Schumann, C - Prelude and Fugue in Bb Op 16 No 2
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896), born in Leipzig, Germany, was principally known as a great pianist of international fame, having begun performing at the age of 11 years.
Clara was also a renowned piano teacher and composer, being the main breadwinner of the family even though she raised seven children, with an eighth dying in infancy.
Pupil Match & Suitability
This is a gift of a piece for the Grade 8 student who loves Romantic music more than Baroque music or 20th / 21st century preludes and fugues.
Both the prelude and fugue are short enough to be manageable and - a big bonus for many students - there are no trills!
The main challenge, both musical and technical, is that of defining the fugal texture successfully.
Style & Tempo
Although the prelude and fugue form is one that we traditionally associate with the Baroque era, this work is definitely Romantic in character, with its poignant melodic lines that insist on warmth of tone.
Clara Schumann directed her students to discover and emphasise every beauty in a composition and to 'see pictures' as they played. This can inspire students to use their imagination to illuminate even a fugue, which really has its main interest in the relationship between contrapuntal lines.
Although the sound quality of this live performance is not good, one can still gain an impression of the pianist's intention to give an expressive interpretation.
Phrasing & Articulation
The prelude opens with an expansive eight bar phrase constructed in four bar question / four bar answer form. The material is developed, with a more intense feel created by the RH octaves, in a further eight bar phrase.
Listen to how the interpretation here supports this with slightly less detached LH, the bass notes held by the pedal, and plenty of shape in the phrasing.
Bars 17 - 32 show a new musical idea, taken over two eight-bar units, again showing the semi-staccato LH, before the original melody is recalled beginning at Bar 33.
The phrases from Bar 33 - 48 begin with an identical repetition of Bars 1 - 16, but vary later as they lead us towards the closing phrase from Bar 49 - 56 that finishes with a little coda.
Tone & Texture
Dynamics are relatively subtle, with the whole prelude showing a gentle character that yet has moments of intensity. The dynamic does not go beyond mf even at the loudest points in the piece.
Listen here to the crescendo to mf at Bar 41, where the opening melody is restated.
The prelude may hold few new technical challenges for the advanced student - the main requirement is to be able to play with a singing tone and to balance the melody and accompaniment sensitively.
Playing the LH semi-staccato may be a technique not fully developed however, especially since use of sustaining pedal is really needed to enhance the tone.
There is, of course, an audible difference between pedalled legato and pedalled staccato that will be explored further in the section on pedalling.
Fingering should be carefully decided upon and pencilled in before practising the notes. Fingerings should be adapted to suit individuals, since students have hands of different shape and size.
Special care needs to be taken in bars where finger changing is needed, such as the change to Finger 2 in RH, Bar 44 of the prelude - many students will not know, even at this stage in their playing, what this fingering direction means until you tell them.
You will need to explain that the RH thumb needs to play the lower Bb in Bar 43 in order to reach the octave stretch, but the change to 2 in the next bar will facilitate keeping the B held until it is time to play the next note, A.
Similarly in the fugue, Bar 14, both RH and LH need to use finger changing to sustain notes for the full length and to maintain the legato articulation.
There is no ornamentation. Students do worry about how exactly to play arpeggiated notes, however, such as at Bar 9 of the prelude.
Ask you student to listen to the extract here and tell you whether the first RH note comes before or on the beat.
It is actually quite hard to tell because the pianist makes this a moment of expressiveness, easing the pace a little and emphasising the top melody note.
Whether or not the first D comes before the beat or on it matters less than being poised and convincing, holding a mental image of the notes coming together even though they cannot!
Whereas pedalling for a Baroque prelude and fugue must be very sparing to reflect the style, this prelude and fugue benefits from carefully judged pedalling, particularly in the prelude where we can obtain a semi staccato effect by using detached articulation with pedal.
Students are used to aiming for legato pedal and it will be an interesting experience for them to experiment with the much more subtle effect of half pedalling, in which the dampers are not sufficiently raised to allow full legato, but the tone is still enhanced and a semi-legato effect is produced.
Every piano is different - and every acoustic is different so it is better not to have an absolute plan for pedalling, but to pedal 'with the ears' to achieve the effect desired.
The temptation would be to teach the prelude first and the benefit would be that it is more immediately approachable than the fugue - and also very beautiful. This would give justification to tackle the fugue too.
However you could take the view that learning the fugue first could be a better idea since more work will undoubtedly be needed for the fugue than for the prelude.
Whichever strategy you use, the first step is to enable the student to listen to this prelude and fugue. Appreciating its beauty will be a great motivating force for practice.
The prelude will be fairly straightforward in terms of practice routine. The fugue will be better understood if the a spare copy is annotated using different colour highlighter pens to show which voice is which (eg red for soprano, blue for alto and so on).
Phrase markings may be added and sections might be clearly differentiated to provide a kind of map with signposts, enabling a performance that explains the structure of the music effectively to the listener.
Do not underestimate the time needed to learn a fugue if this happens to be the first one to be tackled.
The main problem typically heard in performances of preludes and fugues is that the examination candidate knows the prelude well, begins the fugue with conviction but then comes to grief about two thirds of the way through.
This is because less learning and practice time has been spent on the latter part of the fugue, when actually this is the part of the work that needs most attention.
Another stumbling block is that of differentiating the textures. Again candidates tend to begin in a promising manner but their performance lacks understanding of the textures after the first obvious entries of the subject.
The solution to these problems is in efficient organisation of practice time and in devoting sufficient attention in lessons to issues of both technique and comprehension of playing counterpoint.
An excellent performance will show equal fluency and poise in prelude and fugue. The prelude will demonstrate a sensitive feel for the romance of the music, with well defined part playing in the fugue, where the textures will be clear and phrasing will be shaped convincingly. Control of tone will be authoritative throughout.
A good performance will show security of technical control, reliable knowledge of the music and understanding of the structure. There will be detail in dynamics and the fugal voices will be brought out with some degree of success. There may however be some unevenness of tone or rhythm and the handling of the counterpoint may be less musical than in an excellent performance - perhaps unclear at times or maybe unsubtle.
A sound performance will show reliable knowledge and continuity. Some detail will be given in the prelude especially, but the fugue may lack clear textural definition.
A complete performance by de Beenhouwer demonstrates the qualities of an excellent performance: