Butterflies fluttering out of the piano

Fragile life. © Charles Thibo
Fragile life. © Charles Thibo

Right behind my house, there is a butterfly bush, a Buddleja. It is huge. And in a few weeks, it will be full of butterflies, like last year. I can sit there for hours and do nothing but watch the sky and the butterflies. There are about eight or nine different types: small tortoiseshells, peacocks, emperor moths, small whites etc. They flutter from blossom to blossom and live a happy, albeit short life. Robert Schumann’s Opus 2 is a lovely cycle of poems called “Papillons” (butterflies). When the sun shines upon my face, and when I listen to these pieces with my eyes closed, I can see the butterflies dance in the air. So nice.

Inspired by a romantic novel

The twelve pieces evoke ephemeral pictures, a simple elegance, a natural beauty. Two literary subjects from a Romantic novel written by Johann Paul Richter, better known by his pen name Jean Paul, fascinated young Robert and inspired him to write the cycle published in 1832. “Flegeljahre” (The Awkward Age) is the name of he novel, and the two main characters are the twins Walt and Vult, the sensitive idealist on the one hand and the ironic realist on the other hand. Walt and Vult actually reflect Richter’s own personality and the Romanticist’s struggle with reality.

In a letter to a music reviewer, Schumann explains that he had been particularly inspired by the last chapter of the novel describing a masked ball where Walt, Vult and Wina (the woman they both court) dance. Wina confirms her love first to Walt, then to Vult as the twins have switched masks without Wina noticing. The masks are shaped like butterflies and Richter uses them as an allegory for their identity. “Almost without realizing, I sat at the piano and one butterfly after the other came to life.” The different pieces match the different dances of the masked ball described in the novel, the image of the butterfly illustrates the ephemerous character of the couples that form for each dance and the emotional fragility of the people involved.

The audience was nonplussed

Schumann was constantly looking for ways to translate Romantic texts into Romantic music, but the “Papillons” did not really fly with the audience. Too intellectual, was one of the verdicts. Schumann was venturing into new musical territory, and these short, expressive pieces inspired by a surreal scene went a bit too far for Schumann’s audience. The composer was aware of that, but at the same time he found out that this way to compose suited him best.

He was 22 when the “Papillons” were published, he had just started to take lessons in harmony and counterpoint, but the twelve pieces show already what a genius Schumann was. Each piece is highly original and has no precedent in music before him. No Baroque composer and neither Mozart nor Schubert used so freely of their imagination and their creativity in solo piano pieces. And once the butterflies have left the box, there is no way to catch them without hurting them.

“Papillons” has been recorded with other piano works by Schumann by Andras Schiff with the label ECM.

© Charles Thibo

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