Reading Schumann By Way of Jean Paul and His Contemporaries

  • PDF:

Reading Schumann By Way of Jean Paul and His Contemporaries1

"Of pieces for a mosaic I have indeed enough, and to spare."

Jean Paul Richter, from "The Life of Maria Wuz, the Merry-Hearted Dominie of Auenthal"


Commenting on the reception of his Op. 2 as rendered by Clara Wieck for a soirée held at her father's home, Schumann observed in a diary entry of 28 May 1832, "It appeared to me that the Papillons didn't go over well with the assembled guests, who looked at one another in amazement, and seemed unable to comprehend the rapid succession of pieces."2 Even Clara herself seemed to have had difficulties in arriving at a convincing interpretation of these aphoristic works, which, at least on the page, seem to offer few insurmountable technical challenges.3 And shortly before Clara's performance, Schumann noted his friend Christoph Sorgel's laconic appraisal of the same composition: "We still don't understand it."4 Almost a decade later, the Op. 9 Carnaval fared little better with Liszt's Leipzig audience, who, according to Schumann's review of March 1840, could not follow its kaleidoscopic shifts of musical mood; Ferdinand Hiller's Etudes, on the other hand, were received more enthusiastically, for they "fell into a more customary form."5 Similarly, Louis Spohr failed to make much sense of the Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, whose mysteries, he felt, might be best solved if given the opportunity to hear Schumann himself perform the work.6

These comments are intended to drive home one essential point: Schumann's early collections of character pieces for piano were initially received as difficult, even incomprehensible works. They posed interpretive obstacles for performers, listeners, and critics alike, and continue to do so today.7 Edward Lippman's assertion that there is "no easy solution to the problem of the meaning of the Papillons"8 applies just as well to Schumann's other collections of the 1830s. For Schumann's music, perhaps more so than that of any of the other early Romantics, demands to be deciphered, unriddled; in a very real sense, it requires a reading. Schumann, who held a Hegelian view of music as a kind of Seelensprache, said as much in his own writings: "music would be a very limited art," he noted in 1833, "if it offered only sounds and neither a language nor signs for states of the soul."9 And writing to Ignaz Moscheles, he suggested that his Carnaval posed a musical mystery that awaited decoding: "To decipher the masked ball will be a game for you. . . ."10 Indeed, Schumann was given to approach the works of other composers in just this manner, to "read" them; speaking through his Florestan persona in the opening pages of the Symphonie Fantastique review, Schumann noted that one is able to "read in the symphony itself" how Berlioz, seized by passion, rushes toward his beloved.11

A number of studies have tackled the intriguing problem of Schumann's secret musical language, his Clara themes, his musical cryptography (the most celebrated instance being the lettres dansantes, A-S-C-H, in Carnaval), that is, the whole question of his various attempts to translate extramusical meanings into tones.12 My own concerns lie elsewhere. I would like to suggest that we can learn much about Schumann's music, especially the "incomprehensible" collections of the 1830s, by turning to the literature, philosophy, critical theory, and aesthetics of the early nineteenth century, to the body of writings by figures such as Jean Paul Richter, Novalis, Solger, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and the Schlegel brothers—writings in which Schumann began to immerse himself while only a teenager.13 Here we will look not for the specific programs or meanings that Schumann might have transformed into music, or sought to convey through music, but rather for narrative and rhetorical devices that provide compelling analogues for his musical procedures, and even more importantly, for aesthetic/critical categories that can help us to evaluate the radical language of Schumann's collections.

