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Lee W. Kikuchi - Essay

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I wrote this essay following a student's recent performance of the Schumann piece "Aufschwung" in the 2008 PPTA Solo Competition Winners Concert. The content is intended for other musicians and for music lovers who are familiar with the piece.

May 26, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

But is it Soaring?

“Soaring” is the literal translation of “Aufschwung”, the 2nd of Robert Schumann’s Phantasiestücke Op. 12. Certainly, many elements of this amazing character piece clearly depict a rapid upward motion, but is this really meant to be flight? Is it possible that Schumann was picturing something slightly more terrestrial and less celestial?

The word “Aufschwung” comes from the verb “aufschwingen” which literally means “to swing up(ward)”. The image of swinging is an action in the air and hence “soaring” is the usual English translation. However, since I first learned “Aufschwung” in 1981, I have always felt that the images are much more down to earth and darker than what the English word “soaring” typically might convey. In my mind, the word “soaring” implies images of flight and floating on the wind. Yet, so much of the piece is set below Middle-C of the piano, the upward surges are very powerful and direct, there is very little depiction of floating, and even the highest notes do not come close to using the upper octaves of the piano available to Schumann at the time. Then we must consider the frequent, harsh and very loud low C octave which seems to “ground” the piece rather than allow it to “fly”. Certainly a true depiction of flight would not be tethered so strongly in this way!

Because of these issues I have always felt that “Aufschwung” depicts ocean waves rather than something soaring into flight. It is impossible to know what a composer was thinking, but it is very possible to “hear” the images he paints, and “Aufschwung” seems to paint the elemental sounds of water much more than the sounds of air. First, let us address the issue of the frequent low C octave in the A-section by assigning it the image of a wave crashing against the shore or a high cliff. The surging upward that results from the crash becomes the “soaring” element, and this happens repeatedly (as with multiple waves) until a crest wave seems to break free – as is portrayed by the rising Cs to the highest note. This image provides us a clear explanation for the low C octave and for why the upward surges are so powerful and direct. Although objects in flight can frequently exhibit cycles of upward swings, ultimately resulting in a much higher cresting surge, such swings do not begin with a low “crashing element” as is given by Schumann in the low octave, and upward gusts of air are never linear but rather more wafting.

The B-section begins as a wonderful display of floating and soaring, with the melody dancing on the upper notes of the music, and at first there is little representation of anything in the lower range. If the majority of the piece were like these few measures, it would paint a wonderful image of something floating in the sky. However, this melody is scarcely an octave above Middle-C, it does not explore the higher notes of the piano, and within a few measures the melody descends to a cadence that is followed by a series of upward surges in the bass. Here we are below Middle-C again! When Schumann places the melody in the upper register it is for short periods and/or with equal activity in the bass to parallel the soaring element in the treble. The predominant use of the lower range of the piano again paints a stronger picture of water because soaring crests of waves are supported by a huge amount of water underneath. In contrast, soaring objects in the sky, such as birds or kites, would float loftily as if dangling from above.

Then finally the C-section in B-flat-Major presents a wonderful calm, with an undulating 6/8 rhythm that is typical of the Venetian Gondola Song (or Barcarolle). Again, this quiet moment paints the subtle rocking of waves much better than the quietness of a calm wind – which is either totally still or unidirectional, but never rocking! Then after only 8 lulling measures in our gondola, the gentle swaying gradually transforms into a series of much larger hems and yaws, each one peaking higher than the last, and all of them surging from underneath (below Middle-C), then quelling back down. (Would not objects that are soaring in the sky more typically fall downward and then float back upward?) Then a calming reminiscence of the Barcarolle theme seems to imply the turbulent threat has passed, but this respite is very brief as Schumann proceeds immediately into a transition back to our A-theme using a series of very low scales. Steady and repetitive, these scales paint an image of very ominous activity building up underneath as would happen in the ocean rather than from above as would happen in the sky. As the earth’s forces push up from the deep, the right hand responds with small interjections of percussive wave crashing sounds, each one louder and cresting higher than the one before, until finally the A-theme comes back in full force with a resounding recurrence of our loud crashing low C. The octaves in the bass and thick chord textures tell us that the waves are reaching greater heights than ever before. The magnificent crashes and spectacular peaks make this an amazing, stormy and intensely climactic moment!

So, if in fact Schumann was indeed intending to paint images of ocean waves rather than gusts of wind, why would he choose the title “Aufschwung” rather than “Aufschwellen” (the German for waves upsurging)? I would argue that this was simply a choice of poetry. The word “aufschwellen” literally means “swell up” which describes nicely how the waves swell to a crest before they crash, but not necessarily the peaks of spray that result. Schumann clearly wanted to capture the image of something peaking higher and higher and I would argue that this something is the spray of ocean waves reaching into the sky. I would then posit that “aufschwung” is a more poetic word that describes the images he was capturing better than “aufschwellen” would.

My conclusion is that the music definitely depicts “soaring” but that all of the soaring happens on the powerful and deep ocean waves, rather than in flight through the air as the English word “soaring” would normally suggest. In German, words often have a more technical meaning, and in this case “aufschwung” simply means “swing upward”. Such a word can be used poetically to describe similar actions such as the surges of waves just as easily as it describes objects bouncing on the wind. In performing this piece, I have found it much more effective to think of “Aufschwung” as portraying the powerful forces of the ocean rather than to imagine something soaring through the air.

(Click to hear a student perform this piece.)

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