It amazes that a music composition from 1839, which I learned to play thirty years ago, has such a powerful influence over me today. Arabeske Op. 18 by Robert Schumann was my absolute favorite college recital piece. I’ve always found Schumann’s ability to beautifully weave a melodic theme throughout a piece captivating. He presents the theme, expands it to represent a variety of emotions, and finally restates in a peaceful resolution. This particular composition clearly follows that structure.
My second favorite Schumann composition is Frauen-Liebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life.) A song cycle based on a series of poems, each song represents a different phase of the love relationship from first meeting to wedding and finally ending in death. This lovely depiction of life also follows the structure of beginning and ending with a recognizable theme. In the final song, the piano provides a beautiful postlude, giving the listener a reminder of the true love represented by the recurring melodic theme.
My memories of playing these two pieces are crystal clear, relating to specific events in my life.
Picture a young, twenty-one-year-old college student, senior year. The two years previous marked by a difficult, controlling relationship. An unwise decision to marry this person had ended in divorce after a year and a half. Now I was attempting to get my life back on track, finish college, and figure out what was next. Many evenings were spent in a tiny practice room. And often when I practiced Schumann’s Arabeske, the tears would flow uncontrollably.
Fast forward nine years-happily married with three young children. Looking for a job, preferably in the music field. Directed by a previous employer, I applied for a staff accompanist opening at the Univerisity of Tulsa. The interview process involved playing a prepared piece and sight reading. I chose to play the Schumann Frauen-Liebe und Leben since it related to the position, and because it had been one of my favorite recital pieces from graduate school. There I sat, all alone on that stage, desperately wanting this job. I played the Schumann with clarity and emotion, sight read confidently and got the position.
So what directed my thoughts to these pieces on this day? Today was exhausting. It was the third full day of a brand new school year. Following a full day of teaching elementary music with the grand finale of car duty, I trudged back to my classroom. Walking in, I immediately noticed the music sitting on the piano in the corner-Arabeske. It was like an old friend calling me to the bench.
The simple act of playing the piano always calms my brain. I’ve experienced this truth many times, so why don’t I take the time to do it more often? I’m not sure-but today I had no choice. Sitting down at the piano, I began to play this old familiar piece. Reaching the last page, playing that final melodic theme, listening to it fade away…I let out a big sigh of relief. Still tired, but now relaxed and much calmer, preparing my thoughts for the next day didn’t feel so overwhelming.
Will I do this every day? Probably not. But hopefully, more often than I have in recent days. Playing the piano has an undeniable positive influence on my state of mind, and days like today the music sounds like the voice of an old friend…