Schumann Sets Coded Romantic Language to Music

What mask are you wearing today? © Charles Thibo

There’s a German novel that had a deep impression on me. After I had read it, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I felt like throwing up and at the same time I felt having learned something essential about myself. In 1927, Hermann Hesse wrote the novel “Steppenwolf”. Hesse reflected a personal crisis and focused on the subjects of loneliness, man’s wolfish instincts and his desire to be a noble, educated being. The main character experiences a catharsis in a “magical theater”, where he learns to see and accepts his conflicting character traits.

When I read the novel some 25 years ago, I had to acknowledge the different masks I was wearing during that time. So many masks to please so many people. So many masks that I had forgotten what my true self was. And I had no idea that this subject would come back to haunt me through music and other books again and again. Who am I?

Masks and pseudonyms

This piece is about masks. In 1834-35 Robert Schumann composed a piano cycle of the name of “Carnaval”, op. 9. It has 21 sections and the different sections’ depict figures from the Commedia dell’arte, like Harlequin and Pierrot, Pantalone and Columbina, or characters invented by Schumann like Eusebius and Florestan. The composer used Eusebius and Florestan as pen names when he wrote as a music critic. Other pieces make a coded reference to his wife Clara or his first fiancée, Ernestine von Fricken. One is named after Niccolo Paganini, another after Frédéric Chopin who later said that Schumann’s “Carnaval” is no music at all.

Conflicting character traits

Schumann had a complex personality, but took care to either hide his conflicting traits or to sublimate them, to elevate them to the form of art. Eusebius mirrors Schumann’s calm and kind nature, while Florestan represents his fiery, impetuous impulses.  Op. 9 is an early attempt to express this in music, Op. 16 “Kreisleriana”, that I have presented in an earlier post, was the logical consequence. The coded references are a bow at his favourite novelists from the Romantic era, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Joseph von Eichendorff and  Jean Paul, whose novels are brimful with metaphors, coded language and political allusions.

Schumann composed an intriguing piece, bulky at times, delicate at others and it has been beautifully recorded by the French pianist Véronique Bonnecaze. The ruptures and the tension of the different pieces remind me of Franz Schubert’s songs, which is no coincidence. Schumann venerated Schubert as much as Jean Paul: “[Jean Paul] has everything in common with my one and only Schubert; when I play Schubert, I feel like reading a novel composed by Jean Paul.”

Introspection on the piano

That is one of the reasons why I like both the music and the literature from the German Romantic era. You need to look behind the mask and to read between the lines. You need to look for the deep story. There is so much to discover, some horrifying, some beautiful beyond measure. And by looking behind the shiny veneer I may well be reminded of the masks I once was wearing. And I will have to answer the question whether I have finally dropped them and can consider myself as free or whether I am still a prisoner of my fears.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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