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Faced with uncertainty, Robert Schumann sought order in counterpoint

Schumann’s Six Studies utilize the strictest of contrapuntal techniques: canon.Remote Transmission

This Saturday, pianists Peter Serkin and Julia Hsu perform a recital in Rockport that includes Robert Schumann’s “Sechs Studien für den Pedalflügel” (Six Studies for the Pedal-Piano) (Op. 56), as arranged for four-hand piano by Georges Bizet (who, of course, achieved posthumous fame as the composer of the opera “Carmen”). The original was one of the fruits of a self-directed course of counterpoint that Schumann began in 1845. The Six Studies all utilize the strictest of contrapuntal techniques: canon, in which individual melodic lines overlap in exact, note-for-note imitation. Schumann began his studies (and convinced his wife, Clara, to join him) following a serious bout of illness and a long journey accompanying Clara on her successful concert tour of Russia. Both events had plunged Schumann into a crisis of confidence; counterpoint was his self-prescribed therapy.

The pedal-piano — equipped with an organ-like pedal board — never really caught on, so repertoire for the instrument became fodder for duo arrangements like Bizet’s. In fact, Claude Debussy would later make his own two-piano version of Schumann’s Opus 56. Both composers were inspired by Schumann’s musical audacity: his narrative musical effects, his far-out but emotionally immediate harmonic shifts, the way he sidestepped the niceties of musical form with curated collections of charged miniatures. (Such qualities also made Schumann a favorite of a later French intellectual, the literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes.)


The canonically restrained Six Studies would not seem the most stereotypically Schumannesque targets of Bizet and Debussy’s interest. Interestingly, though, as with Schumann, both composers’ encounters with the Studies coincided with periods of personal difficulty. In 1871 — already a year of upheaval, thanks to the Franco-Prussian war — Bizet, perhaps the most gifted French composer of his generation, was professionally stymied, spending his energies making reams of such arrangements for music publishers while his own operatic projects repeatedly fell through. Debussy’s travails were romantic: The year 1894, when his arrangement was published, marked the climax of the latest of his many affairs — this one with singer Thérèse Roger, ending with a broken-off engagement and a number of ruptured friendships.

It is too simplistic to say that canon’s formal restraint fulfilled some quest for order in the three composers’ disorderly lives. But, in times of uncertainty, the discipline of canon, experienced directly by Schumann and vicariously by his arrangers, might have offered a temporary escape. With canon, at least, if you know where you are, you know where you’re going.


Peter Serkin and Julia Hsu perform music of Schumann, Bizet, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms, Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. Tickets: $49-$78. 978-546-7391, www.rock

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthew