Schumann’s Papillons: Uncovering Visions of the Butterfly Masquerade

by Rachel Frantsen

Figure 1: Portrait of Robert Schumann, Heinrich-Heine-Institut

“The last scene in Flegeljahre…seemed to me actually to be a new beginningalmost unaware of what I was doing, I found myself at the piano, and thus one Papillon after another was created.”1

Schumann’s second Opus, Papillons (“Butterflies”), was born at the piano before making it onto the printed page. As a performer prepares to play Papillons, he or she ideally should attempt to recreate the ideas that created the work.  As Schumann was inspired by literature, so must the performer then grasp the nature of that literature in order to fully understand the music. In analyzing both Papillons and the novel Flegeljahre by Jean Paul, as well as Schumann’s own writings on the piece, the performer must become a scholar in order to unearth Schumann’s imagined connections and gain the deeper understanding he or she needs in order to truly connect with Papillons and the heart of its composer. Robert Schumann cultivated an extraordinary affection for a wide variety of literature, especially Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, who wrote under the pen name Jean Paul.2 Jean Paul was an exceptionally popular novelist in his time as his characteristic digressive writing style exemplified the emerging Romantic ideal through exaggerated sentimentality.3 This style appealed greatly to Schumann, who borrowed from it even in his own personal writings:4  “If the entire world were to read Jean Paul…It would become a better place, but un-happier. He has often nearly driven me mad, but the rainbow of peace and of the human spirit always hovers gently above all tears, and one’s heart is marvelously exalted and gently transfigured” (5 June 1828).5 With this in mind, it seems only natural that his literary love would manifest itself in music. The first clear connection between a work by Jean Paul and one by Schumann is drawn in one of his letters to his friend Ludwig Rellstab, later published as part of his Jugendbreife (“Youth Letters”).6 In it he refers Rellstab to several passages in the last chapter of Jean Paul’s novel Flegeljahre (shown in Figure 2), linking eleven passages with ten Papillons.7 Even despite overt clarification, the work’s title was “taken literally (‘Butterflies’) almost from the very first, and the composition was thus completely misunderstood.”8 In one sense Papillons  is not a true programmatic work, since Schumann had already composed the first ten Papillons before he read Flegeljahre, and stated that only the eleventh and twelfth Papillons were directly inspired by the novel. For Papillons 1 through 10, he states having “set the text to the music, not the reverse…only the last, which by playful chance took the form of an answer to the first, was inspired by Jean Paul.”9

Figure 2: Cover of Flegeljahre

Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre, or “The Awkward Age”, features twin brothers Walt and Vult, and their reunion after a long period of separation.10 The storyline consists of Walt’s attempts to fulfill sixteen stipulations to secure his inheritance, with his brother’s help. Schumann’s Papillons focuses primarily with the last chapter of the book, during which Walt and Vult must deal with their shared affection for the lady Wina. This all takes place at a costume ball, and appropriately so, as “papillons” may also refer to the butterfly-shaped masks often worn at such masquerades. During the ball, after Walt and Wina have danced, Vult exchanges costumes with Walt and dances with Wina, posing as her brother. When she confesses her love to the man she thinks is Walt, Vult storms off. He plays the flute as he departs, unknown to Walt or Wina, the next morning.11 Flegeljahre remained an unfinished work, perhaps the reason that Schumann referred to its conclusion as “a new beginning.”12 So, what is the meaning of all this? How can a pianist voice this complicated, intricate relationship in performance?

