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Robert Schumann: Sonata op. 11


Video of the lecture-recital by Fabio Grasso

Below, an English version of the Italian lecture





English version of the Italian lecture: "The Sonata op. 11 between structural innovation and Goethean inspiration"


English Resume of the Italian Lecture One of the most famous passages of Goetheís Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre is the virtuoso dance performed by Mignon among the eggs, described as ďessential, severe, and in tender moments more solemn than lovableĒ. and accompanied by a violin line, more and more fading at every repetition. On a rare autograph fragment of Schumannís Sonata op. 11, the composer writes an allusion to Mignonís dance at the beginning of the Allegro of the first movement. Schumannís inspiration always refers to some literary hint, even in the compositions expected to be markedly academic, like Sonata-forms. His interest in Mignonís character is great and goes beyond the Lieder (as testifies the Requiem fŁr Mignon); moreover we have to remember that the slow movements of the Sonatas op. 11 and 22 are solo piano arrangements of early Lieder. No wonder this Goethean reminiscence may have inspired the first theme of the first movement of the first Schumannís Sonata: this theme is so austere and at the same time so rhythmically excited, that it seems to fit the description of the dance perfectly. It is also noteworthy that all the most important elements of the Sonata-form - first, second and third theme, modulating transitions, the left handís jumping figuration - are more and more resigned, melancholy and evanescent every time they appear, according to the idea of the violin melody given by Goethe. We can think that this thematic system and its treatment represent a sort of Sonata transposition of the well known Romantic traits of Mignonís personality: on the one hand the fatalistic acceptation of an inexorable destiny, on the other the Sehnsucht, the irrepressible longings for an utopian happiness. At the end of the first movement the surviving A of the vanishing F-sharp minor harmony becomes the bass for the theme of the Aria. This tendency not to interrupt the continuity between the movements is a trace of the evolution towards a new macroformal conception, but in fact it is not such a new idea, if we think to certain Beethovenís Sonatas - such as op. 27 n. 1. The real innovation is the thematic circulation, that expands through the movements. The theme of the Aria is partially used in the middle part of the slow Introduction to the first movement, and then in the first Intermezzo of the Scherzo - a really joking piece to which the unpredictable second Intermezzo gives a burst of lively Beethovenian irony. So we can say that the Sonata op. 11 is the first step in the direction of the cyclical Sonata form, the macroformal structure in which some entire themes circulate through various movements. Here this kind of experimentation is limited to the theme of the Aria, while other correspondances concern only short motivic fragments - in particular the ascending line F-sharp - G-sharp - A, basic cell for the main themes of the first, of the third and the final movement, a majestic composition that hybridizes Sonata-form and RondÚ in a monumental architecture with double development (read on this subject Charles Rosen, The Sonata-forms). Schumann will reach the goal of the completely perfected cyclical form with the Fourth Symphony, a structural model of reference for important masterworks of the second half of the 19th century. We love to think that the dedication to Schumann of Lisztís Sonata in B minor, the most complex cyclical piano Sonata, is a sign of gratitude for the pioneering courage necessary to trace this difficult way.


© Fabio Grasso 2021