Six Pieces in Canon Form, Op. 56
When Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843, it was only natural that he ask Schumann, a famously lucid and focused musical observer with a growing reputation as composer, to join the inaugural faculty. His stay in Leipzig lasted only a few months, and would not concern us at all had he not encountered the pedal piano for the first time in Leipzig.
The pedal piano, like the organ, has a row of foot pedals on which the player can play bass notes. Such instruments were a natural development of 18th-century aesthetics, which prized the organ as the greatest of instruments and therefore favored any feature that made other keyboard instruments more like the organ. A pedal harpsichord was also useful as a practice instrument, since it was portable and cost a fraction of what an organ would. In the 19th century, the pedal piano was less common, though Liszt, Gounod, and others composed for it.
In the early months of 1845, Schumann became preoccupied with counterpoint. “Continually engrossed in the study of fugue with Clara,” he wrote in his diary on February 2, and on February 18: “busy with fugal studies the last three weeks.” He installed a pedal board on his piano, and composed the Six Studies, Op. 56, the Four Sketches, Op. 58, and Six Fugues on B-A-C-H, Op. 60, that year. Pedal pianos are very rare now, and Schumann’s works for the instrument are now mostly the property of organists, though Debussy made an arrangement of the Six Studies for two pianos. Theodor Kirchner, who arranged them for piano trio, was a Leipzig Conservatory student during Schumann’s short tenure there.
A canon is at once the simplest and strictest form of fugue in which the voices imitate each other literally and completely. The best-known kind of canon is that campfire favorite, the “round.”
For any 19th-century composer, studying counterpoint meant studying Bach, and the first Study has more Bach than Schumann in it: the two upper parts follow each other over a droning “pedal point” bass, much as the treble voices do at considerably greater length in Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F. Schumann knew the F-major toccata quite well: he wrote an article about printing errors in the available edition of it. The other studies are more firmly rooted in the 19th century. Often they involve a short bit of melody tossed between the voices in question-and-answer fashion. Far from academic exercises, they are short character pieces, like songs without words.
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and for the Coleman Chamber Concerts.