Rob Kapilow on ‘Träumerei’




Rob Kapilow

From Rob Kapilow, What Makes It Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers (Hoboken NJ: Wiley, 2011) pp. 283-295

Anna Ancher, Sunlight in the Blue Room, 1891


When we think about the Romantic period, what often springs to mind is music that makes a massive public statement, like the colossal operas of Wagner, the monumental symphonies and tone poems of Berlioz, Richard Strauss, and Mahler, and the extravagant virtuoso works of Liszt and Paganini. However, the nineteenth century made equally important musical contributions at the other end of the compositional spectrum with the intimate, private, lyrical expression of art song and the piano miniature, and it was in this arena that Schumann first made his mark. Up until 1840, all of Schumann’s published music was written for the piano. Papillons, Carnaval, the Davidsbündlertänze, Kreisleriana, and Kinderszenen were all composed during these years, and these pieces contain some of the most original music written in the nineteenth century. Sets of character pieces grouped into loosely organized cycles like these became a model for other composers of the period, and the genre’s popularity extended not only throughout the nineteenth century but well into the twentieth century as well.

Chaim Soutine, Children and Geese, 1934

The power of Schumann’s collections comes from his mastery of what Charles Rosen has called the Romantic Fragment. A Romantic Fragment is an individual piece that is complete in and of itself but, like an individual song in a song cycle, depends on the other pieces in the collection for its full meaning. Paradoxically, a Romantic Fragment is both complete and incomplete. It exists as a self-contained piece in the present, but requires a past and a future to complete its expression. Some fragments are literally incomplete. The first song of Schumann’s cycle Dichterliebe, for example, ends on a dissonant chord, which resolves only at the beginning of the cycle’s second song. However, even when a fragment is not literally incomplete, to use Rosen’s words, it ‘projects beyond itself in a provocative way.’ Its resonance is open, not closed, and this tension between something that is both complete and incomplete is at the heart of the fragment and at the heart of one of Schumann’s most famous pieces—’Träumerei’ (Dreaming) from Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood).

Joan Eardley, Two Boys, c. 1959


In 1838 Schumann wrote to Clara Wieck, the great concert pianist who was to become his wife, ‘I’ve put on my frilly dress and composed 30 cute little things from which I’ve selected about 12 and called them Scenes from Childhood. They are like an echo to what you once wrote to me, that I sometimes “seem like a child” to you.’ Aaron Copland once described the style of Martha Graham, his choreographer for Appalachian Spring, as ‘seemingly, but only seemingly, simple’, and the thirteen pieces that make up Schumann’s Kinderszenen are also only seemingly simple.


‘Träumerei’ is the seventh piece in Kinderszenen, and its very first note is a testament to the way a Romantic Fragment’s meaning can be subtly affected by the pieces surrounding it in a collection. The piece that precedes ‘Träumerei,’ ‘Wichtige Begebenheit’ (An Important Event), ends with a strong, energetic cadence in the key of A major.

Wichtige Begebenheit

‘Träumerei’ begins with a single note—a C. With the final A-major chord of ‘Wichtige Begebenheit’ still in our ears, we hear this C as a shift in key from A major to A minor. However, when the C is followed by an F and an F-major chord, we suddenly discover that we have subtly shifted keys to F major on the opening note of ‘Träumerei’. The C has one meaning going forward from the previous piece, but a different meaning after the second note of ‘Träumerei’ has been heard. If ‘Träumerei’ is played as an independent piece (as an encore, for example), the piece simply begins in F major. There is no tonal ambiguity, no blurred edge, no mystery, and no ‘dream’. The subtle nuance of the Romantic Fragment is replaced by the far less interesting stability and clarity of an independent piano miniature.

Henry Scott Tuke, Two Children on Deck, 1894

The beautiful tonal ambiguity of the opening of ‘Träumerei’ is enhanced by an equally subtle rhythmic ambiguity. The piece begins with three-and-a-half beats of ‘settling-in’ music as the melody waits for the chord underneath to establish itself in our ear. The melody then rises in a graceful, five-note arpeggio to an F (remember this F for later) and repeats the note with a beautiful held chord underneath to finish the gesture. (Note the lovely, quick grace notes in the left hand that emphasize this arrival.) In a subtle way, the rhythm of this opening gesture ‘dreams’. A normal version with clear, square rhythm would shorten the ‘settling-in’ process by one beat so that the second chord could arrive firmly on a downbeat, like this:

But Schumann’s second melody note ‘dreams’ for an extra beat, causing the second chord to arrive poetically in the middle of measure 2, not on a downbeat. Once Schumann’s arpeggio reaches its top note, the rest of the idea beautifully balances this ascent by gracefully winding its way back down the same distance, F–F, via a decorated scale—F, E, D, C, B, A, G—with the resolution back to F coinciding elegantly with the return of the opening idea in measure 5. This exquisitely balanced melodic phrase does not contain a single accidental (a note outside the key) in its first four measures. The F–F, F-major universe of the piece could not be more clearly or elegantly defined.

