About this work
Robert Schumann's first set of character pieces for piano, Papillons (1829-1831), may be regarded as a sort of study for the better-known Carnaval (1833-1835). Both are musical representations of festival scenes and involve multiple characters and dance-sequences; Schumann, in fact, reworked elements of Papillons for use in the later work. The concept for Papillons was apparently suggested to the composer by Jean Paul Richter's novel Flegeljahre (Age of Indiscretion); originally, each of the 12 pieces had a title that made reference to that well-known literary work. The extent of the novelist's influence on Schumann is, of course, difficult to determine. Schumann removed the titles before publication, wanting, as was typical throughout his creative life, to conceal the sources of inspiration. Precisely why the work was ultimately titled Papillons (Butterflies) has never been explained; yet the title was obviously Schumann's invention, and the suggestion of airiness and flight is clearly borne out by the music. Papillons, in keeping with its origin as music for a fictitious festival or ballroom scene, is a set of dance pieces, many of them waltzes. Even at this early stage in his compositional career -- Papillons is only the composer's second published work -- Schumann's craft can hardly be called commonplace. The work draws on many external sources of inspiration, both literary and musical: witness, for instance, the canon at the octave in No. 3 that seems to make a direct allusion to a similar instance in Haydn, or the incorporation into the finale of the same old German song (the "Grossvaterlied") that the composer used to represent the Philistines in Carnaval. The conclusion of Papillons is considered by many to be the composer's first masterstroke. Atop a 26-bar pedal point on low D -- an extraordinary gesture for a work written before the introduction of the modern sostenuto pedal -- Schumann combines a fragment from the "Grossvaterlied" with the waltz melody that opens the work. Six accented notes represent the striking of a clock (Schumann inscribed on the score, "The clamor of the carnival dies away, the clock in the tower strikes six"), after which the pianist executes a remarkable diminuendo effected by the removal of notes, one at a time, from a sustained dominant-seventh chord. The party-goers disappear as the sound gradually vanishes into nothingness.