Not the least of the difficulties which Schumann's piano music poses is the form that much of it takes as a succession of fragments. There has been a marked tendency, extending from Schumann's day to our own, to relegate diminutive pieces to a relatively low position in the hierarchy of genres.14 Even Schumann viewed his character pieces of the 1830s as preparatory essays for works of greater scope: sonatas, concertos, fantasies.15 Yet at the same time, practically the whole of the Romantic ideology can be subsumed under a critique of the fragment. Friedrich Schlegel's concern with eternity, Schelling's doctrine of the symbol, Novalis's inward turn to dream and fairy tale, Hegel's affirmation of the disintegrating effect of the Zeitgeist, the all-pervasive imagery of the ruin in the poetry of both the English and German Romantics, the new focus on part/whole relationships and organicism—all of them circle around the notion of the fragment, that quintessentially Romantic form whose very incompleteness makes of it a cipher for the infinite.16 It was one of Schumann's achievements to have embodied this tendency so imaginatively in musical terms; to have created works, like Papillons and Carnaval, that turn on a dazzling web of associations, some apparent, others hidden, some logically developed in time, others subversive of time. And since these works are so close, in spirit and design, to collections of literary fragments—for which scholars and critics have evolved novel interpretive methods—we can profitably turn to literary theory for models that might be useful in approaching Schumann's music.17

Linking music and literature can be a dangerous business; therefore it should be made clear that this inquiry is not directed toward charting the supposed influences of one artform on the other. It is both difficult and risky to measure the degree to which Schumann was influenced even by his beloved Jean Paul, to whom he referred again and again in his critical writings and letters as one of his primary sources of artistic inspiration.18 Schumann himself would have been hardpressed to offer a simple statement of his relationship to the writer; as he put it in a diary entry of May 1828, "I have often asked myself where I would be if I had never known Jean Paul; yet he appears, at least in one respect, to be interwoven with me, for I had a presentiment of him."19 Schumann seems to be saying that Jean Paul merely deepened tendencies that he already harbored from the beginning of his compositional career—poetic tendencies that were taken over into music via a process of figural rather than literal transmutation. And Schumann offers a clue as to how this process is effected in saying of Chopin that "even he—like Jean Paul—has his complicated sentences and parentheses, over which one should not linger long during a first reading, otherwise the narrative thread might be lost."20 A particular Jean-Paulian excursus, in other words, counts for less than the general notion of digression—a narrative device for which Schumann showed a special predilection in his own music. Correspondences of this kind, therefore, speak less of influence than of what Carl Dahlhaus calls "Wechselwirkung," the mutually conditioning exchange of devices that musical and literary discourses shared in the nineteenth century, an exchange which, in my view, allows us both to posit an underlying musicoliterary notion of romantic form, and to explicate some of the more disruptive or radical tendencies in one artform by reference to the other.21

Likewise, the fundamental unanimity of Schumann's musical aesthetics and that of the literary figures of the Frühromantik might serve not only as an index of the latter's influence on the former, but also as an aid in evaluating compositional techniques for which the traditional language of musical analysis and criticism is wanting in forceful metaphors. Specifically, a number of the critical categories developed in Jean Paul's Vorschule der Ästhetik (1804/1813)—those dealing with the comic poetic modes in particular—might find ready application in Schumann's music. Although Schumann was more interested in Jean Paul's novels than his literary theories, we do know that he gave careful attention to the Vorschule.22 There he encountered a complex of ideas that would inform his own aesthetics of music: the elevation of imaginative poetry over workaday prose, the various grades of poetic Phantasie, the notion of creative energy as an amalgam of Phantasie, Gemüt, and Geist, the difference between genius, passive genius, and talent. But while these concordances have been long acknowledged,23 Jean Paul's discussions of Humor and Witz and their ready applicability to Schumann's music have received less notice. These two terms not only figure prominently in Schumann's writings, but as I hope to show, can help us to account for details in his music as well.

