Schumann's Fantasie, Op. 17 as a Romantic Fragment

by Mari Masuda

According to Charles Rosen, "the technique of the Fragment was, for a brief time, an unstable but successful solution to the problem of introducing the disorder of life into art without compromising the independence and integrity of the work.... [The] Romantic Fragment...leaves a place — ambiguous and disconcerting — for an unresolved detail which undermines the symmetry and the conventions of the form without ever quite destroying them" (96). Using Linda Roesner's diagram of parallel forms (see Figure 1) as a basis for discussion, it will be shown that the first movement of Schumann's Fantasie, Op. 17 exemplifies the aesthetic of the Romantic fragment.

Roesner's diagram reveals the basic sonata form structure of the movement. Temporarily ignoring the "enigmatic digression of the 'Im Legenden-Ton'" (Roesner 274), a contrasting section that differs in meter and tempo from the rest of the movement, we notice that the exposition, development, and recapitulation all occur in the "wrong" keys. The tonic tonality of C major is only hinted at in the pre-exposition and does not appear at all in the exposition proper. The development section moves through the major supertonic (II), the dominant (really a dominant seventh pedal), and the major subtonic (♭VII) before reaching an inconclusive "return" to C major. Finally, the recapitulation parallels the key scheme of the exposition, except that everything is now a whole step lower. The arrival of the tonic in root position comes only at the very end of the movement in measure 297. The explanation for Schumann's deviation from the standard sonata form key scheme is this: "one of the ideals of Romantic art was the creation of a coherent world which does not depend on reality or simply reflect it, but runs parallel to it" (Rosen 78). For Schumann, "reality" was the Classical procedure consisting of a tonic exposition moving to the dominant, a development section in the dominant moving back to tonic, followed by a recapitulation in the tonic. By writing in the "wrong" keys, he was able to create a parallel existence of sonata form, thereby fulfilling one of the Romantic ideals.

Friedrich Schlegel described the ideal fragment as "a little work of art, complete in itself and separated from the rest of the universe like a hedgehog" (Rosen 48). Schlegel also felt that "the perfection of the classical work was unattainable in his own day; in place of classical beauty, modern art had to be satisfied with the 'interesting.' Clearly, the 'interesting,' a more dynamic concept than the 'beautiful,' is necessarily imperfect, and Schlegel's aesthetics of the fragment justified a new and progressive sense of art" (Rosen 50). Furthermore, Rosen says that "the Romantic Fragment, imperfect and yet complete, ... is, or should be, a finished form: it is the content that is incomplete — or, rather, that develops further with each reading" (50). In terms of a Classical aesthetic, the form of the first movement of the Fantasie is by all means imperfect. Not only is the key scheme wrong for a sonata, but there is the matter of the "enigmatic" Im Legenden-Ton. Upon further investigation, the purpose of this ambiguous middle section becomes both more and less clear.

Instead of looking at the first movement of the Fantasie as a sonata form movement, an argument can be made in favor of its reading as a bar form movement centered on the Im Legenden-Ton. What Roesner calls the pre-exposition (mm. 1–28) retains its function as introductory material in this new interpretation of form. The A section is comprised, then, of the exposition proper and the development (mm. 29–128).

Traditionally, the A section of a bar form begins and ends in the tonic, but here the A section begins in E♭ major (♭III) and ends in a weak, inconclusive C major. E♭ major, however, is not an unusual key to choose as a mediant relation to C major, and for composers of the Romantic generation, mediant relationships were an excellent way to "[blur] the clarity of the tonal system" (Rosen 237). Since the tonic, however, "was often loosely enough defined to contain both its own minor mode and the relative minor as well" (Rosen 249), the resulting generic C sonority includes C minor, which is the relative minor of E♭ major, and E♭ major can now be thought of as a substitute for the tonic C sonority.

The contrasting B section is the Im Legenden-Ton (mm. 129–224), whose meter and tempo set it apart from the rest of the movement. Since C minor has just been established as a part of the generic tonic C sonority, the only interesting key area of this section is the Neapolitan D♭ major. The D minor and F major key areas of the first A section both have one flat as their key signature, and thus are far more closely related to a C sonority than D♭ major, which has five flats in its key signature.

