It is my first time to listen both pieces Clara Schumann’s Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann Op.20 and Felix Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses Op.54. I am glad to write some of my thoughts here.
Clara Schumann was a great pianist, and less known as a composer. She was very talented musician, and could be a great composer, but her role was as a wife and a mother of eight children, her compositions just got little attention comparing to those of her husband. Clara’s music has clarity of texture, lyricism, tonal color, and elegance of feminized style. Her Variations on Theme of Robert Schumann is a late piece of her works. It seems there was sadness around her during composing the music. The twenty-four measure theme is in F sharp minor within a ternary form, and it is based on Robert Schumann’s Bunte Blatter, Op.99, no.4. The melody is almost like a descending 5 notes-Clara’s theme. The seven variations are based upon increasing rhythmic motion, dynamic force, textural density and harmonic complexity. Generally, I think Clara, as a composer, she doesn’t have any special dazzling musical ideas comparing to other famous composers in 19th century. Even though the Variations Op.20 has more difficult technique, but there are no much interesting things to play. Let is just what I think.
Comparing to Clara Schumann’s Variations, Felix Mendelssohn’s Variations Op.54 in D minor is more interesting and more like a master piece. Mendelssohn was known for his easy and nice style, like ‘Songs without Words’. But the piece Variation Serieuses Op.54 is a surprise to me, because it is very serious and difficult to perform. It is traditionally ranked with the principal variations of Beethoven and Brahms. The first time I listen to the piece, I am truly amazed by the level of energy imagination that each variations contains and how from a simple theme the composer manages to explore totally different universes.
The religious gravity of the theme is remarkable for its hymn-like clarity and the four-part writing is close to the spirit of the chorale. Following the theme, there are 17 variations. Some of the variations display almost baroque contrapuntal writing style, and others are more purely romantic, coming close to Robert Schumann’s variation style.
Many textural ideas recur through the variations, such as repeated triads syncopated between hands, but each time given distinctive expression. (Var.2) Over the variations, the theme’s melody sometimes loses its rhythmic identity and its original pitches gradually show up with freedom. (Var.8) Bach’s music was first found by Mendelssohn, so he used Bach’s fugue writing style often, it happened in Var.10. This piece is a very fascinating piano composition which is worth to play by any pianists who are interested in.