The Path towards Imaginary Listenings of Schumann and Contemporary Piano Cycles

XinRu Chen

From many perspectives, Schumann’s piano cycles could be regarded as an independent musical genre possessing specific characteristics. These characteristics – the flexibility of the cyclic forms, the historical background, the literary analogies – also suggest possibilities for these cycles to collaborate with other types of music in an innovative context.

This project reprograms four Schumann piano cycles – Carnaval, Fantasiestücke, Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana – by combining them with piano cycles composed by four different composers from the last 111 years – Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Jörg Widmann, and Geoff King. By recognizing Schoenberg as a bridge between Schumann and the more recent cycles, I explores the essence of cycles as a genre, aiming to create new and unexpected listening experiences (what I call ‘imaginary listenings’) for the audience. By exploring Schumann and his digressional methods from a performer’s point of view, the artistic collisions generated by the contrasting expressions between Schumann and these more contemporary piano cycles can allow performers to transform themselves from deliverers to creators, exploring aesthetic integrity in a profound way.

As a pianist, the process of finding the path towards these imaginary listenings reshapes my performances, helping me to discover the musical logic and expressive sensations with much clearer understanding. The two recitals I performed in October 2020 were the initial experiments in generating the practical outcome for my research; they formed my first attempt at establishing a creative approach to manipulating the extreme collisions inherent in combining two contrasting cycles.

During the collaborative work with composer Geoff King, I begin to interpret Schumann’s cycles from a more subjective perspective, regarding myself more as a writer rather than a narrator. The relationship between these two roles is pivotal, encouraging me to shift out of the performer’s mind and reflect on my programming arrangements and performance in a coherent way.

In January 2021, Piotr Anderszewki released a piano album, consisting of 12 selected Bach preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, about which he states, “The idea of playing these works in this specific order is to create a sense of drama suggestive of a cycle: 12 characters conversing, mirroring each other.” With more performers exploring the significance of this kind of ‘reprogramming’, I hope this project can establish at least one model for performers to break the restrictions of conventional listening expectations, and, by utilizing the reprogramming approach, to speak with their own expressive voices.

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XinRu Chen

Roderick Chadwick