One of the most complex and individual geniuses of the early Romantic period was Robert Schumann. Schumann was born in 1810 and died at the young age of 46. He was fascinated by both music and literature as a child, and while today we remember him primarily as a composer, he was in his day perhaps better known as a music journalist. His articles and reviews - published in the new music journal called Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he edited - were extremely influential in the European musical world, helping to launch and support the careers of composers like Chopin and Brahms, among others.
Schumann was a gifted pianist but early plans for a career as a virtuoso had to be put aside when in 1831-32 he gradually lost the proper use of the middle finger of his right hand. The precise cause of this is not known for certain, but attempts at curing the problem were unsuccessful, to the point that by late 1832, Schumann wrote to his mother saying, “I deem it incurable.”
Schumann also suffered from some form of mental illness for most of his life, a condition which seems to have been exacerbated by the fact that he contracted syphilis. This clearly resulted in him having a unique view of the world and his place in it, and for him music was a way expressing what he felt. Schumann himself said, “I am affected by everything that goes on in the world...and then I long to express my feelings in music”.
Unlike most composers, who seem to play to the audience or make the grand statement, Schumann tends to draw us into his world. One writer has described him as “the most elusive composer of the Romantic period, his music is at turns fanciful, introspective, and bombastic. Daringly original, and frequently impractical, he captured, as no other did, the innocent spirit of early German Romantic literature.”
Schumann was a master of the miniature. While able to work on a large scale in his symphonies, concertos and chamber works, he seemed more natural as a composer on a small, intimate scale. His songs are among the treasures of western music, and in the realm of piano music Schumann’s voice seems to speak most naturally in his collections of small pieces such as Papillons, his opus 2, which was published in 1831. In this post I want to focus on one of Schumann’s finest such works, Carnaval, which was written a few years later, in 1834-35, and published in 1837.
Carnaval, like so much of Schumann’s more intimate music, grew out of his personal experiences. At the time of its composition the composer was involved in a fascinating - and complicated - emotional world. He was in his early 20s and living in Leipzig, studying piano with Friedrich Wieck. He was in love with and secretly engaged to another of Wieck’s pupils, Ernestine von Fricken. At the time, Wieck had a daughter who was a gifted piano prodigy. Her name was Clara and she was attracting more than just professional interest from Schumann, even though she was nine years younger than he. Carnaval was written under the spell of both these young women, one to whom he was engaged, and the other who would eventually become his wife.
In Carnaval we see a musical portrayal of something like a masked ball, with characters from real life and from Schumann’s imagination represented in a series of short piano pieces which dance before our eyes. Unifying what would in the hands of a lesser composer be just a series of disjointed pieces is a clever system whereby a special musical motif of four notes underpins the entire composition.
Ernsteine von Fricken came from the town of Asch (which is now in the extreme western part of the Czech Republic). In German, the town’s spelling is A-s-c-h, and in German musical terminology this is expressible in musical notes. A is the note A, whereas S is pronounced “Es” in German, and “Es” is the German way of saying E flat. C is of course C, while H in German musical terminology is the note we call B.
Thus from the home town of his fiancé, Schumann derived a four note motif: A, E flat, C and B. The composer alluded to this in the subtitle to Carnaval - Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes (Little scenes on four notes).
Interestingly, Schumann draws out two further motifs from this one. The four-note version of “A-Es-C-H” can also be expressed in three letters in German as “As-C-H”; that is: A flat, C and B.
To make the romantic connection with his fiancé even more complete, imagine Schumann’s delight when he discovered that by putting “A-Es-C-H” in a different order - “Es-C-H-A” - he could come up with a musical version of his own name. This was done by removing from the word “Schumann” all the letters which can’t be represented in German musical terminology, which means taking out the U, the M and both the Ns. This leaves: “S(Es)-C-H-A”, or in English, E flat-C-B-A.