 Paul Mathey, Enfant et femme dans un intérieur, 1890

In fact, it is this very clarity that makes the second half of the phrase (measures 5 through 8) so striking. Measure 5 begins by repeating the opening ‘settling-in’ gesture and the graceful five-note arpeggio. But this time, the arpeggio arches up higher, to an A instead of an F, and the ‘dissonant’ chord underneath the A, which contains the first accidental in the piece, strikingly emphasizes this new top note. This one moment changes the entire composition. Suddenly, dissonance—minor chords, diminished chords, and accidentals—becomes part of the vocabulary of the piece, and the higher arpeggio alters the melody’s course as the phrase continues.

Antonio Mancini, Almond Blossoms, 1876


The overall AABA form of this piece could not be clearer. Measures 1 through 8 are the opening A section of the piece. The double dots at the end of measure 8 are a sign to repeat the whole section. Measures 9 through 16 are the contrasting, eight-bar B section, and measures 17 through 24 make up the closing, eight-measure A section. ‘Träumerei’ is an absolutely perfect thirty-two-bar song form: A (eight measures), A (eight measures), B (eight measures), A (eight measures). Interestingly enough, this thirty-two-bar form is also the form of nearly every Broadway theater song from Gershwin to Sondheim; however, Schumann uses the form for completely different aesthetic purposes. In a popular song, everything is dependent on the opening idea. As Richard Rodgers said, ‘If the song is successful, it’s the idea that you walk out whistling.’ On the most basic level, in a theater song, all of the repetitions of the opening idea are designed to imprint it in the listener’s ear so that it will be easily remembered and ‘easily whistled.’ In ‘Träumerei,’ however, the point of repeating and remembering the opening idea is to appreciate the way it is developed and varied as the piece moves forward.

 Camille Pissarro, Jeanne Pissarro (Minette) Holding a Fan, 1873

In a theater song, the B section functions primarily as contrast: a move ‘away’ from A that generates a desire to hear it again. Schumann’s B section does provide contrast, but that is only part of its purpose. It starts with the ‘settling in’ music and the graceful ascending arpeggio that bridges measures 1 and 2, as if to begin a third repeat of the A section. We have already heard this arpeggio ascend to an F and to an A, and the repeat has cemented these two different versions in our ear. The B section now introduces yet a third version, which this time ascends to an E-flat (measure 10) followed by a fourth version (after a graceful descent), which repeats the third version higher (measures 13 through 16) to finish the B section. This kind of complex, rich development is a far cry from the ‘B-section-as-contrast’ of a typical theater song. Schumann is interested not simply in creating contrast, but also in enriching our understanding of the piece’s opening idea.

Joaquin Sorolla, Running along the Beach, 1908

It is not only the melody that is developing, but the harmony as well. Schumann changes keys twice; first to G minor in measure 11, then to B-flat major in measure 13. Then, on the verge of a full cadence in yet a third key (D minor in measure 16), at the last instant, with a ritardando (an indication to slow down) marked so the listener will not miss the moment, Schumann shifts direction and magically arrives back ‘home’ in F major to begin the final A section.

Frank Gascoigne Heath, Children at the Seaside, 1910


By now, the listener has already had to process an enormous amount of sophisticated musical information in a short space of time, but Schumann has saved the best for last. The return of A begins without surprise as the first four measures of the piece are repeated exactly in measures 17 through 20. Then, in a moment that almost defines Schumann, the entire climax of the piece turns on a single, exquisitely subtle reharmonization. We come to our graceful, ascending arpeggio for the final time. We have already heard four versions of this arpeggio. The melody now floats up to an A exactly as it did in measure 6, but Schumann completely changes the harmony underneath, discovering a miraculous, otherworldly chord that transforms the color of this A. (Schumann writes a fermata to make sure we luxuriate in this incredibly beautiful chord.) This kind of exquisite, lyrical moment is what Schumann is all about. Yet what makes this moment so beautiful is, of course, everything that has preceded it—all the other versions of this seemingly simple arpeggio.

Berthe Morisot, Portrait of a Child, 1894

Then, as if that were not enough, he rewrites the rest of the phrase so that it ends with a superb final cadence that is also ‘seemingly, but only seemingly, simple’. Measure 23 begins as a copy of measure 3. Then, in yet another exquisite reharmonization (with the apostrophes clearly showing his musical intent), Schumann takes the four-note melody that began the measure—G, A, B, D—and repeats it with new, poignant, dark minor-key chords underneath. Like a cloud suddenly darkening the sun, a shadow comes over the music, and the effect is made even more striking by the slowing down of the tempo over the whole phrase. Then, in a wonderful final cadence, Schumann takes the first three notes of this melody—G, A, B—and copies them lower as D, E, F to end the piece. This kind of poetical connection is utterly unlike anything by Beethoven. It is as if a melodic snippet—G, A, B, D—suddenly caught Schumann’s fancy and spontaneously suggested new chords underneath and then the perfect ending. A little three-note fragment that has been a hidden presence throughout the piece becomes a final gesture that is somehow both completely surprising and inevitable at the same time. And even though the piece has ended with a conclusive final cadence, like a true Romantic Fragment its resonance is open, as the work’s first melodic gesture (C–F) and ‘settling-in’ music poetically generate the opening of the piece that follows—’Am Kamin’ (‘At the Fireside’).

