Jon Lee


Schumann Toccata, op. 7

Score Map

Source: Henle

Program Notes

After encountering Paganini’s technical wizardry in an April 1830 concert, Schumann was inspired to write a series of variations and études that followed the violinist’s brilliant style. Schumann completed the op. 7 Toccata, originally entitled Étude fantastique en double-sons, around the spring of 1830, then revised and published it four years later.

Schumann probably wrote the piece as an exercise to strengthen his own fingers. In his January 26, 1830, diary entry, Schumann talks for the first time about his “numb” third finger, which now is usually attributed to a condition called focal dystonia. For a while, he had worked maniacally at the keyboard to fix his ailment by practicing, among other things, the Toccata: “two hours of finger exercises—ten times the toccata—six times finger exercises—20 times the variations alone—and in the evening it just wouldn’t work…angry about it—really deeply”. Despite his efforts, he was ultimately forced to abandon his hopes of becoming a performing artist.

In contrast to the more monothematic first version, Schumann’s revision of the Toccata displays contrasting themes typical of the classical sonata form. More compact, the revised version of the piece eliminates much of the filler material that gave the earlier version its more étude-like character. With its rapidly alternating double-notes and motor rhythms, the Toccata concludes with a coda where the rhythmic surge forces the metric accent one sixteenth to the left of the downbeat.

Toccatas are generally known as technical and virtuosic pieces, and Schumann’s is no exception. Schumann himself claimed it as the “hardest piece ever written”. That said, Schumann’s study mate Anton Theodor Töpken reported Schumann played it “quite often and peculiarly, in a calm and moderate tempo”.1 That could reflect on Schumann’s own characterization of the piece, having written Töpken that his revision of the Étude was “less wild, more polite”. With all of the bombast, the piece ends in piano.

Schumann’s third finger

Peter Ostwald, the psychobiographist of Schumann2, argued against the popular hypothesis linking Schumann’s ailment with mercury treatments for syphilis. However, Ostwald’s own conjecture (in 1985) that this stiffness was a psychosomatic reaction to his guilt over excessive masturbation, also rests on slim evidence.

Regardless, Schumann’s condition cannot have been ameliorated by his use of the chiroplast, a contraption recommended by the virtuoso pianist Frédéric Kalkbrenner. To strengthen their fingers, players inserted them into this machine and pull them sharply toward the back of the hand. Despite Schumann’s continual use of the chiroplast, he recorded in his diary on May 1832, that his “third [fingers] seem[ed] really incorrigible,” and by June, they had become “completely stiff.”

Fearful that a licensed doctor might declare the paralysis incurable, Schumann consulted with a Professor Kühl, who them recommended a then popular but grotesque remedy. Here, the patient was to obtain the carcass of a freshly slaughtered animal and insert his hand into its entrails, thereby absorbing healing warmth from the repellant goop of blood, intestinal slime, and fecal matter. Schumann was also ordered to soak his hand for several hours daily in a warm brandy fluid and wrap it in an herbally medicated bandage during the evening.

Needless to say, the “animal baths” had little effect. In a letter to his mother Schumann confessed, “The cure is not the most charming, and I’m afraid that some of the animal nature will seep into my own, but otherwise it’s very invigorating.”3

Fun facts

Argerich was known to have used this as a warm-up piece for years4.

Other resources


Argerich (6:11)

Horowitz (6:26)

Cziffra (no repeat, 4:43)

Richter (6:35)

Pogorelich (6:48)

  1. Wolf-Dieter Seiffert (May 15, 2010). “Toccata op. 7”, Henle. 

  2. Peter Ostwald, Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius

  3. Daverio, John. Robert Schumann – Herald of a “New Poetic Age”

  4. Anne Midgette (December 2, 2016). “Martha Argerich is a legend of the classical music world. But she doesn’t act like one.”, Washington Post

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