The first edition in 1837 carried an annotation that the tune was “the composition of an amateur”: this referred to the origin of the theme, which had been sent to Schumann by Baron von Fricken, guardian of Ernestine von Fricken, the Estrella of his Carnaval Op. 9. The baron, an amateur musician, had used the melody in a Theme with Variations for flute. Schumann had been engaged to Ernestine in 1834, only to break abruptly with her the year after. An autobiographical element is thus interwoven in the genesis of the Études symphoniques (as in that of many other works of Schumann’s).
Of the sixteen variations Schumann composed on Fricken’s theme, only eleven were published by him. (An early version, completed between 1834 and January 1835, contained twelve movements). The final, twelfth, published étude was a variation on the theme from the Romance Du stolzes England freue dich (Proud England, rejoice!), from Heinrich Marschner‘s opera Der Templer und die Jüdin, which was based on Sir Walter Scott‘s Ivanhoe (as a tribute to Schumann’s English friend, William Sterndale Bennett). The earlier Fricken theme occasionally appears briefly during this étude. The work was first published in 1837 as XII Études Symphoniques. Only nine of the twelve études were specifically designated as variations. The sequence was as follows:
Theme – Andante
Etude I (Variation 1) – Un poco più vivo
Etude II (Variation 2) – Andante
Etude III – Vivace
Etude IV (Variation 3) – Allegro marcato
Etude V (Variation 4) – Scherzando
Etude VI (Variation 5) – Agitato
Etude VII (Variation 6) – Allegro molto
Etude VIII (Variation 7) – Sempre marcatissimo
Etude IX – Presto possibile
Etude X (Variation 8) – Allegro con energia
Etude XI (Variation 9) – Andante espressivo
Etude XII (Finale) – Allegro brillante (based on Marschner’s theme).
Other titles had been considered in September 1834: Variations pathétiques and Etuden im Orchestercharakter von Florestan und Eusebius. In this latter case the Études would have been signed by two imaginary figures in whom Schumann personified two essential, opposite and complementary aspects of his own personality and his own poetic world. ‘Florestan and Eusebius’ then signed the Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6; but only in the 1835 version of the Études symphoniques were the pieces divided so as to emphasize the alternation of more lyrical, melancholy and introvert pages (Eusebius) with those of a more excitable and dynamic nature (Florestan). In the 1837 version Florestan prevails.
Fifteen years later, in a second edition (Leipzig 1852), the 1837 title Études symphoniques became Études en forme de variations, two etudes (Nos. 3 and 9) that did not correspond to the new title (not being exactly variations) were eliminated, and some revisions were made in the piano writing.
The entire work was dedicated to Schumann’s English friend, the pianist and composer William Sterndale Bennett. Bennett played the piece frequently in England to great acclaim, but Schumann thought it was unsuitable for public performance and advised his wife Clara not to play it.