About this Recording
8.573399 - SCHUMANN, R.: Carnaval / Davidsbündlertänze / Papillons (Giltburg)

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Davidsbündlertänze • Papillons • Carnaval


“The whole is completely devoid of artistic value; only the many diverse states of the soul seemed of interest to me.”

Thus Schumann in a letter to Ignaz Moscheles, writing about Carnaval, Op. 9. If we disregard Schumann’s harsh self-assessment for a moment, the second part of that phrase resonates with the entirety of Schumann’s output. Schumann was a great explorer of the soul and the heart, and his works are like the distilled essence of our own emotions, presented with utter strength and conviction, and covering a broad spectrum—while always remaining poetic, full-blooded, and life-affirming. For me it is in the small musical scenes that Schumann is at his best, his imagination unburdened by the requirements of large-scale structures, and the shorter duration of each number allowing an abundant amount of musical material to be presented.

The three works on this recording are collections of such short pieces, strung together and forming a cohesive whole—a form which Schumann himself invented, developed and brought to perfection.

Several love stories lie behind these three works. The earliest one, Papillons, Op. 2, can be seen as a manifestation of Schumann’s twin loves for music and literature, loves in which he was encouraged early in life by his father, but then discouraged by his mother and guardian after his father’s death. Written between 1829–1831, at a time when he was still studying law in Leipzig but was already on the verge of abandoning it in favour of pursuing a career in the arts, they marked a crucial point in his artistic development; after their publication Schumann wrote to his mother: “from now on my life will become different; I stand on my own.”

The inspiration came, according to Schumann, from the final scene of Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre—a favourite novel by Schumann’s great literary idol. The story, very briefly: two brothers, Walt and Vult are in love with the same girl, Wina. In the final scene a masked ball takes place, in which Vult, having lulled his brother to sleep, takes on his disguise, woos Wina and obtains her consent to marry him, only to realise that her consent was actually intended for Walt—upon which he leaves the town. And then, “almost unknowingly”, wrote Schumann, “I was at the piano, and thus emerged one Papillon after the other”.

Musically, Papillons is a work of a youthful, unfettered imagination—despite the division into short numbers, the work feels like one continuous flight of fancy, varied and full of invention. Those 15 minutes are filled to overflowing with musical ideas, and both between the numbers and inside them Schumann revels in abrupt changes of mood and scenery (indeed so abrupt that he himself noted, with a kind of rueful understanding, that early listeners were bewildered rather than entertained by them). The lyrical, the elegant, the rustic, the furious, the sensual and the joyful replace one another in an almost dizzying swirl—but what enjoyment to discover during the performance each unexpected turn, each satisfyingly surprising shift of colour and character.

The piano writing is imaginative and varied. Of particular note is the last number: after beginning with a quotation of the Großvater, an old-fashioned dance that was traditionally played and danced at the end of wedding celebrations (so one may wonder if Schumann, in his mind, had not perhaps altered the ending of Jean Paul’s story), it gradually shifts into a reprise of the opening waltz of Papillons (at 0:35). The two dance together (at 0:44–0:58)—Papillons waltz in the right hand, Großvater in the left hand. And then, effortlessly, Schumann constructs a marvellous piece of multi-layered writing: above a seemingly endless bass note (from 1:05 on—it is to be held for 26 [!] bars), the Großvater continues its stately revolutions in the tenor, while the Papillons waltz goes on in the alto, its theme becoming shorter and shorter with each repetition: Schumann subtracts the last note each time, literally de-composing the melody until it disappears (from 1:17 on). At the same time—as if the other three components were not enough—six high A’s appear in the treble line, as distant chimes (at 1:22–1:34; a note in a posthumous edition said of this place: “The noises of the Carnaval night die away. The tower clock strikes six.”). It is utterly brilliant. A short coda is yet to follow, finishing with a broken chord, which is to be lifted as it was struck: note by note, starting from the bottom, until just one note remains (at 1:58–2:07)—an ingenious sound effect and a wonderful end to the work.

Carnaval, Op. 9, subtitled Little scenes on four notes, has its origins in a more concrete love story. The letters of those four notes formed the name of the town where Ernestine von Fricken, Schumann’s then (1834–1835) fiancée, was born—Asch in Bohemia (today Aš in the Czech Republic). In a letter to her he told of his discovery that Asch was “a very musical name of a town”. Its letters could represent several combinations of notes:

A—E-flat—C—B (in German letter notation: A-S-C-H)
A-flat—C—B (As-C-H)
E-flat—C—B—A (S-C-H-A)

Moreover, those four letters also appeared in Schumann’s own family name, and were, as he observed, the only musical letters in it at all. And so, being “in the white heat of composition”, he created a long series of pieces which were all based on or contained one of the three musical motifs above. He discarded a few, arranged the rest in order, and appended a grand opening (Préambule) and a grand closing scene (Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins).

