Schumann’s ‘Kinderszenen’: A Childhood in Music  

For Robert Schumann, childhood was one of the happiest times of his life and a source of lifelong inspiration.
Schumann’s ‘Kinderszenen’: A Childhood in Music  
"The Old Stagecoach," 1871, by Eastman Johnson, recalls the joys of childhood. (Public Domain)
9/21/2023
Updated:
12/28/2023
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For many of us, childhood represents a simpler time filled with dreams and hope. Over the last centuries, many artists tried to recapture this state of mind, but no one managed to capture it better than Romantic composer Robert Schumann in his “Kinderszenen” (“Scenes From Childhood”), a collection of 13 short piano pieces evoking childhood.

For Schumann, childhood was one of the happiest times of his life and a source of lifelong inspiration. The Romantic composer loved children and their worldview, and in 1833, he wrote that “in every child is found a wondrous depth.”

Portrait of Robert Schumann at a young age, circa 1826. (<a class="new" title="User:Gabe the Pianist (page does not exist)" href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Gabe_the_Pianist&action=edit&redlink=1">Gabe the Pianist</a>/<a class="mw-mmv-license" href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0" target="_blank" rel="noopener">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>)
Portrait of Robert Schumann at a young age, circa 1826. (Gabe the Pianist/CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 1838, Robert Schumann composed “Kinderszenen” Op. 15, 13 individual piano pieces with poetic titles evoking childhood. Originally, Schumann composed 30 pieces but selected only 13. He published the others in his cycles “Bunte Blätter” (“Colorful Leaves”) Op. 99, and “Albumblätter” (“Album Leaves") Op. 124.

“Kinderszenen” features short pieces (often less than a page) with easily memorized melodies. The titles take us to the world of children: “Of Foreign Lands and People,” “A Strange Story,” “Catch-As-Catch-Can,” “Pleading Child,” “Happy Enough,” “An Important Event,” “Dreaming,” “By the Fireside,” “Knight of the Hobbyhorse,” “Almost Too Serious,” “Frightening,” “Child Falling Asleep,” and “The Poet Speaks.”

However, despite these childlike titles, they are not compositions intended for children. While the vocabulary may look simple, what is conveyed is not. Schumann’s compositions evoke the distant land of childhood from an adult perspective, that which can only be transmitted by a great interpreter.

“Merrymakers,” 1870, by Carolus-Duran. Detroit Institute of Arts. (Public Domain)
“Merrymakers,” 1870, by Carolus-Duran. Detroit Institute of Arts. (Public Domain)

Emotional Maturity Required

While the pieces in “Kinderszenen” are not technically demanding, they require a great deal of sensitivity and emotional maturity to transmit what can’t be said in words and evoke the emotional world of childhood.

The best known of the 13 pieces is No. 7, “Dreaming.” Not only is the piece incredibly beautiful and moving, but it also demonstrates an adult sensibility and impending sense of nostalgia. While children can learn to play it, they cannot yet understand the dreamlike quality of the work, whereas a more experienced pianist can use musicality to convey this. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of a rubato, a slight speeding up or slowing down of the tempo. As there is some uncertainty about the musical tempo of some of the pieces of “Kinderszenen” since the original manuscript didn’t survive, the interpreter has some liberty.

Another instance of the intrusion of adult sensibility is the final piece, “The Poet Speaks,” where there is a remarkable shift in tone, leaning toward nostalgia. The voice of the poet concludes the cycle instead of the composer, which is surprising. This opens a whole new dimension, where music and language become one. This also marks a shift in Romantic music, whereby the music works as an expression of the self and exists just for art’s sake rather than just a result of music patronage.

Popular Work

Schumann conceived this well-balanced work as a whole. Although most pianists tend to play some of the individual pieces rather than the whole cycle, every piece is intrinsically linked to one another. The main motif unifies the cycle and can be found throughout the individual pieces. This theme first occurs in the opening piece, “Of Foreign Lands and People,” and serves as the key to the work.
Score music sheets for Schumann's "Kinderszenen," 1900, Breitkopf & Härtel. (Public Domain)
Score music sheets for Schumann's "Kinderszenen," 1900, Breitkopf & Härtel. (Public Domain)

Each pianist has his interpretation of “Kinderszenen.” While the titles of the pieces might serve as an indication for the interpreter, it is up to the pianist to communicate the music to the audience and try to convey the world that Schumann envisioned, while maintaining the soul and essence of a child.

Many of the most important pianists of the 20th and 21st centuries interpreted and recorded this cycle, and each of these recordings is unique and shows how the same pieces can take on different meanings for individuals. Some of the most famous interpretations include Vladimir Horowitz (1950, 1962), Martha Argerich (1984), Ivan Moravec (1987), and Alfred Brendel (1992).

A Gift for Clara

As with many of his works from that time, Schumann wrote this collection for his wife, composer and pianist Clara Schumann. “Kinderszenen” was a gift for her two years before their marriage. When he sent her the pieces, he told her that they were “a musical response to what you once wrote me, that I sometimes seemed to you like a child.”
Robert and Clara Schumann, 1847, by Eduard Kaiser. (Public Domain)
Robert and Clara Schumann, 1847, by Eduard Kaiser. (Public Domain)

“Kinderszenen” was a symbol of Robert’s love for Clara, and the composer described the piano cycle as “light and gentle and happy like our future.” He asked his future wife to forget she was a virtuoso and to simply enjoy the pieces for what they were. Both Robert and Clara loved this composition, and in a letter from 1838, Clara wrote that the pieces belonged to only both of them, that they were always on her mind, and that they were “so simple, warm, so quite like you.”

Robert and Clara were not the only ones to be delighted with these pieces. Composer Franz Liszt, a friend of Schumann, also loved the cycle and often played it to his daughter Blandine. Other prominent Romantic musicians admired this set of works, which symbolized a more experimental and complex phase of Schumann’s compositions. However, its unconventional structure and overt emotionalism baffled audiences for a few years before it became an audience favorite and a staple of the Romantic repertoire for what it evokes.

Schumann composed many works for his children later in his career, notably his “Album for the Young“ Op. 68, “Ball Scenes” Op. 109, and “Three Piano Sonatas for the Young” Op. 118. To this day, these are among the most poetic and imaginative piano works dedicated to children. But among these compositions, “Kinderszenen” holds a special place.

Childhood was a predominant theme in the Romantic era. It embodied a return to one’s roots and a world filled with imagination, a perfect subject for Romantic artists who wanted to capture everything poetic and fleeting, and Romantic composers were especially interested in this theme. Perhaps Robert Schumann managed to capture it best.

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Ariane Triebswetter is an international freelance journalist, with a background in modern literature and classical music.