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Schumann Forum 2010

"Toccata op. 7"

by Wolf-Dieter Seiffert

15. May


I have been promising a sensation of sorts, and here finally it is: Schumann’s famous Toccata in C major op. 7 (1834) in a hitherto almost unknown early version dated 1830. Thanks to the generosity of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York we had access to Schumann’s original autograph and were able to edit it with a strict eye to Urtext compliance. Just a few weeks ago we published it in print.

Schumann’s handwritten early version is by no means simply a slightly differing draft of the actual much loved print version of the Toccata op. 7. "The correspondences between the two versions are so few that one must actually regard the print version as a new composition" – thus the editor Dr. Ernst Herttrich in his preface of our Henle Urtext edition (to view the entire preface and / or critical commentary go here)

In the following, dear Readers, I would like to give you a short introduction to this G. Henle Verlag edition of a Schumann piece (as an add-on you will find a list of links to all of the audio and video recordings of the familiar Toccata in C major op. 7 that I could find.

Of course I do hope that especially those of you who play the piano will purchase the new Henle edition in order to make your own opinion.










Schumann, Robert
Toccata in C major op. 7, Versions 1830 and 1834
revised Edition
Edition: Ernst Herttrich
Fingering: Hans-Martin Theopold
HN 201 € 7,50

The manuscript of the premiere early version of the Toccata of 1830 – Schumann significantly titled it "Exercice" – was formerly owned by the great pianist Alfred Cortot. Cortot did not only bequeath us with immortal sound recordings of many Schumann pieces (unfortunately the Toccata is not among them), but he also edited the complete Schumann piano works for the publishing firm Salabert within the collection "Les Éditions de travail". Interestingly, in the respective edition in this collection (book number EMS 5446/D1) Cortot only included the familiar version from 1834. The Henle Urtext edition has both versions printed one after the other.

The so-called early version of the Toccata op. 7 ("Exercice") is a fascinating piece. Schumann’s study mate from Heidelberg, Anton Theodor Töpken, reports that Schumann himself played it "quite often and peculiarly, in a calm and moderate tempo." Of course it does have, apart from being written in the same key, C major, and sonata form, significant congruencies with the later "Toccata". Both movements are undoubtedly bravuras, impressive beyond measure. They both originate from the spirit of piano exercises, peppered with frightfully difficult demands to even the best of piano technicians. But they are by no means "etudes", because they are far too original for that kind of classification. Both movements sound like an unstoppable forward-pushing (steam) engine, because there is only one form of motion. Instead of versatile rhythms you have continuous, uninterrupted sixteenth notes. Without pause or rest, inexorable, forceful, in other words with motor energy. Both movements start, after a short opening curtain, with the same characteristic double change of the fingers 1+5 → 2+4 → 1+5 → 2+4 etc. of the right hand. And both pieces have the difficult-to-play repeated octaves in the middle passage in a minor, a passage that can only really be mastered easily by true piano virtuosos.

It might not demand so much musicality to play Schumann’s Toccata and the early version thereof, the "Exercice" – but, yes, you need to be a "piano virtuoso". Because you need skills that are otherwise only necessary in professional sports: tremendous strength and simultaneously a looseness of the limbs, tremendous endurance, extraordinary jumping skills and, finally, nerves made of steel. For this reason we seldom hear the Toccata performed in concert halls (not few of the great pianists of yesterday and today never performed the Toccata), but it is often played in music academies. It is an ideal "training piece" for young, prospective pianists.

And this applies even more to the "Exercice". The technical difficulties are positively compact, and, in comparison to the Toccata, increased. The short, song-like points of rest in the Toccata are not yet there, they are completely missing. One example is the friendly, dotted melody (first introduced in m44 ff.). Only a very detailed comparison would draw an exact picture, but I must leave this up to you. There is not enough space here. But what is clear is that this piece encloses into a sweeping musical river very many extreme finger exercises that are incredibly demanding to the highly skilled piano player.

The "Toccata" is 100 measures longer than the "Exercice". And not because it accumulates more technical difficulties, but rather, because the composition is more sophisticated and balanced than the "Exercice". This applies especially to the harmonic professions that, in the early version, tend to remind one of certain uninspiring modulation exercises, though unusually fast in tempo. The very beginning already does not savour the first stroke of the C major space the way the "Toccata" does; after only 4 measures we have been moved to E flat major (the Toccata allows 14 measures).