As we go through Carnaval here, I’ll use a recording with score that I found on YouTube. The pianist isn’t listed, but in one of the comments, we’re told that the performance is by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Schumann called the three motifs “sphinxes” and nearly all the pieces in Carnaval are based on the first two, the three and four note versions of “Asch”. The opening Préambule - which sets the tone for this cavalcade of characters and intertwined relationships - is one of the movements which is not. [listen]
From this bravura opening we are plunged into the world of commedia dell’arte, a stylised form of popular theatre of which Schumann was very fond. The first is Pierrot. Pierrot was traditionally a simple, sometimes awkward, character, whose manner was usually sad and wistful. This is based on the four-note version of Asch. [listen]
Pierrot is contrasted with Harlequin (or Arlequin in the French titles used by Schumann). Harlequin loves food and women, and is cunning and witty. His flighty and playful mood is contrasted with Pierrot’s more measured demeanour. Again, the four-note sphinx of Asch is the foundation, heard in the very first four notes of the right hand. [listen]
The idea that this “carnival” is happening at a glittering masked ball is reinforced by the next movement, a noble waltz, the opening of which is again based on the four-note Asch sphinx. [listen]
The next two movements refer to Schumann himself. He invented an imaginary organisation called “The League of David” (that’s King David as in the Bible), and for Schumann this represented progressives (such as himself) who stood with him on the side of modern music, against older, reactionary voices, whom he called “Philistines”. In his writings he often referred to two characters - both members of the League of David - which actually represented two sides of his own nature, Eusebius and Florestan. Eusebius represented his poetic, dreamy side, while Florestan was his stormy, warlike side, and we hear both of them now in Carnaval. Firstly, Eusebius, lost in a haze of dreamy, wistful imaginings. The floating melody hides the four-note version of Asch, mixed up with other notes. [listen]
But then the other side of Schumann’s nature breaks out, the wild, impassioned and warlike Florestan. The very first four notes of the right hand are again the four-note Asch sphinx. [listen]
This ends - as impassioned and impetuous emotions often do - unresolved and in the air. Schumann brings himself down to earth in the next movement, Coquette. The flirting nature of this piece is thought by some writers to refer (somewhat bitterly) to the servant in Friedrich Wieck’s house from whom Schumann contracted syphilis. Whatever the inspiration, the four-note musical version of Ernestine’s home town is used in the fourth bar. [listen]
And the reply to the flirting is given in the next piece, Réplique. One almost senses a sympathetic response but a nonetheless definite refusal of the advances in the preceding movement. Interestingly, the sphinx representing Schumann’s name - played backwards - is hidden in the music near the end of the piece. [listen]
Now at this point in Schumann’s score something very strange appears. For no apparently obvious reason he puts here the three sphinxes on which Carnaval is based. They’re written in archaic-looking breves, in the bass clef, with no indication how, or even if, they are to be played. In most performances and recordings today they are not played, as most commentators regard them as being for the pianist’s eyes only, and there has been much speculation as to why they are printed here and not at the start or at the end.
There have been some famous recordings in which pianists actually have tried to make something more out of them. For example, in 1928 Alfred Cortot recorded Carnaval in London, and after Réplique he played the Sphinxes like this: [listen]
Even more dramatic was Sergei Rachmaninov’s recording made in America the following year, 1929, when he too included the Sphinxes played like this: [listen]
Andrei Gavrilov recorded them like this in 1987: [listen]
And if this sort of thing really fascinates you, someone has put together a compilation of how seven different pianists (starting with Cortot and Rachmaninov) recorded the Sphinxes on YouTube: [listen]
It seems to me unlikely that Schumann wanted to break the glittering mood of his masked ball with this focus on the hidden musical ciphers upon which Carnaval was based, but that’s just my opinion and different people read it differently.
Returning to the sequence of pieces, the next movement is called Papillons (Butterflies). There is no musical connection with Schumann’s earlier piano work called Papillons, but it does reflect its mood, with rapidly flying passagework which could easily refer to the dancers at the ball. The right hand part starts now with the three-note sphinx of Asch (A flat, C and B) and it’s the three-note version of Ernestine’s home town (rather than the four-note one used hitherto) which is the starting point for most of the remaining movements. [listen]
Dancing is the order of the day in the next movement, called rather cryptically, A.S.C.H. - S.C.H.A. Lettres dansantes. Coming at the exact half-way point in Carnaval, these “dancing letters” are of course the note names of the sphinxes. But even after quoting in the title both the original order (A.S.C.H.) and the order referring to his own name (S.C.H.A.), Schumann cryptically only uses the original order in this movement, and even then in its three-note version. [listen]
In the next few movements Schumann returns to his real world, or to the world of real people at least. The next piece is called Chiarina. This name is the Italian form of “Clara” and refers to the young Clara Wieck, Schumann’s future wife. The first two letters of “Chiarina” (C and H) are the notes C and B in English, and in the middle voices of this movement these two notes are repeated almost obsessively in the accompanying chords so that the association with Clara cannot be missed. The melody at the start is again based on the three-note sphinx. [listen]