Although these points could be demonstrated with reference to just about any of Schumann's collections of the 1830s the following discussion centers principally on the Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, (first edition, 1837), eighteen character pieces whose cumulative richness is perhaps unequaled by any of the other piano works of the same period. Charles Rosen is certainly right in describing the Davidsbündlertänze as Schumann's most private work, a view echoed by Kathleen Dale, who goes so far as to say that it can only be fully understood by listeners well versed in the ways of Schumann's fictive crusaders against musical Philistinism, the Davidsbund.24 Of course Schumann did note in a letter to Clara that the Davidsbündlertänze were "totally different from the Karneval [sic], standing in relation to them as faces to masks,"25 a remark which seems to promise that the first-named of the two collections will yield up its hidden significations with relative ease. But Schumann's notion of the mask was certainly conditioned by the Larventanz chapter from Flegeljahre, where Jean Paul asserts that ''as stars are made visible to each other by the eclipse of the sun, these souls, though remote behind their masks, could see one another all the more clearly."26 Schumann appears to unmask, to spell out the meaning of his Davidsbündlertänze for us—through the poetic motto that heads off the collection, the inscriptions affixed to No. 9 and No. 18, and the initials ("F." for Florestan, "E." for Eusebius, the respectively exuberant and dreamy representatives of Schumann's artistic temperament) that come at the conclusion of the remaining dances. Yet an interpretation of the remark from the letter in the light of Jean Paul's paradoxically revelatory masks suggests that Schumann's verbal clues tell us less than we might think. In any event, they were removed in the second edition of 1850/51 (Davidsbündler), thus allowing the interpreter's imagination freer play in coming up with a reading. Given Schumann's view that a composition's originality can be measured in terms of the number of images or verbal associations that it suggests to the listener, the verbal clues in the first edition probably represent one possible set of extramusical references which a listener, performer, or critic might fasten upon.27 Schumann's inscriptions, in other words, needn't fetter our interpretive impulses; deeper layers of significance might emerge by viewing the Davidsbündlertänze in the light of the narrative techniques and literary theories of the early Romantic poets.



One of the principal features that Schumann and Jean Paul share as narrators is a passion for the digressive interpolation, the device which Friedrich Schlegel associates with the Arabeske in his theory of poetry. Jean Paul continually challenges his readers by interrupting the orderly, chronological flow of the narrative with lengthy asides, mini-dissertations on humorous or satirical subjects, or narrative excursions that introduce new themes, characters, and situations—any of which might function as variations on elements from the main plot. Thus, in Die unsichtbare Loge (1793), the digression on "Hohe Menschen" (elevated beings more concerned with philosophical issues than worldly matters) at the end of Part I helps to draw our attention to the psychological workings of the "Hohe Menschen," like Dr. Fenk, in the surrounding narrative. Likewise, the schoolmaster Maria Wuz, whose tale forms an appendix to the same novel, moves between a higher world of fantasy and a lower world of small-town officials, both of which are vividly portrayed in the novel's principal narrative. In Flegeljahre (1804-05), the digressions actually form a mini-novel in its own right called Hoppelpoppel (meaning scrambled eggs, meat, and potatoes), for which the dreamy Walt supplies the rapturous passages and his brother Vult the satirical asides; Jean Paul provides a link with the main narrative in a particularly ingenious way, for Vult learns of Walt's love for Wina by reading his brother's contributions to Hoppelpoppel.28 Narrative digressions of this sort seem to place the conventional notion of plot in an ironic light, if we take plot to mean an ordered and closed succession of events inextricably and causally linked. And if Jean Paul thought that ours was a fundamentally discordant, paradoxical, and ambiguous world, then what better way to affirm this view poetically than through the intentionally ambiguous structures of his novel?

I have shown elsewhere how Schumann employs a musical analogue for the literary Arabeske, or digression, in one of his most impressive essays in sonata form, the opening movement of the C major Fantasy for piano, Op. 17, where the progress of the recapitulation is interrupted by a self-sufficient character piece, "Im Legendenton," that can be interpreted as a nexus of subtle variations on the music surrounding it.29 What is striking in a collection like the Davidsbündlertänze is the construction of the whole as a continual series of interruptions, a dizzying notion as Roland Barthes would have it, and rightly so.30 No less than Jean Paul, Schumann was intent on fashioning ironic commentaries on conventional plot structures, commentaries that play themselves out entirely in tones.31 Of course, a "critique" of this sort presupposes the presence of some sort of connective thread, narrative structure, or plot, from which to deviate or upon which to comment playfully. In the Davidsbündlertänze we can intuit such a structure; it is projected through the succession of tonalities (proceeding mainly by third and fifth) that help link one dance with the next, and through the design or pattern which the whole seems to take. But Schumann's narrative is difficult both to define and follow, first because the central tonality of the cycle is obliquely affirmed and elaborated, and second because it is possible to identify the workings of several designs, all of them operating simultaneously. The result is a musical plot that is purposely ambiguous, and richly suggestive because of its very ambiguity.

