Robert Schumann’s Opus 68, also known as the ‘Album for the Young’ is a collection of easy pieces for piano study. The German musician composed these pieces in 1848 for his daughters. For those who have been studying piano for at least a couple of years, playing some of these pieces can be very inspiring. Here, then, is a review of this valuable educational work, and some instructions on how to make the best use of it.
The character of the compositions: small sketches turned into music
Each of the 43 pieces composed by Robert Schumann has a title that helps us understand its character. Often these titles suggest small scenes or very concrete situations, which the composer then tries to set to music. Some titles are quite explicit, such as the Soldiers’ March, The Wild Horseman, The Poor Little Orphan Girl or The Hunter’s Song. In these cases, the rhythm or character of the composition is suited to express in music the scene or personage to whom the piece is dedicated.
Other pieces have more generic titles: Melody, Little Song, Little Piece, etc. These pieces are the easiest and also the most conventional, more similar to exercises that we can find in other didactic works. However, even in these less original pieces, Schumann manages to create music that is very beautiful and pleasant to play, while using only the most elementary piano technique.
The main difficulties: music reading, hand independence, hidden voices
Before tackling the pieces more specifically, a few considerations that apply to all the compositions of the Album for the Young Opus 68. The student approaching this collection will be tested mainly on two grounds: note reading and hand independence.
From a technical point of view, the pieces are not difficult. Both hands almost always play in a comfortable, closed position, there are no great jumps, octaves, scales in thirds or sixths. However, the reading of these pieces is not as easy as that of other collections for the second year of study, since Schumann often assigns the left hand a very active role.
If you are used to Beyer’s exercises op.101, for example, or Duvernoy’s op.176, you will find Schumann’s exercises more difficult to read for the first time. In these pieces, there is in fact no classical separation of roles, with the left playing the accompaniment and the right playing the main melody. Schumann often assigns the melody precisely to the left, or to both hands together or alternating.
To successfully tackle the study of Schumann’s Opus 69, it is therefore essential to practise one hand at a time. Some patience is required, but in reality the pieces are not difficult, also because they are very short and often have repetitions within them.
Schumann’s Album for the Young is a formidable study for improving music reading and hand independence. Approach it with a little patience and you will get great satisfaction! I will now analyse the pieces, grouping them according to difficulty.
Album for the Young op.68, a study of melody and rhythm
I have grouped the pieces from op. 68 according to difficulty. The simpler pieces are then divided into two groups, those that are mainly dedicated to legato and melody study, and those that present more staccato and rhythmically incisive themes. The simpler pieces in the collection are the most interesting from a didactic point of view, because they are also accessible to second-year students.
Simple pieces dedicated to melody and legato
No. 1, Melody. All written in treble clef, even the left hand part, the piece has some double notes and changes in fingering.
No. 3, Little Song. A study of legato, at times the right hand plays two lines simultaneously, melody and accompaniment. The whole piece is played with the hand very light and close to the keyboard.
No. 5, Little Piece. Another exercise on legato, to be performed with a very light and relaxed hand. Like exercise no. 1, the left hand plays in the centre of the keyboard and is written all in treble clef.
No. 11, Siciliana. Unusual for this collection, the right hand always plays the main melody, while the left completes the harmony.
Easy pieces, studying rhythm and staccato
No. 2, Soldiers’ March. The piece has a particular rhythmic figuration, a dotted quarter followed by a sixteenth. It is all performed using the weight of the hand.
No. 7, Hunter’s song. The two hands often play the same notes at octave intervals. The piece is a study of staccato and dynamics, switching several times from ff to p and vice versa.
No. 8, Wild Horseman. This is one of the best known pieces in the collection. Another staccato study, in the middle part of the piece it is the left hand that plays the melody, while the right hand plays accompanying chords. An excellent exercise in hand independence.
