Butterflies

Welcome! 🙂 I hope the daily music posts here on the blog are giving you a boost, in these strange and unsettling times. If you’re new to the series and would like to check out earlier posts, you’ll find the first one here.

Today I went to the wayback machine for our recording. It’s longer than usual, about fifteen minutes, but you can listen in installments if you’d like. This is a piece by Robert Schumann, one of his early works for solo piano. The title, “Papillons,” translates literally as “butterflies.”

Schumann (1810-1856) was one of the great composers of the Romantic era in music history (1825-1900). He was a member of the generation of composers who followed Beethoven and explored the new ideas Beethoven had brought to music. In his personal life, Schumann ran into many challenges, especially with his mental health. Depression and anxiety often made it hard for him to work, particularly in his later years.

The Papillons come from a period when Schumann was happy and inspired. The idea for the piece came from a story Schumann had read that included a vivid costume-ball scene. Schumann was so taken with the scene that he started putting it to music: the ballroom, the characters, the kaleidoscopic motion of the costumed dancers. In a letter he wrote at the time, he said that the ideas came to him so fast he could barely keep up. Though the piece’s title literally means “butterflies,” Schumann also thought of the image of papillons as meaning “flying slips of paper,” reflecting the intense inspiration he felt as he wrote.

As you listen, if you’d like, put yourself in Schumann’s ballroom scene. Do you see yourself as a bystander, watching all the activity? Can you imagine yourself taking part? What kind of costume or mask might you wear? Does the music make you imagine particular characters, or conversations, or pieces of action? As always, you’re welcome to share your thoughts and responses to the music in the comments.

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