This Chopinesque piece leads to a movement actually called Chopin in which Schumann paints a musical portrait of the famous virtuoso who at the time he was actively promoting. Two famous musicians who were strictly outside Schumann’s close circle of friends are given musical portraits in Carnival and this is the first. In these two movements, their separation from the intimate world of the League of David is marked by the fact that neither of these movements is based directly on the sphinxes, although they are hinted at obliquely. The musical version of Schumann’s name almost appears in the middle of this piece, but one note is wrong. But regardless of this, Schumann’s imitation of Chopin’s style is pretty convincing. [listen]
This leads directly into a movement called Estrella, a portrait of Schumann’s then-fiancé, Ernestine von Fricken (“Estrella” was his pet name for her). It opens with the three-note version of her home town’s name. Schumann wrote about her to his mother: “She has a delightfully pure, childlike mind, is delicate, thoughtful, deeply attached to me and everything artistic, and uncommonly musical”. Judging by the music which portrays her, she clearly had an intense nature, and I find it interesting that her piece is less than half the length of Clara’s... [listen]
One writer describes the next movement, Reconnaissance, as describing “the joy and passion of reunion”. There’s clearly a deeper meaning here for Schumann which is not immediately apparent, but the three-note sphinx appears at the start. The French title literally means “recognition” or “acknowledgement”. [listen]
We return to the world of commedia dell’arte at the masked ball in the next movement, called Pantalon et Colombine. Pantalon is a gullible merchant who is trying to hide his old age, while Colombine is a virtuous woman who always demonstrates wit and charm in a world of stupid men. Again, the three-note version of Asch makes up the first three notes of the right hand. [listen]
As a foil to the noble waltz heard earlier we now have another, this time a German one (Valse allemande), which again starts with the three-note sphinx. [listen]
This leads directly into the other musical character from outside Schumann’s intimate world who is represented in Carnaval, the violin virtuoso Paganini, who had been famous for two decades and was then still wowing audience across Europe. The virtuosic passages which leap all over the piano are designed to remind us of Paganini’s rapid playing, with the bow bouncing across the violin strings in virtuosic display. After Paganini’s portrait (which just hints at the three-note sphinx in the midst of its texture), the sedate German waltz returns. [listen]
The next movement continues the more sentimental mood with a confession, perhaps of love, perhaps of sadder things, in Aveu. The three-note sphinx again starts the piece. [listen]
The next movement, at around two and half minutes, is one of the longest in Carnaval. It’s called Promenade, but despite the title (which implies walking), the feeling even here is of dance. The mood of the ball is skilfully maintained by Schumann while at the same time creating an intriguing mixture of moods, yet the three-note sphinx is still the starting point. [listen]
Irony comes to the fore in the next movement, which at less than twenty seconds is by far the shortest. Called Pause, the mood is anything but contemplative, and it hides the three-note sphinx in the bassline a few seconds after it starts. It leads (without a pause) into the final movement, the March of the League of David against the Philistines. The Philistines - those diehards who won’t move with the modern musical times - are mocked by Schumann in a couple of ways. Firstly, an old German tune called the Grossvatertanz (The grandfather’s dance) is quoted in the final movement. Thus the old diehards are referred to as old fogies in the clearest musical terms.
The second way in which Schumann’s artistic enemies are mocked is that the march is in triple time, showing the conservatives as being literally “out of step”.
The final movement starts with the three-note sphinx in the uppermost part. The whole work comes to an end in this dazzling finale based on music from the opening Prémbule, thus providing us with a sense of completeness in what might otherwise appear to be a disjointed series of short pieces. [listen]
Schumann was very much at the forefront of developing and supporting a new approach to composition in Germany in the 1830s. In his mind the League of David sought to be the vanguard of the new musical world, and in this he had an individual approach to music history. In his journal Schumann said, “Our purpose...is to remind our readers emphatically of the distant past and its works...Then, to attack as inartistic the immediate past, which is concerned merely with encouraging superficial virtuosity. Lastly, to help prepare and hasten the coming of a new poetic era.”
These publicly-declared artistic principles - especially the bit about denying the immediate past - had their parallel in Schumann’s personal life. Carnaval was completed in mid-1835. By the end of the year he’d discovered that his fiancé, Ernestine, was illegitimate, and that she had no personal fortune, or as one might say at the time, he discovered that she was of “limited means”. Schumann was afraid she would make him earn a normal living, in his words, like a “day labourer”. These two factors were among the reasons Schumann engineered a complete break with her by the end of 1835.
In the meantime his love for Clara Wieck - who turned 16 in 1835 - had begun to blossom. Flirtatious behaviour between them had led to their first kiss on the steps outside her father’s house in November of that year, but it would be five years before they would marry. Paternal disapproval, secret letters in code and even a year of legal action (in which they took her father to court) would intervene before they eventually married in 1840, one day before Clara turned 21. Clara was already a top rank piano virtuoso and it wouldn’t be long before she would be regarded by many as finest pianist in Europe; she was a skilled composer in her own right as well. Carnaval, therefore, comes right at the beginning of a turbulent and fascinating period for both Robert and Clara (and heartbreak for Ernestine), and marks the beginning of what would be a true marriage of equals.
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2008.