We can begin by considering the tonal issue (See Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Davidsbündlertänze, Tonal/Formal Overview*


No. Tonality Form

Heft I:

1 G A[ab]A'[ab]A''[ab] (theme and 2 "fantasy" Variations)
2 Bm A : | | : B : | | : A
3 G A1 | B | A2 (= fragmented ternary; Al = opening of A2)
4 Bm Al & A2 : | | (= expanded period)
5 D AB A' | | : B' AB
6 Dm A | : B C A | B & Coda (monomotivic)
7 Gm A : | | : B C1 C2 C3 B (= fragmented ternary)
8 Cm Al : | | : B A2
9 C A | | : B A & Coda

Heft II:

10 Dm Al : | | Bl Al | | : B2 A2 (= rondo and/or expanded binary)
11 Bm/D A | : B A' | : B' A (= fragmented ternary)
12 Bm/E A | | : Bl A2 : | B2 (fragment)
13 Bm/B Al : | B A2 C | : D : | | & Coda (= double binary)
14 vol30id99 Al : | : B A2 & Coda
15 vol30id99 A Bl : | : C B2 A
16 G-V/B A : | B A' & Trio [on ABA'] (= fragmented ternary)
17 B/Bm A B A & C : | : D | C & Coda
18 C Al : | B A2 (monomotivic)

* Superscript strokes ( ' ) indicate variations; superscript numerals indicate sections sharing the same material, but which, due to deviations in harmony and/or syntax, cannot strictly speaking be considered as variations (Nos. 4 and 12 excepted), all of them variants of A B A, A A' A, A A' A" or similar schemes.

Although B minor is the controlling tonality of the collection, this is by no means clear at the outset, where G seems to have priority. The B minor of Nos. 2 and 4 appears to connect the G of the opening with the D tonality of Nos. 5 and 6, which is in turn undermined by the falling fifths of Nos. 7-9. After D is reasserted in No. 10, via its corresponding minor, B minor comes increasingly to the fore: it serves as the initiating key of Nos. 11-13, and after being circumscribed by upper and lower thirds in No. 14 (in vol30id99) and No. 16 (in G), its priority is clinched in No. 17, whose conclusion recalls the music of No. 2. B minor thus emerges retrospectively as the tonal focus around which the subsidiary tonalities orbit at the third below (G) or above (D, vol30id99), but its centrality is established only after a series of dodges and snares; it is highly appropriate, then, that it should be just as capriciously abandoned at the conclusion of the work (in C) as it was curiously alluded to at the outset.

As for overall design, the musical analogue for a discursive plot, Schumann has allowed for a multiplicity of possibilities; the Davidsbündlertänze might be viewed as conforming to any and all of the following formal paradigms: 1) the variation set, 2) a large bipartite form, or 3) an arch pattern. Remarkably enough, no two pieces in the collection share exactly the same form, although several groups do share rather similar patterns (cf. Nos. 1 and 5; 3, 7, 11; 8, 9, 14, 18; and 13, 17, in Fig. 1). Still, most of the pieces adhere to or incorporate tripartite forms of some variety.

Thus the whole might be viewed as a sequence of variations on a pattern as opposed to a theme. But the larger shape which the "variations" suggest is curiously fragmented. In fact, as we proceed through the collection, the tendency toward incompleteness intensifies (see Fig. 1). The opening portion of No. 3 is an eight-measure fragment modulating from G to B minor, the first half of a binary unit whose responsive half is withheld until the end of the piece. The pattern is reversed in No. 7, which closes with only the second half of the binary unit which initiates the piece, producing a form that is further varied in No. 11, where the first half of the opening binary unit serves as a close. No. 16 lacks a conclusion altogether; the middle section, which Schumann ironically labels "Trio," never reverts to the opening "Mit gutem Humor," but rather leads directly into No. 17. Even the opening A B A unit of No. 16 is a fragment; both As conclude, not in the tonic (G), but with a cadence on the dominant (D). The lack of tonal closure in Nos. 11 (B minorvol30id99D), 12 (B minorvol30id99E), and 16 (Gvol30id99V/B) also suggests incompleteness, as does the peculiar use of repeat signs in Nos. 9, 10, and 13 (pieces that are tonally and formally closed), such that some sections are repeated, and others, for no apparent reason, are not.32 In a word, the "variation" set is fragmented as a whole and in its many parts.