Carnaval, like Papillons, is a masked ball, but this time Schumann wasn’t following a literary source and had the liberty to choose the characters and scenes himself. Several characters of the Commedia dell’arte (traditional masked theatre) are there—the clumsy, gentle Pierrot, the boisterously bouncing Arlequin, the ferociously squabbling Pantalon and Colombine (they make up rather sweetly in the end). Characters from real life also appear: Schumann’s future wife Clara Wieck (‘Chiarina’), and Ernestine herself (‘Estrella’); Chopin and Paganini, who bursts in, interrupting a light-footed, elegant Valse allemande. (The transition back to the waltz is perhaps the most imaginative bit of piano writing on the recording: after four loud chords mark the end of the virtuoso’s performance, a fifth chord, higher up and in a major key, is to be played mutely, i.e. with the keys pressed slowly, so that the hammers don’t hit the strings; the pedal is to be lifted, and then, as if by magic, the pressed notes begin to resonate, a gentle shimmer far away; it’s a beautiful effect, perhaps more suited to the intimacy of a musical salon—or to modern recording technology—than to large concert halls.)

Schumann is there too, in the twin guises of the dreamy, introspective Eusebius and the fiery, passionate Florestan. Those two fictitious characters, representing the two conflicting parts of Schumann’s artistic ego, first appeared in the musical journal Schumann founded (Neue Zeitschrift für Musik). Together with several others they formed a league (the Davidsbund), which had the purpose of fighting the ‘Filisters’—the old-fashioned, learned musicians, academic and dry and opposed to everything new and fresh in contemporary music. The final number of Carnaval is a march of the entire League against those Filisters (who are represented in the music by the Großvater dance—the one we encountered in the last number of Papillons) and the entire scene is a marvellously staged battle and chase, ending with a complete triumph of the League.

Carnaval is theatrical to the utmost degree; even the opening is marked quasi maestoso—‘seemingly majestical’—as if the music did not take itself overly seriously. It might seem a grand opening, with pomp and ceremony, but there is a twinkle in its eye, and one can almost sense how impatiently it waits for the staged pomposity to end and for the joyful chaos of the second part of the Préambule to ensue. Though the numbers have generally grown longer, the shifts in mood are nearly as plentiful as in Papillons; one feels, however, that Schumann has become more mature: there are many moments of sincerity, of heartfelt feeling, of true, not theatrical, passion and tenderness. Musical posterity has fully disproved Schumann’s words about Carnaval’s lack of artistic value: a favourite piece of several generations of pianists, it is easily one of Schumann’s most popular works today and with good reason—it is a sparkling trove of treasures, a wonderful display both of piano technique and of emotion and musicality, and also a delight to perform.

Finally, Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, is closely related to the big love of Schumann’s life—Clara Wieck. Though he knew her from when she was a young girl (indeed it was hearing the nine-year-old Clara play a recital which had initially prompted him to consider abandoning his law studies), their love did not blossom until much later, and it was in 1837 that Clara accepted Schumann’s proposal of marriage. They became secretly engaged on August 15th, and Davidsbündlertänze was the immediate result: in his diary he wrote, “In August (20th—end) composition of the Davidsbündlertänze.” He began the work with a quotation of a mazurka by Clara (from her Soirées musicales, Op. 6), set it in the same key (G major) and even changed the opus number to match Clara’s. Later, in a letter to Clara, he said that the work was dedicated to her more than anything else he had composed, and confessed: “If I have ever been happy at the piano, it was when I was composing these.”

Clara, however, was somewhat reserved in her initial judgement, writing that the new pieces too often resembled Carnaval. Schumann strongly disagreed, writing back: “I feel they are completely different from Carnaval, bearing the same relation to that work as faces do to masks.” And therein, I believe, lies the key to this work: its lack of theatricality, its utter sincerity and truthfulness. Though less extrovert in nature than either Papillons or Carnaval, it transcends both in depth and lyricism, in tenderness and artless simplicity. Its passions, too, seem more mature—the passions of a man who has lived and experienced more.

Nowhere, I think, is Schumann’s phrase about his interest in the states of the soul more in touch with the music than here. The 18 numbers are like a series of soulscapes, encompassing shades and nuances from every corner of the emotional spectrum: from the jaunty (yet elegant) opening, through the soft, yearning melancholy of No. 2 (it is to be recalled in its entirety inside No. 17, as a sweet, distant memory, in one of the most inspired gestures in this work), the Puck-like spikiness of No. 3, the touchingly intimate soliloquy of No. 7 (Eusebius at his purest), the barely restrained passion of No. 10 and happy abandon of No. 13, the beautiful song without words which is No. 14, the good-natured, somewhat rough humour of No. 16, and finally to the graceful, half-dreamed waltz which closes the work under Schumann’s remark: “Really quite superfluously Eusebius said the following; but all the while much bliss spoke from his eyes.” And, for the performer, it can offer a transforming experience—musical material of such purity that it attaches itself to you as a second skin, lowering your emotional barriers and making you feel that you have lived through all that Schumann had written in notes.

