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Schumann Forum 2010

The Prophet Bird

by Wolf-Dieter Seiffert

01. May



In the lovely month of May, dear Readers, I would like to take a precise look at two piano pieces of Schumann. They are so far apart from each other they couldn’t possibly be more different. I am going to talk about "The Prophet Bird" from "Waldszenen" ("Forest Scenes") op. 82, and the Toccata op. 7 in C major that I will introduce on 15. May. And herewith we are able to immediately understand the gigantic intellectual, compositional and also technical range of Schumann’s piano oeuvre. It reaches from the introverted and restless piano piece of positively religious depth – "doable" for the well-practiced pianist – to the "unplayable" Toccata that expresses nearly inexhaustible energy and uplifting, unclouded enjoyment of life.

I hope that the following pages bear new information even to the many professional pianists among my readers.


"The Prophet Bird"

Schumann’s "Forest Scenes" op. 82 were first published in print 160 years ago (1850). Today this stroll through the "musically enchanted forest" (labeled as such by a 19th century critic) is often a bit condescendingly commented on by some. These are the people who greatly admire the young, innovative, genial Schumann, and they are not willing to equally appreciate the more subtle "Forest Scenes". Number 7 is certainly an exception: the mysterious, unbelievably poetic "Prophet Bird" continues to magnetize pianists and music listeners to date.

At the risk of sounding nitpickingly arrogant I must say that, in my opinion, only very few recordings of "The Prophet Bird" are truly convincing. There are wonderful light and playful recordings like those by Claudio Arrau or Alfred Cortot, dreamy ones exist by Arthur Rubinstein or Mayra Hess, and then there are also extremely willful historic recordings by Vladimir de Pachmann or the violin adaptation by Jascha Heifetz. Those are all valuable examples of the reception history of the piece, and certainly worth hearing in to (all of the above mentioned and many more can be found on YouTube). But as far as I am concerned they all lack one thing, they are not true to the original text.

For, Schumann’s "Prophet Bird" differs from (almost) all other Schumann pieces in that it uses the right (and left) pedal to determine the piano sound. Schumann was pedantic in his notation especially of the pedal markings in this piece:

Click on the following link to read Schumann’s autograph. There can be no doubt as to Schumann’s intentions, and the Henle Urtext edition follows his instructions.

 Schumann’s autograph of the "Forest Scenes" is taken from the Henle facsimile edition, Order no. HN 3217.

Consequently, Schumann’s pedal markings are an intended and important part of the composition. But hardly any musician respects them. Next to Clara Haskil’s recording (also on YouTube) that many piano enthusiasts rightly favor, there are at least (only?) two further recordings that not only follow Schumann’s original intentions, including the important and sophisticated pedal markings, but are also wonderfully expressive. One was recently released on CD; a recording by Andreas Staier [Robert Schumann: "Hommage à Bach". Harmonia Mundi France HMC 901989] whose play on an Erard grand piano succeeds in communicating the enchantment of this piece. The other recording is by Wilhelm Backhaus. There are both a studio and a live recording by Backhaus, both made in the 1950s. Everything here is perfect. The live recording from Carnegie Hall with "The Prophet Bird" as an encore is especially great (it sets in at 2:10, following a breathtaking performance of Chopin’s Etude op. 25/2 in f minor and an intriguingly improvised modulation to the Schumann piece):

[Video no longer available]

Backhaus’ live CD recording is published by the label Profil (no. PRF 07006) and it’s a must-have for every piano enthusiast; it also includes a spectacular performance of the "Hammerklavier Sonata").

Of course I am not familiar with all of the almost 50 recordings of the "Prophet Bird" listed at (the worldwide number one source for classical recordings). But I have listened to very many of them, and apart from Staier, no one has recently played it as "right" as Backhaus did.

For all of you interested in finding out how and why Schumann uses the pedal as such an important component of "The Prophet Bird", and for all those piano players also interested in other practical pointers (fingerings and solutions for the falsely notated main theme) I wrote the following essay. It focuses on the music itself, but is of course also my personal interpretation. In the G major middle section Robert Schumann quotes another piece and – for the first time in the history of Schumann research – I believe to have found the evidence to trace this quote correctly:

Robert Schumann, „Vogel als Prophet“ (Nr. 7 aus „Waldszenen“ op. 82). Einige Gedanken und Ausführungsvorschläge

I transferred the ideas from this essay into the three sheets of music from the Henle edition. If you wish to seriously concern yourself with Schumann’s "The Prophet Bird" at the piano please print these pages out:

„Vogel als Prophet“ mit Einzeichnungen

Rudolf Buchbinder Read here how Rudolf Buchbinder answers the nine questions on Schumann and Chopin: 9 Questions

I am looking forward to your next visit on 15. May (Schumann, Toccata op. 7 in C major).

And in honor of this first day of May I would like to conjure a funny bird on your screen (to see the bird you will unfortunately need to view an advert first):

Schumann Forum at a glance