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Miniaturism in Music: Chopin, Schumann, and Grieg

Updated on October 24, 2014
Score to Schumann's Traumerei
Score to Schumann's Traumerei | Source

The Piano Music of Chopin, Schumann, and Grieg

Miniaturism in Music: Chopin, Schumann, and Grieg - ah, the wonderful world of nomenclatures. How many of you, like myself, have been doing the same type of work for 20+ years and, yet, held countess of titles for performing the exact same task?... Well, to bring this term - as they say to “where the rubber meets the road”: popular music is probably the best example I can think of what “miniaturism” in music is, and yet, how many of you have heard this term applied to popular music before?. In literature, when someone composes a poem (inspirational) with little to no structure or form, it’s typically known as strophic; the term strophic is also used in music, especially in popular music, to denote a composition/song with little to no form/structure - inspirational - most likely the lyrics/poem used for this pop song are probably strophic in nature as well?...

In so called classical music, the term miniaturism has a slightly different connotation, though not by much. For starters, before Chopin, no one was ever a true miniaturist per se. In fact, classical music is typically very complex and rigid in structure and form (there’s probably nothing as complex and structured as a Bach Fugue), fashioned after literature, so large forms such as the ‘Sonata Allegro Form’ and ‘Large Rondo Form’ among other musical forms, were what most composers typically aimed for, leaving them with little time for smaller musical forms. Concertos, overtures (which was actually the symphony during Bach’s time) symphonies, mass and, even sonatas and chamber music all carry large form structures, so binary form was the exception rather than the rule for many composers before the 19th century. Additionally, most of Chopin’s Nocturnes contain musical form - ABA form (ternary form - a form borrowed from poetry), so they count as miniaturist compositions? ---Of course they do! Paul Simon held a degree in English, so you know the lyrics he wrote for his songs had some sort of form; I’m sure he wrote inspirational songs lacking in form from time to time, but his lyrics (poetry), much like Chopin’s music, are flawless and well constructed, even if they use a smaller form.

The first true miniaturist in music was Chopin. Many composers before him wrote short works for the piano, but Chopin was the first to virtually make a career out of it - posthumously that is. True, Chopin wrote piano sonatas, concertos, and rondos - all these are large form compositions, but his knack was in smaller musical forms; However, Chopin also expanded smaller forms into larger form compositions: Ballades and Scherzos were originally small and short works for the piano and he stretched the form and successfully turned them into larger works. So, Chopin not only exceeded in small musical forms, but he also turned smaller musical forms into larger ones. The first truly great miniaturist works were his piano preludes.

Prelude in A major, op. 28 no. 7
If you don’t know anything about music? Know this: this piece occupies 1 page of music- 17 musical bars to be exact - it is in short strophic form AAA - has little to no development, because, nothing changes throughout the piece. In contrast, Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor is one of the most complex, rigid and structured piano compositions ever written - close to 700 bars to be exact! And yet, Chopin says more poetically in this short piano prelude than Liszt does in his great piano masterpiece. This composition represents miniaturism and poetry like few musical pieces have before it or since.

Your father is a one of Germany’s most successful publishers and a capable novelist. You’re interested in becoming a writer and particularly in the works of Shakespeare, Goethe and Schiller. ...enters the university to study law and ends up with a doctorate in music...typical candidate for someone interested in larger and more complex musical forms - guess again: Schumann is one of the foremost miniaturists of all times, next only to Chopin. Schumann also unknowingly created a literary form known as the novelette ( a name he gave to one of his piano compositions) - longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella - in between the two, so to speak! Of the three composers mentioned in this article, Schumann was the only one who was somewhat interested in large form compositions: he wrote 4 symphonies, a piano concerto, and his famous Manfred Overture, a work which Nietzsche vociferously belittles in his final philosophical oeuvre: Ecce Homo. Regardless, Schumann is one of music’s greatest and most influential composers, few if any will argue his importance and influence as a groundbreaker, even if he was a below par orchestrator.

