Sunday, March 20, 2005

Schumann’s butterflies

A few years ago I attended a performance of his Carnaval “Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes.” They’re sketches of people at a masked ball: friends, musicians, commedia dell’arte characters, and two versions of Schumann himself. After the eighth sketch the pianist closed the piano, wiped his hands on his knees, and waited. At first I thought he was collecting himself for the next challenge, but as the silence lengthened I began to worry that he might have hit a block. After two minutes I was so frantic for him that I heard ringing in my ears. (He was an acquaintance.) Finally, smiling, he opened the piano and played the next sketch. After the performance I asked a musician friend what had happened. “That’s the sphinx. Schumann’s instructions are to shut the piano and sit and wait for a long time.” A sphinx at the masked ball: as if to say, some people are utterly inscrutable; we just don’t know what to say about them.” (“We dance in a ring & suppose./ The secret sits in the middle & knows.” The sphinx comes almost halfway through the Carnaval.)

Recently I read that “the motivic seeds of Carnaval are revealed by the notated but unplayed “Sphinxes” (inspired by Jean Paul’s Sphinx moths): the pitches E-flat, C, B, A (“es c h a” in German) denote Schumann, and A-flat, C, B (“as c h”) or A, E-flat, C, B (“a es c h) stand for Asch, the birthplace of Ernestine.” (“A.S.C.H-S.C.H.A (Lettres dansantes)” is no. 11, and “Estrella” (Ernestine) is no. 14.) What are Jean Paul’s Sphinx moths?! Are they related to Schumann’s Papillons Opus 2? The Sphinx comes right before a sketch named “Papillons.” It also comes after the “Réplique” (no. 8) to Coquette (no. 7), so maybe it’s part of a conversation.

Suggestions welcome.

No comments: