Week 10: Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9

Schumann (1810-1856) is probably the most interesting figure of the Romantic generation of composers. Plagued by physical and psychiatric maladies for most of his adult life, his work is consistently idiosyncratic, inspired by the world of ideas and particularly intense emotions.

The move from Classical to Romantic music, generally speaking, was a move from an abstract ideal of elegantly structured but somewhat impersonal music (composed by Haydn, Mozart, and sometimes Beethoven) to music that was actually about external ideas. Classical period works tended to be organized according to somewhat elaborate forms, but in the Romantic period the story was often allowed to govern the shape of the music entirely.

The Romantic period also saw two different trends in terms of scale – on one hand, music for the concert hall became more grandiose and elaborate — the modern orchestra (with its strong brass, woodwind, and percussion sections) was assembled and pieces became more and more elaborate.

However, there was also a trend towards miniatures — brief, bite-size works that could be played and enjoyed at home. Schumann’s Carnaval is a collection of minatures for piano that follow a fanciful theme, the annual European holiday during which masked characters frolic in the streets.

I’m anxious to get to the movements that depict specific characters, but I can’t overlook the grandiose opening that sets the scene. I love these thunderous opening chords (played here by a Croatian pianist named Vladimir Babin…)

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In the second movement we get our first stock character for Carnival, the sad clown Pierrot. (This one is played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who really emphasizes its languid nature. The youtube poster thinks this befits a wild boar, for some reason.)

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And here’s one more portrait of stock characters – Columbine and Pantalone. Columbine is wedded to Pierrot, but she traditionally must fend off the advances of Pantolone. This movement alternates frantic activitity with more tender, possibly flirtatious interludes. (More Michelangeli, this time with ferrets or something.)

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Now, the characters in Carnaval aren’t limited to stock Comedia dell’Arte figures. Schumann was a fairly influential music critic, and he liked to write in the voice of two different pseudonyms, Eusebius and Florestan. One was supposed to represent his more dreamy, introspective side, and the other was his passionate side. See if you can tell which is which.

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The final movement (“The March of the Davidsbundler against the Philistines”) was also supposed to represent his musical circle of friends challenging the forces of musical conservatism.

So, obviously this is fun music. The twenty-one brief movements of Carnaval present an entertaining grab bag of moods, with pianistic brilliance that never overstays its welcome. When carefully played it is an utterly charming little world.

One of the most critically acclaimed interpreters of this work is Claudio Arrau’s. His 1966 recording combines a soft touch with an impressive quickness that really brings this material to life. Seems to only be available on CD. Archivmusik Amazon CD

Here’s a Wikipedia article on the piece. And the score can be had for free via IMSLP.

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