A Majestic Trill from Schumann

Take a look at that bass trill in measure 6 of the Sempre marcatissimo movement of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, op.13:


This movement is confusingly subtitled “Etude VIII (Variation VII).”

This trill seems rather benign on the page. Schumann draws no special attention to it among the several other trills in the surrounding measures. In fact, the hairpin decrescendo just above the trill would seem to relegate it more to the background. And this trill is usually treated rather benignly in performance as well, even by the greatest of the greats like Géza Anda, Alfred Brendel, Alfred Cortot, Evgeny Kissin, Ivo Pogorelich, Maurizio Pollini, Sviatoslav Richter, Arthur Rubinstein, András Schiff, Rudolf Serkin, and Daniil Trifonov. (Links to audio excerpts.)

None of these obedient interpretations of this trill captivate me. (BTW, not one of these performances is obedient to Schumann’s brisk tempo marking. Rubinstein comes closest but is still a good clip slower.) But thankfully there is another interpretation, one that is less obedient to Schumann’s score. And it’s majestic and spellbinding. (It’s very likely that I overstate things here, but I often get caught up in details like this to the point where their effect seems to grow beyond reasonable proportion. You probably know what I mean.)

In order to get the full effect of this trill execution, you must listen from the beginning of the etude since Schumann sets it up so beautifully by the diatonicism of measures 1-4, by the replacement of the bass’s B# (Ti) downbeat in m.3 with B-natural (Te) in m.6, and even more so by the replacement of the soprano’s D# (Re) at the beginning of m.2 with the D-natural (Ra) trill in m.6 (which the bass imitates), thus preparing the tonicization of the submediant (VI) that is fully achieved by the bass trill and resolution. (By the way, that m.6 D-natural is just a perfect note, isn’t it?!)

And now listen to Mikhail Pletnev’s wonderful and disobedient performance. (The final portion of the score is below.) AUDIO


If you want to hear just the trill again, click here.

While we’re at it, listen to Pletnev’s performance of Etude XI/Variation IX. I can’t imagine a more perfect performance.

That tonicization of the Neapolitan! That climax! And the way in which he pulls back dynamically at that “arrival IV” (2:17 mark)!  (From what I can tell, he combines the two versions of this etude. He plays the two-bar introduction that appears only in the first version but takes the repeat that only appears in the second, which is shown below.)





About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae. http://www.lukedahn.net.
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2 Responses to A Majestic Trill from Schumann

  1. Keith Heimann says:

    What a fascinating discussion, Luke!

    A great trill is always a thrilling effect. But, when I was a kid I heard Joan Sutherland live. She was a bit past her prime at the time, but what I remember most clearly was the execution of the trills. I remember clearly hearing the difference between m2 trills and M2 trills, sometimes in rapid succession.

    Thanks for another super-interesting article.

    • Luke Dahn says:

      Thanks, Keith! Another friend of mine was telling me about a trill from the Art of the Fugue performed by the Keller String Quartet that captivated him. I suppose everyone has a favorite captivating trill. And now I’m going to want to listen to Joan Sutherland videos all day!

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