And, since we are already quietly criticising the "Exercice", let me add that in many instances it lacks the measured rhythmic pulsation of the "Toccata", where the last finger of the left hand beautifully pulls through: short – long – short / short – long – short etc. This is magnificently compressed and already set on track in the first very strong opening accords. In contrast, Schumann starts the "Exercice" with a veritably presumptuous accord cascade. Here the composer attempts to surprise rather than convince. And this follows through to the end, which in the Toccata quietly fades (criticized by Friedrich Wieck), while the "Exercice" ends just as it began, with a stroke of thunder.

And yet, the early version is a stroke of genius, and especially an alternative draft to the etudes of his time, that Schumann regarded as stultifying. How intensely, almost self-destructively Schumann trained his fingers is commonly known. Friedrich Wieck himself maintained that he wanted to make him into an even greater virtuoso and musician than Moscheles and Hummel, two of the most greatly admired musicians of the time. (There are certainly references to Hummel’s piano sonata op. 81.) Wieck was obviously most successful in the technical education of his daughter Clara. With Schumann he was doomed to failure. For the seed of composition-artist was already planted in Schumann, he was never the born technician. One almost has the impression that the chains he had laid himself sprung when Schumann finally ended his career as a performing pianist. And that was his breakthrough to his true fulfilment. "One should hear the music from inside out", he entered in his journal on June 5, 1831! Barely a year later, his career as a piano virtuoso came to an end, due to irreparable physiological problems with his right middle finger.

have a look...

If you are interested in Wieck’s numerous systematic finger exercises I advise you take a look at the "Klavierstudien" he published. You will find there several models that surface in Schumann’s "Exercice" and "Toccata" in variations and more sophisticated form;

The transformation of the unpolished diamond "Exercice" (1830) to the sophisticated virtuoso-"Toccata" (1834) symptomatically occurs exactly in during those decisive years of Schumann’s conversion to greatness. The knowledge of both works, therefore, allows us on a musical level to better understand the development and growth of Schumann. In these few years he matured and transformed himself from the prospective skilled pianist who could also compose, to the composer who could play the piano. A crucial, no THE crucial difference.

Lastly, Schumann already points out the intrinsic difference of the two pieces in his titles. The originally youthful and show-offy "Exercice" is transformed to a "less wild, more polite" Toccata (Schumann to Töpken on 18. August, 1834). Thus he actually positioned the work (and himself as composer) in the larger context of music history that reaches from the Claviermusik of the Early Baroque period (take Frescobaldi, for example) to many of Bach’s works (I am always reminded of the Prelude in C minor from the Well Tempered Piano BWV 847) and lastly to Debussy, Ravel, Chatschaturjan and Prokofiev, to name only a few famous examples. You will find an extraordinarily rich "Toccata collection" here )


And now, after so many words, here is a list that certainly some of you will find highly enjoyable. Over the past months I have continuously collected all of the Toccata recordings my fingers on the keyboard of my computer were able to locate. (Of course a recording of the "Exercice" does not yet exist, since it was only recently published by Henle). If you notice anything missing in my list, I would be grateful if you would be so kind and notify me by e-mail (]. Then, over time, the readers of the Schumann Forum 2010 would help me to complete my list, that today includes 57 items. Thank you!

List of Toccata recordings

In many cases the list contains direct links to the recording (thanks to YouTube). Or else the record labels offer online audio excerpts.

I admire all of these pianists. Unquestionably they rise to the challenge of one of the most difficult piano pieces of Schumann, and the entire piano literature. I am especially impressed by those performances where the players unfold great motor energy, holding the initial tempo and still offering a stimulating play of all the notes. Without a doubt Tang Ying from China is speed master. To the very sweaty end he succeeds in keeping the unbelievable tempo that was once set – but not held - by the legendary Simon Barer. However, other recordings overwhelm and excite me even more. (I marked my favourites that I strongly suggest you listen to in blue colour on the list.)

To conclude I would like to point you to one of the recordings from the Olymp of Schumann Toccatas: György Cziffra is indeed the master of all disciplines. He seems to genuinely enjoy the challenge of this horrendously difficult, wonderfully forceful, modern, vital piece. He plays it with the persistent drive it demands, and still maintains his ease.

Schumann Forum at a glance