Schumann’s Humoreske, Op.20

Robert SCHUMANN (1810–1856)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810–1856)

Humoreske Op. 20

“I’ve been at the piano all week, composing and writing and laughing and crying, all at the same time,” wrote Schumann to his beloved Clara from Vienna in March 1839. “You will find this state of affairs nicely evoked in my Opus 20, the grand Humoreske.” 

The Humoreske is one of Schumann’s most inspired creations. An elusive masterpiece, it is not one of his easiest works to follow, which may have contributed to its unjust neglect. Clara refrained from playing it in public, fearing it might be too inaccessible to audiences. In order to understand it, Schumann stressed that one must first have a feeling for Humor. The nineteenth-century German ideal of humour differs widely from our current English definition of the funny or comedic. Alluding to his literary idol Jean Paul, the German Romantic novelist from whom he “learned more counterpoint than from [his] music teacher,” Schumann described Humor as “a felicitous combination of gemütlich (genial) and witzig (witty).” We see this dichotomy reflected in Schumann’s famous alter egos: the sensitive and dewy-eyed Eusebius and the astute and often bitingly ironic Florestan. In his Vorschule der Ästhetik, Jean Paul dedicates half a dozen chapters to this concept of Humor, which he defines as “an infinity of contrast,” “a setting of the small world beside the great,” and where “a kind of laughter results which contains pain and greatness.” 

“Infinity of contrast” is certainly an apt description of the Humoreske, a work in which a mosaic-like array of constantly shifting moods and characters is contained within its many capricious episodes, ranging from inward-looking poetry to manic exuberance in an endless stream of unpredictability. All this, however, is bound together by subtle motivic relations, giving this substantial work an organic unity (“a setting of the small world beside the great”). Schumann once referred to the Humoreske as his “most melancholy composition,” again echoing Jean Paul who maintained that “often the best humourists come from a melancholy people.” When we hear the Humoreske we understand why; the melancholy passages are rendered all the more poignant by the flashes of unbridled joy. 

There is no precedent to the intricate structure of the Humoreske. Greatly influenced by Jean Paul’s own literary style, this work is essentially digressive in nature, with short, fragmentary episodes incorporated into larger sections like musical parentheses. Copious tempo-change markings act as useful signposts in navigating through the work. Although Schumann does not indicate individual movements, six sections can be distinctly heard. This is especially obvious in the first three sections, where the themes return da capo to bring each section to a pensive close. 

The first hushed utterances of the work float in as if gently continuing a thought that had already arisen in silence. From this simple, dreamy beginning, Schumann spins out a thread of agitated themes in quick succession, all loose variations based on the opening theme: gallop, polka, march, fanfare, tarantella, and horn calls. Each of these fleeting episodes passes by in a flash, lending it a dizzying sensation akin to watching a film cutting abruptly from one scene to the next. 

In the second section, Schumann — in one of his cryptic moments — gives the melody to a third, middle stave marked “Innere Stimme" (inner voice) that is not to be played. This melody is intended to be sensed inwardly, “as one often does when one’s heart is full while playing,” as Clara explained. The soprano line, or the “outer” voice, traces out this inaudible inner voice, trailing behind it by just a fraction like a shadow missing its subject, an echo without a source. This is followed by an episode of great urgency where Schumann instructs the left hand to stay in tempo while the right hand plays “Wie außer Tempo” (as if out of tempo). The resulting effect is both comical and dangerously unstable, on the verge of rhythmic collapse. The “Innere Stimme" theme reappears in a series of static chords suspended in mid-air, a mere harmonic sketch in which the mysterious melody is faintly made out, like a distant echo of an echo. Then to magical effect, Schumann resumes the theme halfway through with a unique overlapping transition, a device that Brahms also utilises in the recapitulation of the first movement in his Fourth Symphony. 

The third section “Einfach und zart" (simple and delicate) is a lyrical ballad, resembling the Lied Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen (“When I hear the song my love once sang”) from his song-cycle Dichterliebe. The exuberant “Intermezzo”, a toccata-like Bachian fugato punctuated by an obstinate horn call, intrudes on the wistful scene. The correlation between this turbulent middle section and the previous nostalgic theme will remain unclear to us until we hear how deftly Schumann transitions back. The spinning figuration of the “Intermezzo” gradually fades away as it seamlessly merges with the second half of the first theme and continues it mid-phrase (another “filmic” device). Only at this convergence, as Schumann brings us full circle, can we perceive the totality of its structure. The “Intermezzo” ceases to be a disconnected entity, as it often sounds when first heard, and now reveals its existence as a mere digressive bubble within the realm of “Einfach und zart”. 

We remain in Eusebius’s intimate world in the fourth section, a heartfelt expression of yearning and blossoming love. The gentle lilting theme rises with great ardour, only to shy away from its resolve with each attempt. Two shorter digressions deflect the mood: one of self-deprecating playfulness, the other of softly whispered tenderness. The coda is particularly poignant; the notes of the melody languidly scatter and dissolve, like petals dropping one by one from a wilting flower in quiet resignation. 

Florestan then takes the helm and drives the music “Immer lebhafter” (more and more lively) towards a tremendous climax, culminating in what seems to be a bravura ending, one that begs for applause. Not without irony, however — and perhaps with a cheeky jab at the members of the public he disdainfully referred to as Philistines — Schumann immediately cuts short the fireworks with a parody of a march “Mit einigem Pomp” (with a certain pomposity). Only once these quasi-perfunctory gestures have died out does the true poet then emerge and quietly begin to speak, in one of Schumann’s broadest and most moving epilogues (“Zum Beschluss”). Jolting us awake from our reverie, a strident coda swiftly brings the curtains down over an empty stage, as if to say: “And that, my friends, was our tale,” concluding the Humoreske in a curiously cavalier fashion. And yet it may not seem so perplexing once we reflect on Schumann’s own attitude towards humour: “to look on emotions with ironic detachment.” 

Tony Chen Lin, 2018 (Booklet notes to CD “DIGRESSIONS”)