The American viola soloist, chamber musician, and teacher explores how to find your own sense of character and flow in the first two contrasting pieces
This composition is a personal favourite of mine. It’s also great to teach: not only is it beautiful, but its strong characters help to unlock students’ imaginations.
I first studied it with Milton Thomas, who in the 1940s went to France, met Pablo Casals in exile and spent much time working with him. Thomas later taught viola to Jascha Heifetz’s violin students in Los Angeles, and he would go to Heifetz’s house to play chamber music. He was always thinking about vivid imagery in music, which I found very inspiring. This was a perfect piece for him to introduce to me.
Later I studied it at Curtis with Michael Tree. He had the most beautiful sound a violist could imagine; he would practise for hours just to get a passage the way he wanted it, and yet when he performed he was so spontaneous. I was so enamoured with him, his sound and his interpretation that I tried to become him. I would think, ‘How would he play this? That’s the way I want to play it.’
One day a friend said to me: ‘Steve, do you realise that the best you’ll ever be in your life is the second-best Michael Tree?’ At first I thought, ‘Well, that could be OK.’ But then I realised how upsetting this really was! I started asking, ‘How do I feel about this?’ At some point you have to break away, to become your own number one you, whatever that may be.
If you take anything from this article, remember: you have to learn to create on your own. There are as many ways to express music as there are stars in the heavens, and our fingerings and ideas should always be flexible and evolving.
When I am interpreting Romantic works, I listen to some of the recordings from that era. I don’t want to create museum pieces – it is OK to modernise music, and tastes change over the years – but I find it interesting to hear the undemonstrative, beautiful playing of the time. There is a recording [see below] of pianist Ilona Eibenschütz talking about her studies with Clara Schumann, and how as a young girl she met Brahms. It’s quite arresting to hear the subtle urging forward and backward in her tempo as she plays – something that can be applied to the yearning character of the Märchenbilder.
Syphilis and tinnitus
Schumann was a troubled man. He tried to kill himself in 1854, three years after he wrote this piece, and went into an asylum after that. This was probably the result of syphilis, which he contracted in his twenties and which later affected his brain. However, Märchenbilder is deeply personal music, not the music of an insane person – he showed so much of himself through his compositions. In that sense, he may be the greatest of the Romantics. Even in the extremely lively and driven second piece, I don’t think he was out to shock.
Schumann’s syphilis brought on tinnitus that reportedly rang in his ears on the note A for days at a time. From bar 42 in the first piece, As ping back and forth: there’s an A piano accent on the first beat, and a viola A on the second; in bar 43, there are As on the viola second beat and the piano third; until the A trill in bar 45. It may be a coincidence, but you could incorporate this into your sense of imagery.
In Schumann’s time, German musicians were wary of the overuse of vibrato: they thought it was vulgar. I believe that it is an important expressive tool, but only when used in varying widths and amplitudes to give each note a specific feeling and colour.
Try playing the opening bars of the first piece only with your left hand, to see how the intensity of your vibrato changes as you spin the phrase. Later, in bar 27, your vibrato can be very spare, as though you are frozen in a moment of self-doubt. Everything in the world vibrates a little, so when it doesn’t, it almost becomes an act of resistance. Bar 27 could have a quite different sound from those either side of it, with that withheld kind of intensity.
For the beautiful, rich, low Es at the ends of bars 33 and 38, try using a thinner vibrato on one and a warmer vibrato on the other, for contrast. You could also intensify your vibrato and crescendo through the A in bar 35, to lead into the unexpected deceptive cadence of bar 36.
Studying the score
You will only be able to identify deceptive cadences such as that at bar 36 if you look at the piano part, so I would always recommend studying from the entire score. Understanding the relationship between the viola and the piano will help your interpretation.
From bar 13 in the first piece, for example, the viola begins a passage that climbs up step-wise. When you hand the phrase to the piano, you need to play the D of bar 14 with a different quality from the D a bar earlier. If you were unaware of what was going on in the piano part, you might play it in a very different way. It is also important to identify unison passages such as in bar 28, where you gel together after playing the previous lines somewhat independently.
Eusebius and Florestan
All four Märchenbilder pieces have strong individual characters, where Schumann’s literary figures – the introverted Eusebius and the extroverted Florestan – are obvious. Eusebius dominates the first piece, which some people play slowly and sadly. For me, its melancholy quality is best displayed by a gentle forward and subsiding motion.
The music is more playful from bar 22, as the piano becomes lighter and the viola takes up the staccato line into bar 26. Then a dark, harmonic twist appears out of nowhere in bar 27 – a doubt that is dispelled just a moment later, in bar 28.
Florestan is present for the majority of the second piece, which, with its dotted rhythms, is strong and proud: imagine victorious soldiers marching with a lightness to their step. From bar 4 the music becomes less maniacal as it sings and grows. Eusebius appears briefly in the piano solo from bar 51; and again from bar 191. This passage can be played tenderly by the piano, with the viola accompanying the left hand. The piece ends quite beautifully, with a quiet, wistful repetition of the opening rhythm.
However you feel about these characters, be strong and clear about what you want to say, whether it’s about imagery, emotion or the colours you’re trying to create. That is more important than trying to play with ‘perfect’ bowings and shifts.
Phrasing and rubato
Also very important is phrasing – the art of taking the audience on a journey using a subtle forward motion of ‘secret’ crescendos and accelerandos. There should always be a feeling of change. If you play any two notes with the same stress or impulse, it can make your playing sound rather pedestrian.
Vary the repetitions from bars 65 to 68 of the first piece to give them different expression by using new dynamics, fingerings or imagery. In the march-like second piece, the piano left hand can have a leading quality from bar 9, towards the third beat and away on the fourth; and from bar 51, the piano can urge on and recede, in a gentle Chopin style.
In the more rhythmic sections of the second piece, both instruments need to bring out and vary the carrot markings. These strong accents are hallmarks of the piece, and they should get stronger as each phrase builds. From the pick-up to bar 129, reduce the dynamic a little, to give yourself room to grow with jubilance and energy.
Also important are the hairpin markings, which in Romantic music are mostly expressive rather than dynamic: Brahms talked about using them to show where he would linger on notes as though he never wanted to let them go. To open the first piece, a hairpin pulls us towards the D of the second bar; from there, carry that emotion through the rest of the eight-bar phrase, rather than letting it go again. I break up the bowing to give a free, spinning sound, but I am always careful to hide the bow changes.
The main challenge in the second piece is to make the rhythm strong and correct. Practise using little, quick motions in collé, with a tiny bit of wrist and finger, until it becomes easy. Try without the left hand, on open strings, making sure that you have a good tone; then with your left hand and no bow, so that you can shift freely without worrying about being perfectly in tune.
People have trouble playing ahead of the beat in the right way from bar 7: it’s like jazz, where you have to sing the music to yourself rather than try to count exactly, to find the right sensation. Make sure that semiquavers (s) before triplets, such as in bar 9, are short – don’t elongate them or make them lazy. Always feel that you are moving towards something, if not rhythmically then through your sound.
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING