My Take on Schumann’s Carnival Scenes from Vienna

I have been practicing Schumann’s Faschingschwank aus Wien (Carnival Scenes from Vienna), Op. 26 (1839-1840). In the words of Steven Coburn, it is an unusual work, more integrated than a suite, but not as much as a sonata. The first movement, Allegro in B-flat major, is very nearly a suite in itself, the principal idea in 3/4 time alternating with six contrasting episodes. The second movement is a wistful Romance in G minor. The third movement, a Scherzino in B-flat major, but without trio, is laid out in two-bar phrases. An Intermezzo in E-flat minor, which carries an impetuous melody with a pulsating accompaniment. The long Finale in B-flat major, the mostdifficult of the movements from a technical point of view, is in a conventional sonata form. The word “Faschingschwank” contains the letters ASCH SCHA in that order of appearance. Schumann used these notes in sequence as melodic material for this work.

In the first part (Allegro), the repeating theme represents Florestan in the middle of a Carnival, a parade. All the other parts (with the exception of the part in F-sharp major, which is a heroic march) represent Eusebius. The “heroic waltz” in F-sharp major is on a military theme   that leads to a parody of the French anthem in A-flat major.

Yes, it is a parody. The French anthem is scored in 4/4, but in Schumann’sFaschingschwank aus Wien (in which the Allegro is in 3/4), the anthem appears as a “military waltz,” preceded by a barcarolle in G minor. Note that Schumann uses different metronome marks in different places of the piece. The first theme, in B-flat major, repeats before and after every section. Schumann uses the same rhythm throughout the first part of the cycle, 1 quarter and 4 eighth notes (there are two exceptions, when Schumann uses chords). One of my favorite parts in the piece is the coda.

The theme of the Coda appears before in an earlier section, which is a chorale.

Note the difference between the keys in the two examples. The chorale is in E-flat major, whereas the coda is in B-flat major, the opening key of the Allegro.

The Romance in G minor is short, and in my opinion it carries one of the most beautiful melodies in all of Schumann’s piano music.

Notice that the melody is in C major, whereas the Romance is in G minor. All the other pieces in this cycle start by giving the listener a clear idea of the key and the tonal structure. The Romance is the exception.

Allegro (in B-flat major):

Romance (in G minor):

Scherzino (in B-flat major):

Intermezzo (in E-flat minor):

Finale (in B-flat major):

The Romance starts out with a fairly dissonant harmony, then in the second bar of the phrase goes to G minor. But even then, the  G minor doesn’t stand out very clearly. As I said above, there is a melody in the Romance which is in C major, making the Romance the most multi-tonal and somewhat atonal piece in the cycle, because it begins unclearly in G minor and moves to the sub-dominant, C major. Finally, it ends in a “Baroque-ish” way, in G major,

making it even more clear that this is the least tonal piece in the cycle. The transition to C major is very well prepared, because Schumann doesn’t stay long in G minor in the beginning, but goes to A minor through a small hint of C major. From A minor, Schumann naturally switches the key to C major. But the transition back to G minor is not at all natural. There are no hints of going back to the tonic, and Schumann wrote a fairly dissonant transition. Again, this is the least tonal part of the cycle, and Schumann ends up in G major. Very few performances of the Romance actually bring out the harmonic outline of the piece.

The Scherzino is probably the “simplest” piece of the set.  It uses rather simple harmonies (I, IV, I, I, V, I) in the first subject. And it has a fairly simple rhythm.  One might notice that the first subject of the Scherzino has the same harmonic outline as Brahms’s St. Anthony Variations.

Schumann: 

Brahms: 

The Scherzino continues in a completely conventional way, moving the theme to F major, the dominant. But shortly afterwards Schumann switches keys in a sequence that leads to A major. My favorite part of the Scherzino is the very unusual transition back to the tonic (B-flat major).

The Intermezzo is a fierce piece, and it can be described perhaps by the fact that Schumann builds the piece on half-tones and neighbor notes.

Notice the two A notes in the first bar that clash with the melody, and the two G notes that also clash with the melody.  The piece sounds fairly virtuosic. But although the background notes in the right hand do indeed go extremely fast, the melody is much slower. The technical difficulties in the Intermezzo don’t match the musical difficulties in this piece, bringing out the melody and its clashes with the neighbor notes. The Intermezzo reminds me a little bit of the Rondo form, with the melody appearing a large number of times in all kinds of different forms.

The Finale starts with triumphant B-flat octaves, with brilliant arpeggios between them.

It is the most challenging technically in the entire cycle. It is filled with fast arpeggios, chords, and passages that require crossing the hands at a very high tempo. The patterns that appear in the Finale are somewhat reminiscent of a Beethoven piece, with a melody moving in both hands, while both hands also play unchanging notes beneath the melody. There is frequent use of pedal points, too. Like in many fast Schumann movements, there is a melody that could also serve as a romance, but the melody is distributed between many virtuosic notes. It is reminiscent of the orchestration of a harp accompanying a solo instrument (violin, flute…)

The melody eventually leads back to the tonic, B-flat major. The Faschingsschwank aus Wien ends very triumphantly, giving the listener the feeling of a long-planned finale.

The best performances of this piece are by Murray Perahia and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Michelangeli plays best the Scherzino and the Intermezzo, Perahia the Allegro, Romance, and Finale. I don’t like the performances of Arrau, Richter, Gavrilov, de Larrocha, Brendel, Demus… and many more. Most of these performances I dislike for the same reason: there is not enough drama in the playing. One must remember that Schumann wrote incidental music for Eusebius and Florestan.

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