This week’s post is all about the music. The recording is longish, so I’ll keep the words short. 🙂 I’d like to share one of my favorite “storytelling and sound” pieces, Robert Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2.
Schumann belongs to the Romantic era in music history (about 1825 to 1900). He’s one of the composers in the generation after Beethoven, the generation that had to decide what to do with all the new ideas Beethoven explored. Schumann himself had a rough life. He was a pianist, but lost the ability to perform after some of the exercises he used to strengthen his hands backfired and damaged his muscles. He struggled with depression for most of his life; his mental health deteriorated more as he got older.
Papillons is an early work for Schumann. It belongs to a time when it was easier for him to tap into energy and enthusiasm, and we can tell from the notes he left about this particular piece that he loved writing it. The title translates literally from the French as “butterflies,” but Schumann himself translated it as “flying slips of paper.” When he was working on the piece, he said later, the ideas came so fast he could barely keep up. Pieces of paper flew around his workroom as he scribbled ideas, tossed pages aside when they were full, snatched fresh paper, and scribbled some more. I know a lot of writers would love to have that kind of process!
The inspiration for Papillons came from a story Schumann had read that featured a costume ball. The piece itself is a series of twelve very short pieces, mostly waltzes. Schumann wanted to put the pianist, and in turn, the listener, in the ballroom he imagined. We’re meant to admire the spectacle, the lights and costumes, the dancers whirling around the room, the excitement and laughter. Schumann is giving us a musical kaleidoscope.
Papillons is a great example of program music: music written to tell a specific story. Another, earlier, example is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” in which Beethoven gives us a series of scenes including a brook in the countryside, a thunderstorm, and a country dance. A later, super-iconic example is Modest Mussorgsky’s amazing “Pictures from an Exhibition,” a tour de force and rite of passage for a lot of pianists. In “Pictures,” each movement is a musical “translation” of a specific painting or drawing. Program music was a relatively new idea in Beethoven’s time, but became very popular during the Romantic era.
I decided to record Papillons and share it on the blog on the spur of the moment. Making recordings is still pretty challenging for me, on the nervousness front, and with a long piece like this, it’s an extra challenge. This recording isn’t always as clean as it might be, but I love this music and hope you’ll like listening to it.
As you listen, I’d invite you to close your eyes and imagine the ballroom scene. Schumann tells us a little about the characters he had in mind, particularly a pair of star-crossed lovers, but the music might suggest different characters to you. At the beginning of the piece, you’ll hear a short theme: a scale of ascending notes. The same lilting, ascending scale comes back in the last movement. Also in the last movement, you’ll hear a single high repeated note, cutting through the rest of the musical texture. That’s the clock striking, telling us that the party is over. The final measures of the piece feature a chord where the pianist lets go of one note at a time, so that the sound fades away. After all the drama, we end with a charming, funny whisper.
Thanks as always for visiting the blog. See you next time!
Featured music: Papillons, Op. 2, by Robert Schumann