While listening to a performance of Robert Schumann’s Opus 82 Waldszenen at a Student Piano Recital last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I found myself following the titles of the nine movements of this cycle a bit more attentively. I had originally intended to consider the sort of rhetorical devices that Schumann would engage to capture the character traits of each movement. Instead, I found myself drawn into the list in its entirety:
- Eintritt (entry)
- Jäger auf der Lauer (hunter on the lookout)
- Einsame Blumen (lonely flowers)
- Verrufene Stelle (haunted place)
- Freundliche Landschaft (friendly landscape)
- Herberge (lodging)
- Vogel also Prophet (bird as prophet)
- Jagdlied (hunting song)
- Abschied (farewell)
This turns out to be a “reflective” structure: The fifth movement serves as the “axis of symmetry;” and the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth movements play out as reflections of the fourth, third, second, and first through their “literary” content. Thus, the introduction is paired with the conclusion, there is a pair of “hunter pieces,” juxtaposed against “nature pieces” (flowers and birds). Then, at the core we have the “friendly landscape” in which there are two specific sites, the “haunted place” and the more welcoming lodge. Note also that the mood “darkens” as we “enter the woods” (the hunter on the prowl, loneliness, and menacing ghosts) and then “lightens” as we leave the heart of the woods (in which the landscape is “friendly”).
Given Schumann’s interest in integrated structures, this ordering could not have been an accident. However, it is also a challenge to performance. While the mind is relatively good at recognizing a theme in inversion (where the direction of intervallic movement is reversed), recognizing that one sequence of events is the reverse of another is far more problematic. (There is actually a mathematical explanation of this in computer science known as the “theory of real-time computation.” An over-simplified explanation is that, if you do not know in advance how long the sequence might be, you do not know how much memory you need.) In other words the elegance of structure is more likely to register from the program sitting in our laps than from the listening experience itself.
Nevertheless, a performer with a keen sense of rhetoric and the ability to realize that rhetoric through execution may still be able to capture the overall sense of going into the woods and then coming out on the other side. This would be a rhetoric of increasing darkness giving way to light after passing the midpoint. I have to confess that I have yet to hear a pianist approach Opus 82 with this sense of an overall strategy, but I suspect I shall be more on the lookout for it when I attend future performances!