The mid-19th century was the heyday of the German brand of fairy-tale, known as Märchen. Robert Schumann was a great fan of these tales and often read them for his own enjoyment and to his children. They also inspired his creativity, as he often drew on literary inspiration for his music, even though he never wrote anything that could be defined as actual programme music. Conversely, German authors often saw a connection between fairy tales and music. Ludwig Tieck, for instance, declared that a Märchen must have a “subtly progressive tone, a certain innocence of expression that hypnotises the soul like a quiet musical improvisation, without noise or fuss”.
In his late period, Schumann wrote two works with the word Märchen in the title: Märchenbilder [Fairy-tale Images] for viola and piano (1851) and Märchenerzählungen [Storytelling] for clarinet, viola and piano (1853). Both have four movements, but they do not have descriptive titles, only tempo markings. The pieces are thus not associated with any specific fairy tales, and indeed Schumann’s idea was to create musical tales that operate more on the level of emotional states familiar from fairy-tales rather than as actual narratives. In their conception, these works are akin to the many other small-scale instrumental works of Schumann’s late period.
In Märchenbilder, Schumann makes effective use of the deeper, darker and warmer sound of the viola compared to the violin. The movements of the work may be seen to reflect the two self-declared aspects of Schumann’s artistic personality: the dreaming Eusebius is present in the melodic flanking movements, while the dynamic Florestan makes an appearance in the two faster and more rhythmic middle movements. The melodies here remind us that Schumann was also one of the great masters of German Lieder. The melodic vein is particularly strongly present in the final movement (‘Langsam, mit melancholischen Ausdruck’), lending a warm, comforting and balanced tone to the melancholic expression desired by the composer.