The return of the A section comes with what Roesner calls the recapitulation and adagio (mm. 225–309). Since E♭ major has already been established as a surrogate tonic, we see that Schumann's downward shift of the key scheme of the initial A section by a whole step serves only to strengthen the sense of tonic. Now instead of dealing with the keys of D minor, F major, and D major (see mm. 41, 61, and 82 in Figure 1), all of which are closely related to C, we have C minor, E♭ major, and an inconclusive C major (see mm. 233, 253, and 274 in Figure 1), all of which can be considered a part of the generic tonic C sonority. Schumann finally gives us a strong, conclusive arrival in C major that coincides with the quotation from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte.

A third reading of Roesner's diagram further develops the meaning of the Im Legenden-Ton and reveals even more ambiguity and paradox. Although cyclic form traditionally plays out over the course of multiple movements, the opening movement of the Fantasie possesses some of the same characteristics as its multi-movement counterparts. Rosen writes that

In a cyclical form the return may be unjustified by traditional formal requirements, but it must appear to be not rhetorical but organic. This double aspect — a disruption of a standard form which seems to grow out of the music, to be necessary more for reasons of sensibility and inner development than of tradition — had a natural aptness for an aesthetic of the fragment: the return is both an intruder from outside the new movement and a necessary part of its inner logic. (89)

The very fact that the Im Legenden-Ton was previously ignored when looking at the movement through Roesner's "sonata form glasses" sets it off as an intruder, something that doesn't belong. Its presence disrupts the smooth flow from development to recapitulation (thinking, of course, in terms of Schumann's parallel sonata form and not the traditional Classical version), but it has its roots in the exposition section and is thus an organic outgrowth. A rhythmically altered version of the theme of the Im Legenden-Ton first appears in an inner voice in mm. 33–40. Without the further development that occurs in the Im Legenden-Ton, the only reappearance of this theme would be the shortened but otherwise unaltered version present in the recapitulation (mm. 229–232). A totally undeveloped theme would stretch the concept of sonata form too far, even for Schumann's parallel interpretation; perhaps a better view of the section marked Im Legenden-Ton is as a cyclic return cast in the light of a contrasting part of the development. Its different meter and tempo clearly set it apart from the rest of the movement, but its thematic material strongly ties it to the exposition and recapitulation. The Im Legenden-Ton serves as an embodiment of the paradox of a necessary disruption. Indeed, "the form [of a Romantic Fragment] is not fixed but is torn apart or exploded by paradox, by ambiguity" (Rosen 51).

Rosen clarifies Schlegel's definition of a fragment by stating that, "separate from the rest of the universe, the Fragment nevertheless suggests distant perspectives" (48). The ambiguous form of the first movement of the Fantasie causes some discomfort in the listener, who is not sure whether it is in sonata, bar, or cyclic form. The Beethoven quote, however, has links to the outside world and is a binding force that holds the piece together despite its strange form. Not only is Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte a separate work, it is addressed to the "distant beloved," who, being distant, has a perspective even farther removed from that of the listener.

In the end, the creation of a successful Romantic fragment "entailed a renunciation of classical focus" (Rosen 50). The resulting product was expected to "preserve the clearly defined symmetry and the balance of the traditional forms but allow suggestively for the possibility of chaos, for the eruption of the disorder of life" (Rosen 96). The first movement of Schumann's Fantasie, Op. 17 clearly demonstrates these qualities. It is filled with paradox and ambiguity, a sure source of chaos, yet can be molded to correspond to a traditional form. Schumann is also able to successfully incorporate the ideals of parallel existence, separation, and distant perspective. Taking the sonata form approach to viewing the movement causes the listener to realize that Schumann was not trying to write a piece in terms of the traditional Classical sonata form, but was instead creating a new parallel form. This parallel existence is, by the very definition of the word "parallel," a separate existence. Although separate, his use of the quote from An die ferne Geliebte provides not only a reference to the world Schumann is running parallel to, but to one beyond it.



Works Cited

  1. Roesner, Linda. (title unknown). 19th Century Music 14 (1991), 274.
  2. Rosen, Charles. The Romantic Generation. Harvard University Press, 1998.