The answer lies in intricate analysis of each piece and familiarization with Schumann’s thought process in pairing meaning with music, particularly in the two final movements, of which scholars are nearly certain Schumann composed after having read Flegeljahre.13 Besides the rather direct programmatic story cues for these particular two movements, Schumann borrows heavily from Jean Paul’s digressive and fragmentary literary style, especially in the eleventh Papillon.14 Papillon 11 is not given a direct reference to the text of Flegeljahre, but the previous one is. Papillon 10 refers to Walt’s dance with Wina, and in the very next scene (almost definitely the subject of Papillon 11) Vult dances with Wina and provokes her confession of love for Walt.15 Schumann chooses to write the eleventh Papillon as a Polonaise, a traditional Polish dance in a lively 3/4 meter with a signature rhythmic pattern. His use of the Polonaise is a poetic, rather than direct, reference to the moment during the Danse Anglaise where Wina, dancing with Vult, confesses her love for Walt using her native Polish language.16 In measures 6-7, Schumann quotes a small fragment of the “Grossvater Tanz” (Grandfather’s Dance), a seventeenth century German folk tune which in the 19th century was closely associated with the wedding dance, and pairs it with a traditional Polonaise rhythm,17 shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Papillons, Op. 2, No. 11, measures 6 – 7

Schumann subtly alludes to his use this motif as Wina’s love theme, appropriately Polish and romantic. The dramatic change in the middle of the piece, from jaunty and bright to mellow and sweet, would seem to correspond to Wina’s “avowal of love for Walt.”18 First and foremost, however, Papillon 11 is a lively, elegant dance, subtly evoking the Polonaise’s signature style in grace notes occasionally tacked onto each beat, but especially from 42 to 45 and 65 to the end. The next Papillon, the twelfth, utilizes many of these ideas from the eleventh, and also from the rest of the work, tying them all together and wrapping up the Opus.

Figure 4 shows first full iteration of the “Grossvater Tanz” motive abruptly begins Papillon 12, again representing Wina’s confession of love.

Figure 4: Papillons, Op. 2, No. 12, measures 1 – 8

The next theme that appears is the main theme heard in the first Papillon, shown in Figure 5. Schumann directly refers to this piece in the margins of his personal copy of Flegeljahre, during a moment where Walt dons his costume and mask for the first time.19

Figure 5: Papillons Op. 2, No. 12, measures 21 – 28

This theme enters the piece after a miniature “sonata” composed of Wina’s love theme has run. Over the rest of the piece, the theme is repeated and gradually fragmented until nothing remains. In this case Schumann is utilizing the theme for Walt’s mask, now worn by Vult, to paint a picture of his departure, of his flute music growing distant.20 Wina remains, as does “Grossvater Tanz”, underlying the fading flute melody and finally closing Papillons. As is evident, close musical interpretation, in tandem with literary analysis, is crucial to understanding and internalizing Schumann’s Papillons. This type of information synthesis is important most all of Schumann’s other works, especially programmatic piano cycles continued to capture his interest, later enabling the invention of Carnaval, one of his best works. Thus Papillons (appropriately) becomes an intermediate step to something greater, signaling a metamorphosis in Schumann’s thinking and compositional approach, and hopefully, in the craft of its performer as well.

1 Eric Frederick Jensen, “Explicating Jean Paul: Robert Schumann’s Program for ‘Papillons,’ Op. 2,”19th-Century Music, 22/2 (Autumn, 1998): 137.

2 Eric Frederick Jensen, Schumann (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012),48.

3 Ibid., 49.

4 Ibid., 51.

5 Ibid., 52.

6 Eric Frederick Jensen, “Explicating Jean Paul: Robert Schumann’s Program for ‘Papillons,’ Op. 2,”19th-Century Music, 22/2 (Autumn, 1998): 137.

7 Ibid., 138.

8 Hans-Christian Müller, Preface to Papillons, Op. 2. Robert Schumann’s Werke, Serie VII: Für Pianoforte zu zwei Händen, by Robert Schumann, ed. Clara Schumann(2nd Edition: Gregg International Publishers Ltd: Westmead, Farnborough, Hants., England: 1969), iv.

9 Jensen, “Explicating Jean Paul”, 139-140.

10  Ibid., 137.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 139.

14 Erika Reiman, Schumann’s Piano Cycles and the Novels of Jean Paul (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 37.

15 Jensen, “Explicating Jean Paul”, 140.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 141.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., 138.

