Robert Schumann, composer throughout the early- to mid-nineteenth century, is probably best known for his songs and piano works. Before injuring his finger most likely through the use of a chiroplast (an instrument that guides the hands while playing; highly controversial), Schumann was an avid piano player, if not a proper concert pianist and virtuoso. But due to this ailing finger, Schumann had to eventually find other means to support his life. Thankfully for us, he eventually turned to composition, and furthermore, to piano composition. His affinity for piano led to some of the best character pieces for piano ever created, including the piano cycles Papillon, Carnaval, and Kreisleriana. But these pieces that he is now known for were not successful in his time. Clara Wieck, Schumann's eventual wife, wrote in her diary in 1839, “I would play [Robert's compositions] gladly, but the public doesn't understand them.” But in that same year, Schumann published a work that changed the public perspective on his compositions, Kinderszenen. Due to his previous anonymity, Kinderszenen appeared new and original, but in fact Schumann steals ideas from his previous works and shapes them in order to create this exciting, publicly-acclaimed piano cycle.
While the most well-known compositional period of Schumann is the flurry of songs for piano and voice after marrying Clara in 1840, the period before, from 1830-1840, was devoted almost entirely to solo piano works and piano cycles. During the composing of one of these piano cycles, the Novelleten, Schumann took one month of time to compose a collection of pieces, from which he would choose the pieces for the Kinderszenen. In a letter to Clara, he wrote, Whether or not in response to some words you once wrote saying I sometimes seemed to you like a child, I took flight and amused myself with working out thirty droll little pieces, twelve of which I have selected and christened Kinderszenen. You will like them, though you will have to forget you are a virtuoso for the time being.
This reference to childhood is unsurprising since “kinderszenen” means “scenes from childhood” in German. But this title should not be misconstrued to mean that the piece is for children to play, or even intended for children. Instead, Schumann made note that the Kinderszenen are an adult's recollection of childhood, for adult performers.
But that is not to say that Schumann was not accurate in depicting childhood. In his critique of Schumann's piano cycles, Koßmaly stated that in Kinderszenen Schumann “has succeeded in immersing himself so completely in certain moods, states, and memorable moments of the child's world and in possessing it musically to such a degree that a thoughtful visitor must feel most intensely moved and vividly impressed by it.” It is this focus on the music that Schumann strove for; instead of fulfilling a programmatic theme, Schumann instills the emotive aspects of a scene or idea, and in turn the listener actualizes the scene himself. In this regard, Schumann parallels Liszt such that when composing Sposalizio, Liszt set out, not to depict Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin exactly as painted, but rather to instill in the listener the emotions radiated by the painting. In fact, Schumann even insists that the titles of the movements of Kinderszenen were added after he had composed them. So essentially, Schumann was able to transform the original absolute music into program music through his utter control of the emotive aspects of the music, and because of this, the music is stronger and more effective than if he had just set out to create program music.
In addition to being strongly emotive, Kinderszenen also proves to be a more cohesive unit than many of Schumann's earlier piano cycles. On his earlier cycles, Koßmaly noted that the cycles “suffered from confusion and over-decoration,” but the Kinderszenen...