English Blog

Ash Wednesday is coming up. Let’s play or listen to Robert Schumann’s celebrated Carnaval, Op. 9.

February 14, 2021

Carnaval, Op. 9, was written in 1834-35. It consists of 21 short pieces woven with 4 notes (Cipher) so those 4 notes make Carnaval cohesive. Carnaval represents a masked festival before Lent. In 2021, Lent season starts this coming Wednesday, February 17, known as Ash Wednesday. Personally, Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite liturgical ceremonies. “Ash” (German Asch) is a hint for the cipher. Robert Alexander Schumann, Fasching (carnaval), a town in Germany called Asch where his then fiancée lived. German musical notes ASCH are read as Aflat, C, and B in English reading. And Schumann has fun to make ASCH as A-Es-C-H as A, E flat, C and B in English reading. Oh! It is getting too complicated! Let’s focus on music.

In Carnaval, Schumann presents characters from commedia dell’arte (Pierrot, Arlequin, Pantalon and Colombine), Eusebius and Florestan (Schumann’s 2 opposite personalities), Chiarina (16 years old Clara Schumann), Chopin, Estrella (Ernestine, his then fiancée), different dances and more. Each piece is written with the idea of the cipher, representing characters. Schumann’s imagination is abundant. No limit!

Carnaval starts with a big fanfare “Prèambule”,  and you are at the glittering ballroom. People are dressed fancily. Then, clowns appear, noble dance is played, Schumann is shy and outgoing as his usual, now we see a flirting girl! The ballroom is full of actions and emotions. In Papillon (from Schumann’s Op. 2), nattily dressed single men dance with enthusiasm. A.S.C.H. – S.C.H.A. is a turning point. Those letters are dancing innocently. From here, the motif is slightly modified. 16 years old Clara Schumann “Chiarina” appears passionately with slight melancholy, then Chopin comes to play his Nocturne beautifully. Noble ladies are looking at Chopin with their heart beating. Chopin exits and now Schumann presents his then fiancée Ernestine (but the title is Estrella). After “Estrella”, “Reconnaissance” is presented. Schumann and Ernestine are met at the ball. In the middle section of this piece, 2 lovers are constantly talking to each other. A German dance leads to “Paganini”, a violin virtuoso. He is having fun showing fast fingers! German dance concludes after Paganini. Paganini is surrounded by his affectionados. The ballroom lights are dimmed and we hear the whispering confession in “Aveu”. The lights are back in the ballroom, and the people are walking arm in arm with their partners in “Promenade”. After a short “Pause”, we hear the big march in “Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins”. “Davidsbündler” is an imaginary society of Schumann, and created to defend the cause of contemporary music against any or all those who produce or promote poor music.

Are you motivated to play or listen to Carnaval? I would like to add one very personal observation of Carnaval. Robert Schumann looked back to the creative mind of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was literally Schumann’s music teacher, though he no longer lived. It was Bach who gave Schumann his musical nourishment, and shared with him the secrets of his creative soul. I started to feel the connection between J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Schumann’s Carnaval. Carnaval seems “Homage” to Goldberg Variations. There is no direct similarity, but both pieces are constructed with certain rules and start/end the same piece. It is just my imagination! But it is fun to imagine, and “Imagination” is all about Schumann’s music.