I feel I must add a few words about the origin of the Papillons, for the thread that is meant to bind them together is scarcely visible. You will remember the final scene of Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre: fancy dress ball – Walt – Vult – masks – Vina – Vult’s dancing – exchange of masks – confessions – rage – revelations – hurry away – concluding scene, then the departing brother. Again and again I turned over the last page, for the end seemed to me but a new beginning. . . . Almost without knowing, I found myself sitting at the piano, and one Papillon after another came into being. (Schumann, Letter to Ludwig Rellstab, 1831)
Schumann, the literary composer.
Why do I feel that, even before really coming to look closely at this work, that I feel he is the more literary, poetic (in the written, literary sense) between Chopin and Schumann. I know I called Chopin the ‘poet of the piano’ in an earlier article, but it’s a different kind of poetry.
Not being terribly familiar with Schumann’s piano works, my initial impression of Schumann (in context of or comparison with Chopin) is that he’s much more about the musical poem, character pieces, suites, while Chopin cast his music in (mostly) traditional forms, like his sets of etudes and preludes, sonatas, and things. When I think of Schumann’s most enduring piano works (or the ones that just come to mind first), I think of Carnaval, Kreisleriana, Davidsbunldertanze, Waldszenen, and the rest. These strike me as literary collections, works of music that describe stories, scenes, imagery, inspirations from works of fiction, and Papillons is the first of these in Schumann’s oeuvre.
The piece was written between 1829 and 1831, the year it was published. It’s widely known that his inspiration for the piece was the last chapter of Jean Paul novel Flegeljahre (translated by many as The Awkward Age, but by one source as The Age of Indiscretion). I haven’t read the book but it’s something about brothers (twins?) making an attempt at wooing the same girl, and there’s a carnival in this final chapter. He dedicated the work to his sisters-in-law and the above-linked website quotes a letter the composer wrote to the dedicatees as saying:
Please read the closing scene of Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre as soon as you can. Papillons is actually a setting of this carnival to music. Does it not faithfully reflect something of Vina’s angelic love, of Walt’s poetic temperament and of Vult’s sharp, brilliant nature?
Apparently these two brothers mentioned in the above quote confront each other about their love for the same woman. The ideas of Doppelgängers and opposite personalities or whatever was an attractive one to Schumann; as discussed in an earlier Chopin article, he’d even fabricated some characters of his own to use as voices in his music critiques. Perhaps this was part of the draw for him, but in any case, what we have in the piece is an introduction followed by twelve almost entirely independent sections, except that nine of the sections are waltzes, and two are polonaises. The thirteenth and last section is simply marked finale and is in D major, the key of the introduction.
This seems not a thing Chopin would do, take unrelated pieces and string them together like this as a set, but then again, he did publish a large number of waltzes, polonaises, and mazurkas (oh, the mazurkas!). The distinct difference here, I feel, is that Schumann intended these to work
together as parts of a whole, like flipping through an emotional photo album or something, with the completed whole being more than the sum of its parts.
In fact, each of the twelve sections had its own title for a time, but they were removed before publication, as it seems Schumann wasn’t keen on revealing his inspiration for the piece. I wonder why. Perhaps that dispels the magic or makes it seem… trite or plagiarized, but then again, it could be a very nice aid in understanding and getting a feel for the piece (although one could argue if it were a successful piece, your listener wouldn’t need any help understanding it).
The introduction is a confident, clean, promising thing of only six bars and is really just an introduction, not even a complete idea, and then we jump into the first waltz.
No. 1: It’s very short, and quite simple, but sets the mood for our collection of ‘butterflies’ as a sweet, friendly piece, with A and B sections of eight bars each, repeated once (AABB).
No. 2: Marked Prestissimo, and full of busy sixteenth notes all over the piano. The contrast is already obvious. It’s cute, but dramatic.
No. 3: Probably one of my favorites. It feels like it’s going to jump into the Dies Irae at some point, and the word catacombs come to mind, something out of Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. A bit dark, yes, but powerful and beautiful. It’s not until the B section that the right hand echoes the bass line, and the piece ends quietly
No. 4: In 3/8 and marked presto. It’s a lilty, delightful thing, perhaps with a tiny inkling of the darkness of the previous section leftover, since they’re both in F# minor. This is also a terribly delightful work, with a very brief middle passage of only a few bars to contrast with the main theme.
