The scherzo movement from Schumann’s Piano Trio in d minor is a textbook example of pieces where I want a do-over. From the opening, it seems somehow ahead of me, like perhaps it was already going before I started listening and now the volume has come into human range. I hear the opening chords and, as is our luxury in this day and age, reach out to reverse the track to its starting point again. That is cheating, by the way. The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia will be performing the piece at a free concert at the public library this Saturday afternoon and you can rest assured that I will not stand up and wave my hands at the fifteen-second mark to plead, “wait! Start over!” (I hope.)

The first time I heard it, I noticed what I described then as an absence of content (after the opening chords). I think I was expecting an identifiable melody, dashing and romantic. It took me a few times through (with cheating) to articulate what it brought to mind. It is not this but it is like this:

Am I crazy? Is there any way in which it sounds like the performers might riding out of 19th-century Germany and into a Western movie through a hole in the space/time continuum?  We get some swirling supporting lines closer to the ends of the phrases, which round them out and make them sweeter, but they seem to wrap around the “absence” without filling it in. And then (I AM SO SORRY), we’re right back in the saddle again.

The nice thing about repeats is that it gives the audience an opportunity to place the initial outlay of events in context. Yes! A do-over! I know what to expect but still can’t settle in somehow. Each anticipated point of arrival pivots as another of departure. Its constant forward motion is both exhilarating and exhausting — and a sign of good writing.

The contrasting section at 2:05 offsets the bookend sections of racing around and they throw each other into relief nicely. As I listen, I imagine someone finger-painting and swirling both hands all over the paper, which is relaxing. And restful. Again, however, I sense an absence of something: by the conclusion of the finger-painting session and its repeat, the music has gone around and around but not taken me anywhere. A recurrence of something wrapped around something absent, like a cardigan on an empty hanger or (gasp) an empty cannoli. Before I’ve had much of a chance to wonder about it, the trajectory of the beginning section re-emerges and there’s no looking back.

In no way do I mean to suggest that the scherzo lacks musical value. On the contrary, I am amazed that a piece without a few elements that I thought were indispensable would still sum up. With more time, I may find more of an explanation. But for now, I will just go on Saturday and listen.

What do you hear?


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