At the same time, the collection is clearly divided into two equal parts, comprising Nos. 1-9 and Nos. 10-18. Schumann himself, in a letter of 20 October 1837, described the Davidsbündlertänze as "2 Hefte Tänze,"33 and spelled out the 9 + 9 division in the publication. Other features articulate the same binary division: Nos. 9 and 10, and therefore Parts 1 and 2, are separated by the tonal disjunction between C and D minor, while the tonalities of most other adjacent dances are more closely related by third or fifth. Likewise, Nos. 9 and 18 mark the close of each half by sharing the same tonality, C, and by employing verbal superscriptions as opposed to tempo marks ("Florestan, his lips twitching painfully, concluded with this" for No. 9, and "Eusebius made the following supplementary remarks; moreover, much bliss emanated from his eyes" for No. 18).

As a third possibility, the recurrence of the music of No. 2 in the closing portion of No. 17, both times in B minor, suggests an arch-like or circular form—but not quite, for the correspondences between the second and penultimate pieces clearly leave the circle open at both ends. The G major of No. 1, then, makes for a protracted off-tonic opening. And, as Schumann's inscription tells us, Eusebius adds No. 18, a delicate waltz, as a kind of afterthought ("zum Überfluss"). This is magically represented in the music, again through tonal means: No. 18 begins with a powerfully evocative and ambiguous sonority, which places the V7 of C over a low C in the bass, so that the C major waltz that ensues seems outside the tonal orbit of the set; yet in another sense it can be interpreted as a dreamy emanation from the preceding piece, since the opening chord shares B and D with the closing B minor chord of No. 17. The resultant tonal and melodic open-endedness of the collection makes it into a musical cipher for the infinite, much as the ambiguity of Jean Paul's quirkily unresolved endings serves a similar end.34 None of my three interpretations is necessarily the right one; the perspicacious "reader" might in fact be able to uncover more. It is rather the uncovering of their simultaneous presence that counts, for here again we encounter, via the multivalence of the total form, a musical projection of the infinite. And this seems to be the point of Schumann's—and Jean Paul's—predilection for the digression and the ambiguous or open-ended plot. Their respective texts adhere to no fixed boundaries: just as Dr. Fenk migrates from Die Unsichtbare Loge to Hesperus, and several characters from Hesperus make an appearance in Siebenkäs, so the Grossvatertanz from Papillons (No. 12) figures in the virtuoso close of Carnaval, the first waltz of Papillons is recalled in "Florestan" from Carnaval, and a prominent phrase from the "Promenade" in Carnaval resurfaces in No. 3 of the Davidsbündlertänze. The fanciful treatment of plot and characters, or design and themes, makes for artful presentations of the infinitely mobile within the confines of structures that must necessarily come to an end. And at the same time, our recognition of Schumann's structural vagaries and capriciousness compels us to expand our powers as musical "readers." As Schumann once noted, both Schubert and Jean Paul (and he might well have added his own name) were reluctant to bring their works to a conclusion, "and to be sure for the best reason: to let the reader imagine it for himself."35