No. 5: The first polonaise of the work, in E flat major, and seemingly one of the only sections without repeats. The first eight bars would fool you into believing its quiet and dainty but it a few louder moments just briefly.
No. 6: But it’s nothing like number six, a waltz in D minor with accents on the third beat of the bar (mazurka? no). This is another good example of something that seems…. so simple, so straightforward, but is so charming. It really has spirit.
No. 7: Waltz in F minor. Is there such a thing as a funeral waltz? This would be a good candidate, I feel. It opens quite melancholy, but finishes lyrically and sweetly.
No. 8: Waltz (again) in C# minor. Reminds me a bit of no.s 3 and 4, but it’s not all dark. There’s some humor and unexpected lightness in this section.
No. 9: Waltz in B flat major. I have no idea how anyone would waltz (or anything) to this piece. It’s trinkly and sparse at the beginning, and even when we settle down into eighth notes, it’s still prestissimo. Again, deceptively simple.
No. 10: C major! Another waltz. This section feels triumphant, regal, bright, and powerful. Big thick chords here add to (or cause) that feeling. The bass is busy later in this possibly longest section, marked vivo. It itself has some contrasting ideas and parts delineated with fermatas and rests and repeats.
No. 11: Our second polonaise, in D, the key we opened the entire work with. It’s perhaps the most lively, carefree and fun, also quite humorous at times. It, too, is quite long.
No. 12: Our final section remains in D major to round out the piece. It opens so simply and beautifully. It’s instantly something I would love to learn to play, because it seems like even I could make these sounds on the piano and it is really beautiful. Interestingly, Schumann builds in a very effective sostenuto at a time when the pedal wasn’t used much. The chords that call out with less and less volume lose notes at each new bar, until a big giant but delicately quiet A major chord finishes the piece, losing a tone with each repetition, until it’s just a single A, and we hear the ticking of a clock that marks the end of the evening and the piece.
As made note of (and eloquently explained) in this article from AllMusic, the 26-bar pedal point of a low D is an ingenious idea for the time, and (while I don’t see it, I’m told) the opening theme from the introduction returns to round out the piece before the clock strikes. This is an inventive, literary, even almost impressionist way to round out our collection of butterflies in this piece.
Back to the ‘literary’ idea, if you really want a more in-depth discussion of symbolism, themes, and concepts in this piece in the context of Schumann’s inspiration, Flegeljahre, you should read an article I found by Rachel Frantsen. I am beyond content enough to enjoy the music as it is, but as it seems will become a theme with Schumann’s music, it is not absolute music. He has his secret inspirations, codes, and agendas, and I’m sure an analysis of them and how he uses them in program works like this would be very fulfilling. Her article discusses the book briefly, with the suggestion that anyone preparing to perform the piece should “attempt to recreate the ideas that created the work. As Schumann was inspired by literature, so must the performer then grasp the nature of that literature in order to fully understand the music.” She also says that “the performer must become a scholar in order to unearth Schumann’s imagined connections and gain the deeper understanding he or she needs in order to truly connect with Papillons and the heart of its composer.” I won’t necessarily disagree with that, as I’m sure it’s an enlightening task, but I would be unlikely to add it to my list of homework assignments.
So that’s what we have. It’s about twice as long as Abegg, but each of the individual sections is quite short, and while each individual section is perfectly charming on its own, the sections all parts of one general overall sentiment, made up of love, conflict, drama, tension and charm. Granted, I’d be lots more familiar with the symbolism and the represented ideas behind the piece if I’d read the book or done more research, I also feel that the idea is perhaps almost a universal one, a Romantic concept if there ever was one. Much mention has been made of how this piece prefigures or was a trial run of sorts for Schumann’s op. 9 Carnaval. Unfortunately we won’t get to that piece this time around, but it might be good to put some distance between these program-ish pieces.
Tomorrow will be something a little bit different, but it works quite well into the scheme of our Short Schumann Series before we move on, very quickly, to our last personage for this month-long marathon of music. I’ll need a break.