Friday, August 6, 2010

Conversation in a hall of mirrors; Schumann's adagio and allegro for horn and piano Op. 70

The "Adagio and Allegro" for piano and horn written by Robert Schumann in 1849 needs to be heard for what it is not.

It is not a work for natural horn--it was conceived for a technological advancement: valves. Natural horns could produce sound with notes from a single overtone series. Players quickly learned to alter this series to add extra tones to the palette, but the instrument became associated with fanfares, processionals, and hunting riffs.

The "Adagio and Allegro" confronts this persona in its first gesture. The opening line begins without introduction, quietly, in the world of altered tones possible with valves:

The adagio is conversational but its patterning is elusive. In the first stanza the piano answers the horn [0:14] with a compressed gesture in 8th notes. Both lines are set in dizzy-speak.

In mirrored balance the horn [0:22] develops the piano line and the piano [0:29] develops the opening horn line. It is built in an XY-YX pattern.

The continuation is set in echos and despite the gentle lyrical colors the music spirals dangerously away. Finally the horn line locks into D-flat major [1:33] and triplets begin to stir the surface of the music. The way back home is not the way we came. Though some shapes look familiar is it by means of alleyways and narrow passages that we return home to A-flat major at [2:38].

In an effective performance the closing section can simulate floating; its gentle syncopations and cadenza-like horn lines grounding mirrors and echos.

The Allegro is constructed as a rondo in seven sections:
Part 1 [4:00], Part 2 [4:29], Part 1 [5:10],
Part 3 [5:40] in B major,
Part 1 [6:37], Part 2 [7:07], Part 1 [7:47]

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