Additional notes on Carnaval

Préambule – is Carnaval’s grand opening. Similar to an opera overture, it constructed from a medley of short sections, with Schumann covering a lot of ground in just two and a half minutes. The stately yet highly energetic chords of the very beginning (pseudo-seriousness!) are wonderfully contrasted with a section of slapstick comedy (0:52–1:13). Elegance, lightness and a bit of melancholy are in the sections that follow (1:15–1:38), after which the music begins to gain momentum (1:38–1:48), finally bursting into full show-offish virtuosity (1:48–2:01). A last transition of festive octaves over a long note in the bass (2:02–2:07) leads into the coda, which is pure chase music (it will feature prominently in the end of the work). Three fanfare-like chords sound, and the number ends in high spirits (and possibly slightly out of breath).

Pierrot – begins with a series of short, soft-spoken, somewhat questioning phrases, interrupted each time by a decisive loud snap. My initial thought was that these snaps were Pierrot falling over his feet, but that would be making him trip a few times too many, so during the recording sessions I devised another plan—one could envision him cautiously peeking around a corner, or from behind a column, only to have his long nose slapped by somebody (Arlequin most probably). «And he never learns?» Andrew, the producer, asked; but we then decided he had a trusting nature, and was a hopeless optimist inside. There is a beautiful moment when the soft phrases soar up (0:19)—his dream-world, I imagine; even the slaps become less snappy—and in the reprise (0:41) he renews his attempts with a growing eagerness (gradually finding courage within himself), and finally breaks out of his confinement, ending with what I believe is a contented sigh.

Arlequin – is much easier to define (and I think he is a simpler character too)—bouncing is the word: long jumps and short ones, high and low, all over the place, with a boundless reserve of energy. Two short moments of caution, or perhaps even hesitation (0:20 and 0:46), pass as quickly as they appear—nothing mars his mood or deters him for a long time—and he keeps jumping with redoubled energy till the very end, boisterously bouncing out of the frame in the last bars.

Valse noble – the title says it all. Beginning with a grand gesture, it continues with a delicate, intimate middle section (0:24; the left hand changes from a typical waltz accompaniment to a gently rocking line, and the right hand embarks on a series of soft rising intervals, the top ones (0:31, 0:44) marked molto teneramente—‘very tenderly’). A hesitant transition follows (0:50)—it questioningly restates the majestic opening phrase, as if coming out of a reverie. A repeat of that phrase in full splendour ends the waltz, with the last harmonies literally melting away.

Eusebius and Florestan – are the musical representations of the two conflicting (yet complementing) sides of Schumann’s artistic personality. Eusebius, the introspective, melancholy dreamer, and Florestan, passionate, fiery, full of life—this is how they are usually described. What I find fascinating, though, is that neither of them is as clear-cut as those descriptions might make them sound. In the middle of Eusebius there is a section of true ardour (0:53)—the sound suddenly opens up, and it is as if we glimpse into his heart, where a strong and pure flame burns. Florestan, meanwhile, turns out to be something of a dreamer himself, with lyrical passages twice interrupting his passionate outbursts (0:08, 0:20). And what does he dream of? Papillons… as those lyrical passages are a quotation from the opening waltz of that work (track 20, 0:10). Slightly surreal, and perhaps a little autobiographical—a quotation from a work that held a personal importance to Schumann (as he felt its publication marked a new stage in his artistic development) inside a number portraying his own musical self.

Coquette – once again, the title says it all. She seems to have a full arsenal of flirting aids at her disposal: pearly laughs, fleeting glances, batting of eyelashes and a few low sighs for good measure. The middle section even introduces a touch of sadness (0:45; sincere? calculating? it is open to interpretation, though I feel Schumann treats his characters affectionately and does not mock them).

