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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Music and Literature: Schumann's Papillons, Op. 2


Robert Schumann, Papillons, Op. 2 (1829-1831)

The Papillons are Schumann’s second published work, written for the piano in the course of his twentieth year, as he awakened to the life of a composer of music and abandoned his study of the Law. Yet it already contains one essential characteristic of his later work, and of the work of the Romantic composers generally, namely, its programmatic element. Papillons is undisguised programme music, based on Schumann’s reading of Jean Paul’s novel Flegeljahre (The Awkward Age) of 1805.

Robert Schumann at 20

In a letter to his friend, the critic Ludwig Rellstab, Schumann describes the "program" as follows:

“I feel I must add a few words about the origin of the Papillons, for the thread that is meant to bind them together is scarcely visible. You will remember the final scene of Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre: fancy dress ball – Walt – Vult – masks – Vina – Vult’s dancing – exchange of masks – confessions – rage – revelations – hurry away – concluding scene, then the departing brother. Again and again I turned over the last page, for the end seemed to me but a new beginning. . . . Almost without knowing, I found myself sitting at the piano, and one Papillon after another came into being.” (Schumann, Letter to Ludwig Rellstab, 1831)

Jean Paul (Richter) (1763-1825)

The work is dedicated to Schumann's sisters-in-law, Therese, Rosalie and Emilie, and in a joint letter to them and his brothers, he again makes reference to the literary background that inspired his creation:

“Please read the closing scene of Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre as soon as you can. Papillons is actually a setting of this carnival to music. Does it not faithfully reflect something of Vina’s angelic love, of Walt’s poetic temperament and of Vult’s sharp, brilliant nature?”

Papillons is meant to depict a ball at which the twin brothers Walt and Vult confront each other over the love of Vina. Walt is the poetic sentimentalist, a Romantic type, and Vult is a forceful realist, the intent of the respective sections of the music being in effect to portray these different personality and cultural traits by means of sound and structure. The dichotomy between dreamer and realist is also reflective of the Romantic fascination with the Doppelgänger phenomenon, the alter-ego personality conflict, and it has been often said that Walt and Vult reveal the conflicting aspects of Schumann’s own personality.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, Portrait of Schumann

The musical composition consists of a series of festive dance-sequences, many of them waltzes, and an attempt to depict character in music. Each one of the twelve sections originally had a title, based on the series described in Schumann’s letter to Rellstab. But Schumann removed the titles before publishing the work. The title of the completed work, 'Papillons' (Butterflies) is clearly a reference to the airiness, color, flightiness, and spontaneity of the music.

Programme music is characteristic of the Romantic style of musical composition. It is a crossing of the barriers, from one art form to another, from Music to Literature, and thus from the realm of the perceived to that of the implied. It references therefore the philosophical revolution that gave birth to Romanticism, namely, the separation of the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds which Kant had enunciated in his Critique of Pure Reason of 1781, and the subsequent idealistic attempt of Romanticism to bridge the gap. Thus, in the “programme” the abstraction of the music becomes the representation of the noumenal world of ‘things-in-themselves’ that lies beyond our world of appearances, that is, beyond the empirical world that we can grasp with our senses, and which in this instance is the literary text referenced by the music. The genre would reach its apogee in the work of Richard Strauss, and then decline in the twentieth century. It continues to have an influence on film music however, especially when the score draws upon late nineteenth century musical ideas.

Nimrod David Pfeffer playing Schumann's Papillons Op.2

Part I

Part II

Wilhelm Kempff playing Schumann's Papillons Op.2

Part I

Part II

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)


  1. Nice post, Albert! I especially love the performances of the Schumann. I'm struck by your comment about the dichotomy of the dreamer and the realist. Wasn't it Schumann who assumed two different personas and then wrote regularly using two distinct pseudonyms? (Showing my ignorance of Schumann here).

  2. Yes, you're right. In his critical writings and musical reviews he created two characters, Florestan and Eusebius, pseudonyms for both sides of his personality, which served to articulate his sometimes contradictory opinions.