20 Ibid., 141.

In this lesson I wanted to touch on just a few aspects of the piece that were significant to the story and to the unconventional artistic choices that Schumann made. Playing the part of my “student” was the fantastic Xuan He, who made the lesson very enjoyable and executed the piece beautifully. There were a few main points in Papillon 12 that I wanted to touch on. These were the recurring main theme, the bell-like quality and fragmented flute of the digressive section from measure 43 to 68, the voicing from measure 53 to the end, and the final three measures.

One of the most important parts of this piece, for example, is the recurring main theme, the Grossvater Tanz. The Grossvater Tanz is a slow melody associated with weddings, and when quoted, it usually lacks any particular rhythm. The significance of this melody is Schumann’s choice to pair it with a stylized, poetic use of the Polonaise rhythm. The challenge in practice was to emphasize these two aspects and their interaction. In Papillon 12, this melody enters in full starting at measure 1. Xuan played this section wonderfully, and working together as instructor and performer we added much more emphasis on the melody using a variety of techniques. First of all, we ensured the blocked chords were as connected as they could be, moderately utilizing touch pedal, almost half pedal. The second effect that we implemented, in order to highlight the Polish rhythm, was to subtly press into the beginning of the phrase and stretch its second half, creating a temporal tension and resolution to match the Polonaise’s rhythm. These performance effects sounded marvelous when combined with Xuan’s arch-contoured phrasing and clear melodic voicing.

Measures 43 to 68 are particularly important because they paint a picture of the morning church bells and Vult’s flute sounding from further and further of a distance. Schumann implements a 26-measure-long pedal tone in the left hand on D. He also clearly instructs the performer to hold the pedal down the entire time, to mimic the ringing of the bells, and not to let it up again until the last bell has rung. As the right hand plays Wina’s love theme, it symbolically diminishes in orchestration and length, directly mirroring the way Vult plays it on his flute, leaving both her and Walt because of her rejection. In order to bring out the changes from one iteration of the theme to the next, we added a subtle crescendo to each phrase repetition. This way, each time the listener expects the phrase to be carried to completion, and the next time to the length of the previous; however before the phrase does so, it ends. So even though this large section is diminishing overall, the voicing is able to keep the listener’s attention and draw ears to the specificities of the changing melody.

The final three measures seem to act as an unmetered, exaggerated depiction of the digressive idea in the second section of the piece. It does so by presenting six pitches, as he does earlier by presenting an entire theme, and then removing pitches or notes until its entirety is gone. In keeping with the same idea from earlier, we added a crescendo in the arpeggio itself, allowing the longest-held notes to keep ringing clearly until the very last toll of the bell. We also implemented a ritardando extending from the first note arpeggio to the last, rather than simply letting the ritard marking in measure 83 lead up to that point and then stop progressing. However after the arpeggio we made sure to strictly observe a consistent tempo through the unmetered, twenty-four beat measure made up of six whole notes, letting each one go quickly but not suddenly, so as to be noticeable without sacrificing the effect of church bells fading out.

This lesson was quite a useful experience, and I very much enjoyed working with Xuan. We definitely were able to implement many techniques to clarify and draw attention to the literary connections and visual ideas Schumann imagined for his work. I hope to use this lesson guide again in the future when I am teaching students of my own.


Jensen, Eric Frederick. “Explicating Jean Paul: Robert Schumann’s Program for ‘Papillons,’ Op. 2,” 19th-Century Music, 22/2 (Autumn, 1998): 127-143.

Jensen, Eric Frederick. Schumann. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Reiman, Erika. Schumann’s Piano Cycles and the Novels of Jean Paul. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2004.

Schumann, Robert. Papillons, Op. 2. Robert Schumann’s Werke, Serie VII: Für Pianoforte zu zwei Händen. Edited by Clara Schumann. 2nd Edition: Gregg International Publishers Ltd: Westmead, Farnborough, Hants., England: 1969.

Schumann, Robert. Papillons, Op. 2. Schumann: Arabeske, Papillons, Sinfonische Etüden. Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano. The Decca Record Company Limited, London: New York, 1987. Compact disc.