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Schumann: The Faces and the Masks (CD Arts, Carnaval & Davidsbündlertänze - Alessandra Ammara, 2010)


You haven’t looked deeply enough into the Davidsbündlertänze. I think they are completely different from Carnaval. They are like faces to the masks”.


These are the words that Robert Schumann wrote to Clara Wieck in 1838, regarding the two collective works offered on this CD. The choice to present Carnaval and Davidsbündlertänze together is all the more fitting and stimulating because it offers us the chance to explore the complex world of Schumann by observing it from two different and complementary points of view. The two works, in fact, offer each other mutual sustenance and can be considered to represent a clear manifesto of Schumann’s art.


From the 1830s Schumann had assumed the habit of revealing his poetic imaginary also through various written articles, which from 1834 he published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. In his prose, as visionary and innovative as his music, Schumann expressed himself through various alter ego: Florestan, Eusebius, Meister Raro. These were members of the League of the Brothers of David (Davidsbündler), of which the composer himself tells us: “And here mention should again be made of a league that was more than secret, because it existed only in the mind of its founder, the League of the Brothers of David. To raise a discussion about various aspects of the concepts of music, it didn’t seem out of place to invent special artistic characters, of whom Florestan and Eusebius were the most important, while exactly midway between them two stood Meister Raro”. Eusebius and Florestan were thus the two sides of Schumann’s personality: the first impetuous, passionate, combative; the other more introverted, poetic, dreamy. Meister Raro, inspired by Friedrich Wieck, the father of Clara and Schumann’s piano teacher, incarnates the figure of a wise man that balances out the two opposing identities and yet is still part of the complex personality of the artist. Schumann explicitly declares his own multiple identity. In Carnaval (1834-35) two pieces actually use the names of Eusebius and Florestan for their title. In Davidsbündlertänze (1837) all the dances that make up the collection are signed at the bottom with the name (or initials) of Florestan or Eusebius, or both.


In 1835 Schumann had by then given up his career as a pianist, after years of intense (but belated) study to become a great virtuoso. However, his conception of virtuosity was so revolutionary and visionary as to induce him to write for the piano in ways that were often of unprecedented originality, verging on the paradox, yet functional to the realization of his poetic imagination. One might say that the composer’s multiple identity expressed in the form of Florestan and Eusebius is also reflected in the wide variety of piano styles cohabiting in Schumann’s writing. In Davidsbündlertänze, for instance, the two hands are frequently rhythmically out-of-phase, featuring differing or irregular meters and accents that make the dance rhythms almost unrecognizable – and certainly difficult to dance to. In dance n. 3 the right hand remains even one or two bars behind the left. In Carnaval the writing is more shamelessly virtuosic, but with no pretence of spectacularity. On the contrary, Schumann was almost worried that Carnaval was not a suitable piece for the general public, as he wrote in consideration of Liszt’s performance of Carnaval in Leipzig in 1840: “On expressing my slight doubt as to whether such a rhapsodic depiction of carnival could have any effect on a mass audience, [Liszt] replied instead that he really hoped so, and that this was his firm opinion. But I believe he was deluding himself. Although many things can arouse one listener or another, musical sensations change too quickly to be followed by the entire public, who do not wish to be disturbed every minute”. It is almost as if Schumann wanted to challenge the virtuosi who, unlike himself, had managed to become successful concert artists. The out-of-phase lines between the right and left hands appear right from the Préambule, and it is no surprise therefore that a piece like Paganini contains simultaneous asymmetrical leaps in both hands at such a speed that they become much more arduous than it might seem to the listener.


The structure of both works is similarly innovative and in keeping with the composer’s creative tendencies. Schumann does not adopt a traditional form, like the Sonata, but opts for a ‘Polyptych’, that is to say a series of short works derived from the same musical cells. These ‘germinative’ cells are expressed in the form of a motto. In Carnaval the motto is constituted by Sphinxes, a piece not to be played but rather read. It is almost like a key to a riddle, made up of three sequences of notes based on the letters A, S, C, H, as Schumann himself wrote: “The name of a small town [Asch] where a musical acquaintance of mine lived, contained the notes of the scale that in fact also belong to my name; this gave birth to one of those little games that, following the example of Bach, are nothing new. One piece was finished after another, precisely during carnival of 1835, in a serious disposition of mind and under special circumstances”. In Davidsbündlertänze, on the other hand, the motto is presented at the beginning, and is to be played. It consists of the first bars of Clara Wieck’s Mazurka op. 5, which underlies all the following dances, though no longer being recognizable to the ear. Carnaval, too, is partially based on a pre-existing piece of music: Schubert’s Sehnsuchtswalzer, which appears in Promenade and in the final Marche.


Schumann was, in any case, particularly fond of quotations and self-quotations, whether in cryptic or explicit form, to the extent of making it a fundamental element of his own poetic world. Particularly fascinating are the frequent reciprocal references between Carnaval and Davidsbündlertänze, almost as if to say that the faces always remain a little attached to their respective masks. In dance no. 3 of Davidsbündlertänze, for example, we find, after a barely recognizable quotation from Papillons op. 2, bars 5-7 from Promenade in Carnaval. And a quotation from Papillons is also to be found in Carnaval, at first hidden in the bass of the Préambule, then clearly stated in Florestan, and actually accompanied by a comment with a question mark: “Papillons?”, as if even the composer had been surprised by this apparition.


And so for Schumann the emergence of pieces taken from other compositions of his own is not a calculated form of self-celebration, but a genuine, instinctive ‘reflux’ of the memory, arisen from one of the interior voices that fire his imagination. It may also happen that in a given composition Schumann quotes material from the same work, which has already previously appeared: in the concluding Marche of Carnaval a fragment from the Préambule re-surfaces. In the same piece there is also a quotation from the Grossvatertanz (marked Thème du XVII siècle), a German folk dance already used by Bach and by Schumann himself in Papillons, which here becomes the protagonist of the intense and reckless final strait of Carnaval.


In Davidsbündlertänze the reference to a previous piece occurs in an extraordinarily moving manner in the penultimate dance, which right from its start is marked Wie aus der Ferne. As Charles Rosen points out, the sense of distance, already obtained at a spatial level through the innovative wide spacing of the registers and the continuous sounding of the F sharp, is heightened also at a temporal level by the return (after about 25 minutes) of dance no. 2. This reoccurrence is not perceived as a “da capo” or recapitulation, but as “the rediscovered existence of the past within the present”. While in Carnaval the reappearance of the previous material serves to sustain a conclusion with the maximum of energy, using the same thematic material and the same key as at the beginning, in Davidsbündlertänze the gaze of the composer (and of the listener) is backward looking, and the tone of the conclusion is quite different from that of the start. The immanent melancholy of dance no. 2, in fact, gradually turns into tragedy, finally reaching an impassioned epilogue, apparently conclusive and irrevocable at the end of the penultimate dance. And yet after the final B minor chord another dance unexpectedly springs to life: the last one, in C major, a sort of waltz in an unreal climate, beyond the realms of this earth. The misgivings, the torments, the passions are now raised to a still higher spiritual plane. What was supposed to be an ending becomes at the same time a new beginning, and Schumann takes his leave with these words: “In a totally superfluous manner Eusebius added the following remark, while all the time his eyes expressed great bliss”.


Roberto Prosseda