ROBERT SCHUMANN Born in Zwickau, June 8, 1810; died in Endenich, near Bonn, July 19, 1856
Carnaval, Op. 9
Composed in 1834-35; 28 minutes
Although Robert Schumann’s wife, Clara Wieck—truly the love of his life—inspired the vast majority of his compositions, she was preceded in the role of Muse by a young lady, Ernestine von Fricken, who inspired Schumann’s fanciful Carnaval, published as Op. 9 and bearing the subtitle “Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes” [“Little scenes on four notes”]. In July 1834 Schumann confessed in a letter to his mother that Fräulein von Fricken had captured his fancy. “She is remarkably musical—everything, in a word, that I might wish my wife to be.” The young lady was a fellow pupil of his piano professor, Friedrich Wieck, and she was a boarder in his home. Schumann contrived meetings with the young lady, then proposed marriage and visited her family in the town of Asch, only to eventually jilte her. In the midst of that abortive courtship, Schumann found the inspiration to write one of his most important early piano works.
Choosing the letters of Ernestine’s home town as his motto, Schumann created a musical theme from the four notes Es–C–H–A (the German letters for the notes E-flat–C–B–A). Not only did the letters spell the name of Ernestine’s home town, Asch, but they also were four of the letters that spelled his own family name. This theme was the basis for Schumann’s musical variations, which he imagined as the depiction of a pre-Lenten ball. Writing to his friend Ignaz Moscheles, Schumann said “…deciphering my masked ball will be a real game for you.”
Deciphering though would not have required much detective work once Moscheles saw the score; Schumann gives the whole game away in the ninth movement, entitled “Sphinxs,” four thematic tones in old-fashioned square notes on three short staves. Perhaps this is why Schumann instructs the performer that the movement “sollen nicht gespielt werden” [“should not be played”].
Schumann opened his masked ball with a first-movement fanfare of chords and a grand waltz in A-flat major. To his Carnaval party he invited a circle of friends old and new. His own fictional “Davidsbund,” the Band of David, included the personages Eusebius (the soulful one), Florestan (the fiery one) and Chiarina (the code here for Clara Wieck, who had already attracted Schumann’s attention). Schumann meant Estrella to represent Ernestine von Fricken herself.
In addition, Schumann invited the traditional commedia dell’arte characters Pierrot, Arlequin, Coquette, Pantalon and Colombine. The composers Paganini and Chopin are represented by characteristic music—Paganini’s virtuosic leaps in a violin caprice, and an imitation of one of Chopin’s piano preludes. (Chopin reportedly was not amused by his inclusion in the Carnaval, even though Schumann meant the lovely, lyrical miniature as a tribute.)
For interludes that were scattered among the characters, Schumann composed two waltzes (Valse noble and Valse allemande), the Reconnaissance (in which a love duet suggests, perhaps, a lowering of the masks), Aveu (a series of passionate sighs) and a Promenade (in which the lovers take a walk in convivial waltz rhythm). A reference to his own piano suite Papillons appears here, and Schumann includes the principal theme from that work, undisguised, in the final movement, March of the Band of David against the Philistines. Just as Schumann’s piano suite Papillons concluded with the chiming of a clock, Carnaval concludes with twelve iterations of a clanging A-flat-major chord, as if to say, Twelve o’clock! Party’s over!
At the time he composed Carnaval, Schumann still had hopes for a career as a pianist. One of the several piano works that he composed early in his career, Carnaval contains many of the signature characteristics of his piano writing: lyrical melodic content, rhythmic complexity (including syncopations and hemiolas), chords (as opposed to linear scales) and inventive use of the sustaining pedal. Not overtly virtuosic, Carnaval nevertheless demands an extraordinary range of piano skills to paint its 22 little scenes on four notes.
© 2014, Sandra Hyslop
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