Traumerei - Kinderszenen op 15
Chopin was the musical poet of all times, few can argue that. However, few piano pieces embody the miniaturist concept like this brief piano piece of Schumann does. Just like the Chopin prelude previously aforementioned, this piece is in strophic form - AAA. Kinderszenen - Scenes of Childhood, are short piano pieces depicting just that - musical ideas of how thing were in one’s youth, hence the title’s namesake. Traumerei is No. 7 of the set - Traumerei is the German word for dream/dreaming.

Edvard Grieg
As a composer, Grieg can’t hold a candle to either Chopin nor Schumann; however, Grieg was a much more successful composer during his lifetime than both Chopin and Schumann could have ever hoped to be, not to mention a better orchestrator (e.g. Peer Gynt). All said, he was one of the great miniaturists of all times, not to mention Norway’s greatest composer of the 19th century. Additionally, Greig wrote more miniaturist piano works than both Chopin and Schumann. Grieg’s chief inspiration: Norway’s scenic landscape - there are few like it on earth. Subsequently, Grieg was a more rigid and structured composer than both Chopin and Schumann were - that is to say, he was less innovative and original.... (Trivia: Grieg was a distant relative of the great pianist Glenn Gould)

Six Lyric Pieces, op 52
Lyrical - is an understatement - this is one of Grieg's most beautiful piano compositions - the nocturne (The first piece in this recording) is melodious as can be.





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    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Mike, and thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

      Yes, as I was telling my friend Mhatter99, Bartok was a great composer who delved in miniaturism, although he was mostly large form all the way - he's one of the great ones in large forms, but he also wrote short piano compositions..."Bear Dance" comes to mind at the momment.

      Take care and thanks so much for visiting


    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 

      6 years ago from London

      Ji John,, really nice to see a pianist and classical music theorist in hubages :) I didn't know about miniaturism and I found it quite interesting & useful

      By the way I'm learning the piano the last 3 years and at the moment I'm studying Bartok's Mikrokosmos (i'm in the 3rd volume) and Hindenmith's "Elementary Training for Musicians" .. Soon I'm gonna start Scoenberg's "theory of Harmony" . I would appreciate a lot any advices from you :)

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Suzette, and always a pleasure hearing from you - thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      I think Chopin and Greig were probably not interested in literature, but Schumann was deeply affected by the works of Shakespeare and Goethe. Just food for thought: some important writers such as Nietzsche and James Joyce, started out as musicians; Joyce even made a living at it for a while before switching over to literature.

      Take care of yourself and enjoy the rest of the week


    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      Beautiful hub! I played these pieces on the piano when I was a child and taking piano lessons. It is interesting that these composers also wrote poetry and short novels as well as composing music. That part I didn't know about them. Thank you for an interesting and informative article! I enjoyed reading and listening to this!

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Mhatter99, and thanks for stopping by and commenting - it's always a pleasure hearing from you...

      ---Bartok, now there's is an example of someone who successfully wrote in both small/large forms....

      Take care and enjoy your week!


    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Very good. This took me back to high school and Mrs Gomez (my piano teacher). Though she was a "Chopin Freak" she labored us through Bartok. Maybe the piano books were cheaper.

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Chris, and always a pleasure hearing from you - thanks for stopping by.

      Like Billy, you're too kind and I thank you for it! You're pretty knowledgeable in classical music as it is. I'm glad you enjoyed my hub.

      Thanks and take care


    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Billy, and thanks so much for your very - extremely kind words!

      If can teach something new to an individual as well rounded as your, then I must be doing something right.

      Thank again and enjoy your Sunday


    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      As always John, you bring knowledge and insightful vision to writing on classical music. I really enjoyed that article. You help to fill the many gaps in my musical education.

      Thank you.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I count on you, John, for my cliff notes on all things classical. Great job of educating those of us who are not quite as refined as maybe we should be. :) Excellent hub!


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