The Classical Piano Music of Robert Schumann: The Carnaval
The “Carnaval” is one of Schumann’s best-known works for solo piano. It is a set of short character pieces brought together under a common theme indicated by the piece’s tile, “Carnaval.” Schumann’s title does not refer to the modern carnival, however, but rather to a European-style grand ball. In his mind, Schumann imagined the people, situations, moods and dances that one might encounter at such a festival and, from those impressions, created the individual movements of the “Carnaval.”
Below you will find a listening guide with individualized program notes for each movement along with a recording of each. The printable version of these notes is available here.
Schumann's Home in Germany
Robert Schumann composed in Zwickau, Germany. His house still stands there as a museum dedicated to his memory.
A List of the Movements of Schumann's "Carnaval"
- Preambule (prelude)
- Pierrot (mime of the Commedia dell'Arte, 17th Century Italy)
- Arlequin (clown of the Commedia dell'Arte, 17th Century Italy)
- Valse Noble (noble waltz)
- Eusebius (Schumann’s shy & introspective persona)
- Florestan (Schumann’s flashy and outgoing persona)
- Coquette (flirt)
- Replique (the reply)
- Papillons (butterflies)
- A.S.C.H S.C.H.A. (letters representing German musical notes)
- Chiarina (Italian for “Clara,” who became Schumann’s wife)
- Chopin (the famous piano composer)
- Estrella (an ex-girlfriend)
- Reconnaissance (meeting)
- Pantolon et Columbine (a pair of clowns from the Commedia dell'Arte, 17th Century Italy)
- Valse Allemande (a traditional court dance)
- Paganini (the famous violinist)
- Aveu (secret)
- Promenade (a stately walk)
- Pause & Marche des Davidsbundler contre les Philistins (a march in defense of quality music)
This is the opening fanfare to the carnival, followed by a kind of episodic survey of some of the moods one might encounter there. One can almost imagine walking into the ballroom to the call of the trumpets and then glimpsing the different activities taking place there.
Pierrot is a clown, the first in a number of characterizations of clowns from the 17th century Italian “Commedia dell'Arte” that Schumann includes in the piece. Pierrot is an elegant clown, though something of a klutz.
Arlequin is also a clown from the “Commedia dell'Arte,” though a markedly more graceful one. We hear him perform a bright little dance in this characterization with graceful leaps into the air.
4. Valse Noble
No carnival is complete without the noble waltz. Traditionally, it would be accompanied by a very formal and stately dance.
Schumann is known to have experienced schizophrenia to varying degrees throughout his life. It is likely that out of this tendency came “Eusebius,” the name that Schumann himself gave to the quiet, introspective part of his own personality.
This is the counterpart to Eusebius. “Florestan” is Schumann’s name for his outgoing and social side.
A coquette is a flirt. One can hear her coy little laughter directly following the intense expression of “Florestan.” The coquette is bright and fickle, but not altogether without depth.
The reply. A young man has managed to get the coquette away from the crowd and is pleading with her to accept his advances, but she maintains her flirtatious disposition until the very last moment.
Butterflies. This selection is very fast as one hears the rapid fluttering of many butterfly wings filling the sky with movement and color.
10. A.S.C.H. S.C.H.A.
These letters represent the primary musical notes on which Schumann bases this skittish little dance. The first four letters are the initials of a town where a lady who was a friend of Schumann’s lived. The second four are the musical letters from Schumann’s own name. (Not that “S” in German musical terms is equivalent to our “Eb” and “H” is equivalent to our “Bb.”)
The Italian form of the name “Clara.” This is a musical characterization of the virtuoso pianist Clara Weick, who later became Schumann’s wife. At the time when the “Carnaval” was written, Clara was only sixteen and already an accomplished pianist who had caught Schumann’s eye. The descending musical motif that is central to this movement is a melody that Schumann associated
The famous piano composer Frederick Chopin. Schumann had the utmost respect for Chopin and his music and included this movement as something of a tribute to him. This short piece captures the grace and beauty of Chopin’s musical style with remarkable accuracy.
This is a characterization of an unspecified woman who is believed to have been an ex-girlfriend of Schumann’s. Judging by the nature of the piece, it would appear that the relationship did not end well.
Meeting. The movement opens with a quiet and joyful dance. In the middle section, the dance seems to fall into the background as a pair of dancers move off to the side and we hear a baritone and a soprano voice playing off one another in musical conversation. Ere long, the voices fade, and the dance returns to close the movement.
15. Pantalon et Columbine
Pantalon and Colombine are another pair of clowns from the Italian “Commedia dell'Arte”. Schumann characterizes them together in both their playful side and their more tender side as well.
16. Valse Allemande
In this movement we hear a soft Viennese waltz interspersed with a strong Prussian one.
Paganini is perhaps the most famous violin virtuoso ever to have lived, and he is another musician for whom Schumann had a great deal of respect. The movement is fast and flashy, just like the violin performances of Paganini, and closes with a return to the music of the Vale Allemande that precedes it.
A walk around the carnival. Throughout the movement, one catches glimpses of various kinds of waltzes that are frequently followed by a kind of soft musical commentary. The movement culminates in an energetic Viennese waltz and then fades off into the distance.
20. Pause & Marche des Davidsbundler contre Les Philistins
After a brief introductory interlude, Schumann presents the Davidsbundler. In addition to being an exceptional composer, Schumann was also a noted, and often severe, music critic. He enthusiastically applauded the music he found exceptional and just as enthusiastically denounced the music he found elementary and trite. The Davidsbundler was an imaginary band of musicians that Schumann used in his music critiques to fight for the cause of good music (Eusebius, Florestan, Chopin and Paganini were all members of the Davidsbundler). This movement is a kind of music-criticism-in-sound as we hear the members of the Davidsbundler march against the Philistins (any and all those who produce or promote poor music) to finally defeat them in a climax of ever-increasing energy.