lot of the entries in it. I used to think that the shared diary that Robert suggested he and Clara keep during their marriage was weirdly controlling until I learned of this. She spent the first half of her life with her private thoughts constantly scrutinised.

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