No. 10, The Merry Peasant. A very pretty piece, with the left hand playing the theme and the right hand accompanying with chords. In the middle part both hands play the main melody, but also some accompanying notes.
Pieces of intermediate difficulty
In all these pieces your left hand will work more independently than the right, playing several notes at once or performing the melody. These pieces are somewhat more difficult but still accessible to a second-year student, perhaps after he or she has studied some of the pieces in the first group.
No. 4, Choral. Although it is one of the earliest compositions in the collection, I have placed it among the pieces of intermediate difficulty. In fact, the piece has an almost organ-like character, with two voices in each hand. It is not easy to read and is even more difficult to play extremely legato, as was the author’s intention.
No. 6 , The Little Orhpan. In this piece, the hands often play two voices each, and the division of roles is not very simple: the left hand plays the bass and a harmony note, the right hand plays the main melody and a harmony note. The slow tempo of the composition gives us time to think, but it is not a very simple piece.
No. 9, Popular Song. In this piece, the melody often shifts from one hand to the other, so it will not be easy for a beginner to follow the melody and always have the right notes singing. In the exercise we also find fast arpeggios in the left hand.
No. 14, Little Study. One of the simplest pieces to read, since the hands take turns playing arpeggios. Inside the arpeggios, however, is a melodic line, which emerges by slightly accentuating the first note of each arpeggio.
No. 16, The First Loss. Were it not for a couple of passages towards the end, we could place this piece in the first group. The right hand always plays the main melody, while the left hand plays a second voice or a bass line. The ending is a bit more elaborate, on the whole this piece is one of the most beautiful and simple in the collection.
No. 18, The Reaper’s Song. The left hand plays a pedal, or doubles the melody of the right hand. It is a very quiet and pleasant piece, not too difficult to play also because of the limited number of alterations.
No. 35, Mignon. One of the most beautiful and refined pieces in Robert Schumann’s op.69, the melody emerges delicately within the arpeggio played by the right hand. The left hand has some tenth jumps, which is unusual in this collection. However, the slow tempo of the composition allows the far notes to be reached without excessive effort.
More advanced pieces, good exercises… but not for beginners
As you can see, I have placed eight pieces in the first group, among the easier pieces, and seven pieces in the second, of medium difficulty. All the other pieces are in my opinion too advanced for a second-year student. In these pieces, you often have to play chords that contain the melody within them, or the theme passes repeatedly from one hand to the other.
Some of the pieces are also difficult to read, both in terms of rhythm and polyphony, with three or four voices overlapping. These pieces are interesting but certainly not a suitable repertoire for a second or third-year student. They can be an excellent reading exercise for more advanced students, since they are, in fact, rather short pieces.
Conclusion: how to study Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young, op.68
If you are a second/third-year piano student, I recommend you try playing some pieces from Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young op.68. For studying rhythm, The Wild Horseman and The Merry Peasant are a lot of fun. To work on legato and melody, you can start with Melody and Little Piece, and then continue with A Little Study and Mignon, the latter two being my favourites.
As is often the case with the didactic works of the greatest masters, not all the pieces in the collection are as easy as Robert Schumann thought. The composer did not live long enough to develop the experience and patience necessary for a good music teacher, and after all, it is often the case that exceptionally talented musicians struggle to ‘get down’ to the level of their students.
Not infrequently, the best didactic works, in classical music as well as in jazz, are created by average musicians, who have had to study and toil a lot to learn and who therefore know how to empathise even with the most struggling students.
A classic example: Beyer’s Opus 101 is perhaps the most widely used book for the first study of the piano, and its author was a mid-level musician, certainly not comparable to Schumann.
Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young op. 68 is first and foremost a work of art, and only a few pieces can be included in the study programme of the second or third year. The remaining compositions, most of them, are suitable for more advanced students.
If you have questions on how to study Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young op.68, or would like to let me know your views on this collection of exercises, you can write a comment in the dedicated section at the bottom of the page. Thanks for reading, good luck with your studies!