In 1845, Robert Schumann emerged from a lengthy illness and depression with a new, fervent interest in canons and fugues. He resumed his creative work by embarking on a study of these technical, contrapuntal forms. Robert and his wife, Clara (also a pianist and composer), wrote exercises back and forth, and some of Robert’s became published pieces. He wrote the Six Canonic Studies for pedal piano, an experimental model with a bass pedalboard like an organ.
A musical canon is created by having two or more voices sing the same melody with staggered entrances, creating harmonies from the overlaps. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is the classic example from childhood.
Schumann’s first study, Nicht zu schnell (Not too fast), has two voices, staggered at the half-measure and an octave apart, with a separate bassline below. The second canon, Mit innigem Ausdruck (With tender expression), also has two voices, staggered by a full measure, and this time in the same octave, creating an especially gossamer texture. This study is filled out with pulsing harmonies and is built above another bassline.
The Andantino is a bit different—it is bookended by a brief, non-canonic introduction and coda. In between, the canonic voices are separated by the interval of a fifth, creating more complex interrelations. Each line also contains little gaps, so they interlock more than they overlap. The final Adagio actually has three different canons, the middle one resembling a four-voice fugue.
With the pedal piano obsolete, Claude Debussy later transcribed Schumann’s studies for two standard pianos. Canons, above all, are musicians’ music, and Debussy must have taken pleasure in dissecting Schumann’s workmanship while making the transcriptions. But it is not all academic: the cool logic of these pieces also gives them a beautiful, mesmerizing inevitability.
Program notes for the complete Studies in Canonic Form available upon request.