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Robert Schumann: Bunte Blätter op. 99


Video of the lecture-recital by Fabio Grasso

Below, an English version of the Italian lecture






"The colors of memories, the steps of a farewell"


The cohesion of Schumann's piano polyptychs is due, among other, to the strict selection of the pieces that they contain.

The composer excluded from some cycles of the 30s and 40s a relevant number of short pieces, which in virtue of their artistic value would have deserved to belong to them, but would have risked being destabilizing in relation to the global structural context.

Many of these little pieces have been lost. About thirty survived - presumably composed between the end of the 30s and the beginning of the 40s. In 1850 Schumann merged them into two collections, the Bunte Blätter op. 99 and the Albumblätter op. 124.

The series of Colored Leaves op. 99 aims to juxtapose pieces with contrasting character - the first edition was adorned with covers of different colors. However its deepest message goes far beyond this superficial variegation.


The 14 "Blätter" are divided into three macrosections:

- 1-3, Drei Stücklein

- 4-8, Fünf Albumblätter

- 9-14: the longest section, without title, consisting of three couples: 9-10 / 11-12 / 13-14


The first of the 3 Little Pieces (n. 1) is probably the 1838 Christmas present to Clara Wieck. It is characterized by the typical sublime "simplicity" (Einfachheit) of several introductory pieces, like those of Kinderszenen, Humoreske, Phantasiestücke op. 12, Waldscenen. To the latter work we can relate the piece n. 3, similar to the Hunting Song of the Forest Scenes, or also to the third piece of the Gesänge der Frühe op. 133. Concerning the articulations of n. 2 we can find many references in the piano works and in the Lieder - for example, the Romance op. 28 n. 1, the 4th Gesang der Frühe, the Lied Belsazar op. 57. We deliberately mention some late works, in order to show that the Bunte Blätter don't just look like recycled pages, deleted from contemporary works; some of them may even have been composed, parhaps not quite consciously, as sketches anticipating not yet developed ideas.


The pieces 4-8 recall a more distant past. In particular, 7 and 8 seems to reproduce the dichotomy proposed by some pictures of Kinderszenen between childhood fears of the unknown and moments of reassuring comfort.

The slow pace of the n. 4 reminds us of the theme of the Symphonic Etudes: in fact it too was used as theme for two series of Variations - Clara's op. 20 and Brahms op. 9.

While in n. 5 we can feel the frightening nocturnal presences of "In der Nacht" (op. 12 n. 5), n. 6 refers to Carnaval, especially as regards the first three notes of the main melody, A flat - C - B, the same notes of one of the famous fragments that provides the motivic material for the carnival scenes op. 9 (ASCH).


The Novellette n. 9 is less extended than the compositions of the same name collected in opus 21; however it reveals, mainly in the delicious central part, the same refined taste for narrative digressiveness.

Particularly strong is the contrast with the severe Prelude n. 10, whose romantic virtuosity conceals Bach's ancestry, an element that is more easily noticeable in the Klavierstücke op. 32 and in the collections of Fugues, and that here clearly emerges only during the conclusive pedal.


The authentic heart of the cycle is represented by the couple 11-12.

The "implicitly funeral" March in D minor has an intermediate section of amazing depth.

The famous Funeral Marches composed by Beethoven and Chopin include one or more Intermezzi, whose function is to make a human voice heard that opposes the inexorable oppression of death. In this episode Schumann seems to evoke the atmosphere of the Lied op. 39 n. 4, Die Stille, in which Eichendorff discretly depicts the quiet of the natural scenery as a reflection of a superior quiet: a pure spirit can soar secretly through it, in an otherworldly perspective. In the Trio of n. 11 the uniformity of the quietly  repeated, tenderly immediate harmonic connections and of the lulling rhythm is completely free of any disturbance or rebellion. The gloomy shadows of the first part are back in the identical recapitulation, but they are dispelled by the unexpected modulation to B flat major, which at the beginning of n. 12 starts a new March with a humorous flavor. The title Abendmusik suggests some similarities with the Nachtstück op. 23 n. 4 and the Lied op. 45 n. 3, Abends am Strand. In the light of evening a rather sly serenade emanates from a curious procession of fantastic images, as in the Lied captivating legends of far lands come to life and seduce bystanders.

All these phantom shapes soon vanish into the upcoming night, whose obscurity, mitigated by residues of oneiric sweetness, is quite different than the desolate darkness in which the ending of the previous piece sinks.


The first member of the last couple, 13-14, is a Scherzo with massive chordal tissue, that perhaps Schumann intended to orchestrate and insert into an unspecified symphonic work.

Anyway the free and lively Trio appears more suitable for the piano solo version. Just here a clear quotation from Carnaval sheds some light on the global significance of the cycle. Through this indication the composer seems to invite us to consider this last large polyptych as a late Carnaval: no longer a parade of masks, but rather of memories of a wonderful creative journey, to which he inevitably looks with regret, as new difficulties and fears appear in his life. Along that route, together with great masterworks, he scattered some isolated pearls. Their recombination in a necklace that enhances their value is the reason why this retrospective operation does not end in a vain nostalgic yearning, but marks a profitable turning point, that closes an experience with an excellent achievement, and opens the way for a new phase.

When the gallery of reminiscences is about to end, the entry on the scene of the Marches represents an exhortation not to linger on the memories of the past, and to undertake with courage the last, painful stretch of the remaining path.

So the Fast March n. 14 - at first conceived as final movement of the 4 Marches op. 76 and then replaced by a piece more in tune with the military ardor of that work, inspired by the riots in Dresden in March 1849 - is the perfect epilogue for the Bunte Blätter. Its vaguely oriental harmony and its fading conclusion (whose atmosphere is not so different from that of the last Kreisleriana's Fantasy, also in G minor) make it a shining example of sophisticated anti-rhetoric irony.

Thus the martial itinerary of op. 99 dissolves, after having explored the ephemeral refuge of the ethereal dream regions, and experienced, through the funeral allusion, the initial shiver of an unmentionable presentiment.


© Fabio Grasso 2021