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Fantasy in C major Op. 17

t is the oldest story in the world. Clara and Robert are in love but forbidden to meet. Robert used to stay with the family and study for her father when she was a little girl. But now he is considered too unstable and a threat to Clara’s career, so they are sent to different towns. In his despair Robert composes a piece, ostensibly a homage to his great hero Beethoven. With two other pieces he tries to sell it as a ”Sonata for Beethoven”, but with no luck. When the collection is eventually published three years later he simply calls it a ”Fantasy”. But it is clear that it is not just about Beethoven. It has a motto by Schlegel: 

Durch alle Töne tönet 
Im bunten Erdentraum 
Ein leiser Ton gezogen 
Für den, der heimlich lauschet.

(Throughout all music in the colourful dream of the earth, one quiet note is played for him who listens secretly.) 

“To understand the Fantasy,” Robert later wrote to Clara, “think back to the summer of 1836, when I was separated from you.” He stated that ”It is one great cry of love to you. The first movement is perhaps the most passionate of all I have ever composed – a deep yearning for you.” They considered it intensely private and Clara did not perform it in public until ten years after Robert’s death. Even the close friend and dedicatee Franz Liszt never performed it, though he thought highly of it and used it in teaching. Charles Rosen in The Romantic Generation (1995) hails it as a major revolution against the traditional classical form --- so much for the homage to Beethoven --- writing that the movement ”begins with great tension, descends toward resolution and is frustrated, moves to a point of greater tension, and initiates the process over and over again. The structure is like a series of waves, starting with the climax, losing momentum each time, and then beginning again…. Schumann’s radical innovation was a new large sense of rhythm conceived as a series of waves, crucial to later composers like Wagner and Strauss.” 

Pianistically it is beastly difficult, a whirlwind of emotions with little apparent structure. Instead of a traditional tempo marking it carries the uncompromising instruction Durchaus phantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen (throughout fantastic and passionately performed). It moves mercilessly between extremes of expression, sometimes ripping the strings out of the piano, sometimes dying away so much that a recovery appears improbable. The challenges begin right away, balancing a tortuously slow melody against a very fast ostinato, but the greatest challenge is to fit it musically into a comprehensible whole. The construction is not as haphazard as it might seem at first. To give just one example, the work is by its title in C major. It opens with a thundering G major, going on it seems forever, until it is finally resolved - to A minor. It then wanders through different keys, and the first C major chord is not heard until near the end. 

At the very end a new melody appears, a Beethoven quote after all. It is from the final song of ”An die ferne Geliebte” , Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder, where the poet implores his distant beloved to get closer to him by singing his songs. Robert knows Clara will not miss that message.

--Joachim Parrow (more on the author)


1  Durchaus phantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen 13:50 Parrow, J..
Jan 7, 2016
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