The title of this very famous piece refers to something special, magical. It is something that you may experience not during sleep, but when you are awake, like an apparition, a vision.
Even the choice of the key of F major is certainly not accidental. Mozart used this key very often in situations where he wanted to create a particular atmosphere, for example the second movement of the K 330 piano Sonata.
The atmosphere in this very Schumannian piece is not so different. Its magic is given by the creation of a place that is not illusory, but certainly far from the concreteness of reality.
A magic that is also given by the use of resonances. At the beginning it simply presents the F major chord which, being subsequent to the bass, does nothing but emphasize the resonances of the low F.
The arrangement of this chord is significant as Schumann asks to cross the thumbs; this means not to play the chord normally with the two hands separated, but to cross them over. In my opinion, this refers to a timbre concept that seeks not so much clarity in this chord but, on the contrary, the fusion of the various voices. As if the chord were just a resonance of the bass.
In this way the melody stands out, free to unravel in an ascending arpeggio which, however, actually remains suspended. It is not an arpeggio that affirms a direction, so it would be improper to give too much an affirmative tone to the expression of this melody. If it were played too deeply we would naturally have a beautiful melody and a beautiful romantic piece, but we will relinquish that atmosphere of suspended enchantment that instead characterizes this masterpiece. Perhaps the best way to interpret it is to let the music out without forcing, without doing anything wanted, but, on the contrary, listening and being enchanted by the resonances that are created.
Even the second ascent of the melody, very different from the first, must remain in this climate of suspension, and the same modulation in the key of D minor must not be dramatically charged and performed with excessive emphasis in order not to break the enchanted magic.
In the subsequent second part, harmony is instead developed from time to time in a different way, in order to arrive at different worlds. The use of dissonances takes us out of the initial enchantment and brings us into an atmosphere of greater suffering in the key of G minor. Polyphony in Schumann is always particularly interesting and also refined: here each voice picks up the baton from the other voice, continuing its line and thus reaffirming the new tonality.
At bar No. 13 another magic happens: the passage from the key of G minor to that of B flat major is without preparation, sudden. It is a sort of sudden mismatch: what happens does not belong to the world of reality, of human logic.
At the ricapitulation, at bar No. 17, the expression of the opening phrase will certainly be different, not as bright as at the beginning, but it will be felt as a sort of afterthought, of something that emerges from our consciousness.
Immediately after, at bar No. 22, we find the most intense moment of the piece. The intensity of the chord is entirely internal, of an unearthly fragility, and playing it with too much emphasis would break this spell again. The corona sign indicated on the chord allows us to stay and savor these very special resonances, and then softly come out of them.
This music must be performed with an open mind, and an open heart, ready to discover and be surprised, free to express and to listen.
Photo: Schumann Kinderszenen, First edition, Breitkopf und Härtel, 1839