Robert Schumann, Kinderszenen, ‘Träumerei’ – Ending

Robert Schumann, Kinderszenen, ‘Am Kamin’ (At the Fireside) – Beginning


During his lifetime, Schumann was probably more famous as a critic and a writer about music than he was as a composer. His father was a bookseller, and his early life was filled with words. He was completely caught up in the world of Romantic literature and poetry, and the German Romantic writer Jean Paul was his literary idol. He wrote and read poetry obsessively, and he was perhaps the most erudite and educated of the Romantic composers. He learned Latin at age seven, and French and Greek at age eight, and his love affair with language and literature was reflected in music that was intensely poetic and imagistic. While the most superficial forms of nineteenth-century program music attempted to literally tell a story in music, Schumann’s approach to the genre was far subtler. Rather than attempting to replicate a narrative, Schumann took a subject, a personality, or an image as a starting point or a suggestion for a piece of music that ultimately absorbed and transcended that subject in the composition. The music was in no way ‘equivalent’ to its source (‘Träumerei’ was not a depiction of an actual dream), but instead took something that might be hinted at in words and expressed it through music’s uniquely abstract vocabulary. When the critic Ludwig Rellstab tried to literalize the relationship between Schumann’s music and its source in Kinderszenen by calling the pieces ‘snapshots of child life,’ Schumann replied: Anything more inept and narrow-minded I have never come across, than what Rellstab has written about my Kinderszenen. He really thinks that I place a crying child before me and then search for tones accordingly. It is the other way around. However I do not deny that while composing, some children’s heads were hovering around me, but of course the titles originated afterwards and are, indeed, nothing but delicate directions for execution and interpretation.

Albert Anker, Two Girls on the Stove Bench, 1895

Schumann believed that music and poetry sprang from the same source, and this is crucial to remember if we wish to avoid a frequent misunderstanding of the program music of Schumann and other nineteenth-century composers. Because the titles and programs of many Romantic pieces like Kinderszenen were clearly written after the music and often as a response to the music, modern critics and audiences tend to dismiss their importance as if these labels were merely ex-post-facto ‘justifications’ or ‘rationalizations’ of already written, absolute music. However, for the Romantics the intimate relationship between literature and music went in both directions. A work of literature or a poetic image might generate a musical response; however, the reverse was equally possible: a piece of music might call up a literary or poetic response. This belief that words and ideas might be both an inspiration and a reaction to music is at the heart of a great deal of the flowery, image-laden music criticism of the period. The subjective response of the individual was everything, whether that individual was a composer, a listener, or a critic. As Schumann put it so succinctly, ‘I do not take things objectively the way things really are, but rather the way I perceive them subjectively within myself’.

George Paul Chalmers, The Legend, 1865

It is this elevating of subjective perception above all else that is ultimately the key to understanding the music of Kinderszenen. The childhood that Kinderszenen ‘depicts’ existed only in Schumann’s mind. His own early life was filled with turmoil. During Schumann’s infancy, Napoleon’s army went through Schumann’s hometown twice—once on the way to Russia and then back in desperate defeat, causing complete havoc and consternation. When Schumann’s mother developed typhus, he was sent away to live with a surrogate mother. His sister committed suicide when he was fifteen, and his father died ten months later. Both of his parents were of questionable psychological stability, as was Schumann himself. The music of Kinderszenen is not about Schumann’s actual childhood—’the way things really were’—but rather about his subjective perception of a memory, or perhaps more accurately of a wish.

Eastman Johnson, Christmas Time, Blodgett Family, 1864 (detail)

The wish for a perfect childhood like the one depicted in Schumann’s music is, of course, part of all of us, and the poignancy and power of this wish is perhaps directly related to the impossibility of its attainment. The childhood world of Kinderszenen may have existed only in Schumann’s imagination, yet this world is no less real for its being imaginary. We are our wishes and fantasies as much as we are our realities. And no matter what the facts might have been for Schumann, under Kinderszenen’s spell we can have, as his titles suggest, an experience of the most sublimely enchanting childhood one could ever imagine—a world of ‘foreign lands and peoples,’ ‘curious stories,’ ‘important events,’ ‘perfect happiness,’ ‘fears,’ and finally ‘peaceful slumber’ and ‘dreams.’ This vision of childhood may be only a wish and a dream, but as Shakespeare and Freud remind us, we should take our dreams seriously. In the end, we are the stuff that dreams are made of.

Hugh Cameron, Buttercups and Daisies, 1881


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