After wasting two years in law school without attending a single class, twenty-year-old Robert Schumann decided to change course. Enthralled by Romantic literature and poetry, he announced to his family and friends that he would become Europe’s greatest pianist. Just two years later, an accidental injury to his hand demolished his dreams, so he became a self-taught composer.
Schumann developed into an arch-Romantic. He ardently embraced the idea that music was above all a subjective medium of personal expression. His own words illuminate his art: “I am affected by everything that goes on in the world. I think it over in my own way, and then I long to express my feelings in music.” A poem he composed as a teenager gives us a window into his persona: “Yea, might I be but a tear. I would weep with her, and then, if she smiled again, how gladly would I die on her eyelash and gladly, gladly be no more.” We find this hypersensitivity expressed everywhere in his compositions. “What I really am,” he wrote, “I do not know myself.If I am a poet – for no one can become one – destiny will decide one day.”
This trio is pure music. It has no extramusical pictorial or verbal content. That said, it boils over with compelling high-octane emotion, starting with the first bar of the opening movement. Yearning, resignation, resolve, anger, it’s all there. It conveys a free passionate spirit engaged in animated wanderlust, only to be consumed at the end of the movement by despair.
Movement two is a peppy scherzo.
The third movement is the trio’s center of emotional gravity. It is the sound of alone. All of a sudden the music attempts to shed its melancholia, only to be jerked back to the slings and arrows of fate and fortune, ending with an inconclusive chord.
Taking a page from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the model of the triumphant finale, the fourth movement finally breaks through the gloom and soars to a jubilant conclusion.
When I was listening to this marvelous piece for the first time, it dawned on me that it has the power and the impact of a full orchestra! Schumann’s skillful scoring is truly amazing.