Replique – is a direct continuation: a conversation of Coquette with one of her suitors. Her words are repeated faithfully (the two are in perfect accord, or rather he is in perfect accord with her), and though their talk begins jovially, the mood quickly becomes plaintive, and their duet even ends in a minor key; somewhat unexpectedly, if one thinks of the lightheartedness Coquette exhibited in the previous number. Despite what I said about Schumann treating his characters affectionately, I feel that the sadness here is perhaps not to be taken to heart. It reminds me a little bit of a scene in Bernstein’s Candide: the conversation between the Old Lady and Candide during a masked ball in Venice. The Old Lady pours out all her (invented) sorrows: “I’ve got troubles, as I’ve said: / Mother’s dying, Father’s dead. / All my uncles are in jail.” And Candide, taken in, replies: “It’s a very moving tale”…

Sphinxes – half-hidden between Coquette and Papillons is another number, consisting of three blocks of notes, written out in a single voice in the bass register. These are the selfsame three motifs which can be constructed from the letters comprising the name Asch (see sleeve notes), put in the score by Schumann as a solution to the puzzle which the subtitle of Carnaval poses (‘little scenes on four notes’). As it’s unclear whether Schumann meant for them to be played, the decision is tacitly left to the performer…

Papillons – has nothing to do with Op. 2! Light-fingered and light-footed (or light-winged?) they fleet about. (Such a short sentence to describe one of the most finger-breakingly challenging parts of Carnaval—but from a musical point of view, they are less complex than many of the surrounding numbers.)

A.S.C.H–S.C.H.A (‘dancing letters’) – a quick waltz, probably danced by guests in letter costumes. (Or, just as plausibly, a waltz danced by real letters in Schumann’s mind, born of his preoccupation with the four-letter motifs.) It is comprised of several short sections, each one of them repeated several times in a circle, creating the impression that this waltz could go on indefinitely. (One is almost tempted to make a fade-out effect at the end…)

Chiarina – a musical portrait of Schumann’s future wife, Clara Wieck; at that time a 15-year-old girl, and already a famous pianist. Schumann had been living in Wieck’s house for several years by then, even after a hand injury crushed his hopes for a career as a pianist, and had formed a friendship with Clara, though at that time no romantic feelings were involved.

Chopin – the entire number is to be played twice, and what a difference! The second time around the tempo is a little slower, the sound is hushed, agitation gives way to melancholy—for me it is a wonderful portrayal of one’s external vs. internal world. And the most Chopinesque moment of all—1:01–1:06.

Estrella – is Ernestina herself. If the music is an indication, her character was more than a match for Florestan—impulsive, passionate, abrupt even.

Reconnaisance – likely Schumann and Ernestina recognizing each other at the ball. The middle section (0:41) is a lovely duet between upper and lower voice, with both voices leading alternately (a much better balance than the one between Coquette and her suitor)—the two are reunited for a short while in 1:08 and 1:14. In the outer sections the melody is ingeniously doubled by the right hand thumb, which repeats every note of the upper voice multiple times, as if powered by a tiny engine.

Pantalon and Columbine – another two characters from the commedia dell’arte. They argue ferociously, then lovingly converse (0:13), argue again (0:26), attempt another conversation (0:31), then argue some more (0:45), and finally make up sweetly (1:01).

Valse allemande – much quicker than the Valse noble, and also more orderly. It is interrupted by Paganini, who bursts in with a virtuoso performance. Schumann achieves a brilliant effect by offsetting the two hands—the right hand is always one note behind the left, and is much lighter in tone and touch, making it sound as if the two were played by two different musicians. This would be a seemingly impossible feat on a violin—exactly what is needed to portray Paganini!

Aveu – according to Schumann, a confession of love (Schumann and Ernestine?). For me it is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt moments of the entire work.

Promenade – follows directly, ‘hand in hand with your lady, as we do at German balls’, according to Schumann. The opening theme is interrupted several times by slivers of another melody, played very quietly, as from afar (0:04, 0:16, etc). It is a complex number, one of the few in the entire work to feature a kind of internal development—the middle section (0:42) leads to a short reprise (1:02), and then to an impassioned burst of waltzing energy (01:12), followed by an imaginatively staged coda (1:24), with its gradual fading of sound, as if the pair were heading away from us and disappearing in the distance. Here the work might well have ended…

But no, a grand finale awaits. Pause is a note-by-note repeat of the penultimate section of the Préambule, and it leads directly into the Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins. Set in triple meter, it is undoubtedly a march nevertheless—strong, festive and confident. After the first statement of intent, a chase begins (1:05), slowly at first but constantly picking up speed. The Großvater dance appears twice (1:24–1:35, 2:25–2:35), footnoted in the text as 17th-century theme, a musical embodiment of the Philistins, those dry, academic, old-fashioned musicians, against whom Schumann was fighting. The chase gains tremendous momentum, incorporating various bits from the Préambule to lighten the rather serious mood (1:46–1:55, 2:44–2:53), and by its later stages, victory is assured. The coda (3:12 onwards, an expanded version of the coda of the Préambule: a fitting end to a thrilling chase) is a complete triumph, ending the work with enormous impetus.

Boris Giltburg

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