ROBERT SCHUMANN - Papillons, Op. 2 (1828 - 1831)
Schumann’s publications up to around 1840 were almost exclusively for the piano, and they include some of the most beloved piano music. Aside from the several large-scale keyboard compositions he composed, he is best remembered for his beautifully wrought character pieces. Such pieces are often portraits of friends, popular dances, mood pictures and psychological delineations, customarily grouped in colourfully named sets such as Papillons (Butterflies).
Apart from music, Schumann had a huge interest in literature - he once worked on a novel. His dual interest in these two fields led him to include literary references in his music. This distinguished compositional technique is also employed in Papillons, a work intended as a musical representation of the masked ball which concludes Jean Paul’s novel Flegeljahre. As the first ten pieces of the suite had already been composed before Schumann read the novel, only the eleventh and twelfth pieces are directly related to the corresponding text. Although the connection between the novel and Papillon might not seem too strong, he wrote in an explanatory letter to Henriette Voigt “When you have a minute to spare, I beg of you to read the last chapter of the Flegeljahre… I will say only that I have underlaid the text to the music, and not the reverse.”
This particular chapter is about two twin brothers, called Walt and Vult Harnisch, competing with each other for the affections of a lady called Wina at a masked ball. On top of begging people to read this chapter, Schumann also wrote in greater detail to Ludwig Rellstab regarding how the Papillons arose: “You remember the last scene in Flegeljahre - masked ball - Walt - Vult - masks - Wina - Vult’s dancing - the exchange of masks - confessions - anger - revelation - the hurrying away - the closing dream and then the departing brother. I often turned to the last page, for the end seemed like a fresh beginning, and almost unconsciously I found myself at the piano, and thus one Papillon after the other came into existence.”
Papillons presents itself as a series of dances. Similar to all the balls, various types of dances succeed one another, varying in rhythm, tempo, key, as well as dynamics. Many dances here are in waltz rhythm and the opening one are simpler, reminding us of Schubert's waltzes. Later as the music progresses, contrasting episodes that explore different keys and rhythms are heard, as if the ball is becoming livelier and wilder. The recurrence of the traditional waltz rhythm and eight-bar form in the first piece, though in varied and expanded forms, lends a certain degree of coherence to the work.
In the finale, the popular German song Grossvatertanz is quoted. It was very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, often used at the end of a ball. Schumann combined it with the waltz-tune of the first piece, expressing musically what he told Rellstab: “the end seemed like a fresh beginning”. In the final bars, the fragmented Grossvatertanz illustrates the scene of dancers dispersing in the morning and the music vanishing into thin air. The effect is enhanced by the quietly arpeggiated dominant seventh chord whose notes are gradually disappearing one after another.