Schumann Piano Music by Joan Chissell

BBC Publications


To adapt a phrase of Schumann's - hats off, gentlemen, a Guide mistress. This booklet is minuscule yet capital. Joan Chissell is well known and much admired as, inter alia, an expert on 19th-century piano music and an authority on Schumann. There could have been no happier conjunction, selection or outcome for the purpose envisaged. Each piano work is deftly placed in its context, often with relevant quotations from Schumann’s own letters and other writings: each is described with warm affection, and analysed with rare insight.

     Some points may puzzle the specialist. In Miss Chissell's second (revised) edition of her Master Musicians Schumann (1967) there is no mention of five-note Clara-themes in the piano music, despite their explicit definition by such earlier commentators as Robert Schauffler (1945) and Roger Fiske (1964), who were able to show that these themes embodied a Schumannesque lovesong. Perhaps this coolness and restraint were deliberate on the ground that themes are seldom what they sing. But now, suddenly, the ice has thawed, the dam has burst; and these same melodies come flooding in by the score, with massive motive-power. They are now identified all over the place in Schumann’s piano writing; they are mentioned, described or illustrated some 50 times. So one-sided a score as 50-nil suggests wholesale conversion, about which however there is not a word of commentary.

     This reticence assorts oddly with the ready generosity with which Miss Chissell gives credit where none is due (e.g. the idea attributed to Kathleen Dale on pp.62-3 is found in the Clara Schumann Gesamtausgabe). Conversely she fails to credit herself with those ideas which are entirely original, such as the conjectural relevance of the B-E-D-A motif in Kreisleriana (p.44). Her modesty in another sense seems at first blush to cause another slight drawback. It really won’t do to assert that Schumann and Clara in 1833 were just like brother and sister and ”that was all” (p.17). Even without the textual evidence to the contrary, inclu­ding Clara’s own testimony, that view would be plainly less plausible than the common-sensual assumption that there was sexual awareness, attraction and tension between them from the first. Miss Chissell’s own intuition is more perceptive, I feel, when she describes their shared musical ideas in such phrases as “cross-fertilisation” and “first mating”.

     One final cavil, to epitomize a number of other minor reservations: is it really true that the cipher-notes of Carnaval don’t appear in Préambule? What about, for instance, the left-hand minims in bars 44-42 from the end? But such pernickety points will hardly be held to detract seriously from an appraisal of this Guide for its intended purpose, defined by the BBC as “giving the layman an overall view”. Nothing could be more workmanlike. And not only every interested layman should have a copy, but so should every professional piano-teacher and pianist: and every copy should be well-fingered, and -thumbed.        


The Musical Times, Jan. 1973 (p. 36) © the estate of eric sams