One of Schumann's most illuminating appraisals of Jean Paul's works appears in a diary entry of August 1828: "J[ean) Paul possesses a threefold spirit made up of feeling ("Gemüth"), humor ("Humor"), and wit ("Witz"), just as there are three kinds of turkey meat; each element explains the other, and they are as closely related as the three kinds of meat."36 The terms ("Gemüth," "Humor," "Witz") recur frequently in Schumann's writings, and often in connection with Jean Paul, as in a letter to Simonin de Sire, where "Humor" is described as the successful fusion of the "Gemütlich und Witzig."37 Two points, I think, are of special significance. First, these are qualities which Schumann also associated with the music of his day, and thus, we can assume, sought to embody in his own work; as he put it to his friend Gustav Keferstein, modern music attempts to bring together the "Tiefcombinatorische" (i.e., the profoundly combinative, a designation often coupled with "Witz" by the early Romantics), "Poetische," and "Humoristische."38 Second, two of the terms, "Humor" and "Witz," are treated at some length in Jean Paul's Vorschule der Ästhetik, one of the chief merits of which is precisely this emphasis on categories that characterize the comic modes.39 Thus, we can profitably turn to the Vorschule for an explication of categories that Schumann would attempt to project, analogically, into his music.

Although Jean Paul's account of the literary modes is not always easy to follow (his idiosyncratic diction and verbal somersaults intentionally preclude the kind of detached presentation that one might hope for in a theory of poetry), it is nonetheless clear that "Humor" is intended as a principle of all-pervasive and irresolvable duality. It produces its startling contrasts by applying "finitude to the infinite," by setting the transcendental ideas of reason against the fixed concepts of the understanding (a trope on Kantian doctrine).40 The humorous poet, in other words, holds to a double point of view, so that he will often present his notion of the world in the form of antithetical characters, like Jean Paul's mild-mannered Siebenkäs and cynical Leibgeber, or his idealistic Walt and pragmatic Vult. He delights in contrasting the "small world" and the "infinite world," thus producing "a kind of laughter. . . which contains pain and greatness,"41 as Jean Paul does in playing off "Hohe Menschen" and eccentric or petty townsfolk, serious philosophical discourse and the shopworn conventions of the Trivialroman (mistaken identities, unknown parentage, and the like), "pigtails and moonlight."42 It is "Humor" which accounts for Jean Paul's cultivation of two distinct modes of discourse in his novels: the first a "high" style characterized by extravagant and rapturous language, the second a "low" style of minute, realistic depiction. For Jean Paul then, whether as theorist or novelist, the essence of "Humor" resides in dualistic confrontations which allow for no resolution; what he calls "annihilating humor" in the Vorschule (and compares, interestingly enough, with unusual tonal sequences in the music of Haydn) "delights even in contradictions and impossibilities"—it is "fond of the emptiest conclusions."43

Perhaps the last-quoted passage impressed the young Schumann, who similarly ascribed the difficulty of his Papillons to their "Sich-selbst-vernichten" ("self-annihilation"): "they alternate so quickly, their colors are so varied, and the listener has the previous page in his head when the player has already finished the piece."44 Elsewhere in his writings, Schumann accords to musical "Humor" a position of importance analogous to that which it occupies in Jean Paul's aesthetics of poetry; no less exalted a repertory than Beethoven's late instrumental music is viewed in terms of the irreconcilable contrasts generated by the spirit of "Humor."45 In a word, both Jean Paul and Schumann took their "Humor" very seriously.

In the Davidsbündlertänze, the element of "Humor" is omnipresent; in fact, if the collection is about anything at all, it is about the musical presentation of humorous antitheses. These are manifest most obviously in the intermingling of "Florestan" pieces (Nos. 3, 4, 6, 8-10, 12, 16) marked by rapid tempi, driving rhythms, and irregular metric accents or phrasing (as in Nos. 6, 8, and 10) with "Eusebius" pieces (Nos. 2, 5, 7, 11, 14, 17, and 18) of a more expressive character. Even the poetic maxim which prefaces the collection:

In all' und jeder Zeit
Verknüpft sich Lust und Leid;
Bleibt fromm in Lust und seyd
Dem Leid mit Muth bereit.

(In each and every age
Joy and sorrow are bound together;
Remain pious in joy, and be
Ready to face sorrow with courage.)

with its pairing of alliterative opposites, "Lust und Leid," presages the humorous contrasts that will ensue. But the element of "Humor" reaches deeper. Like Jean Paul in his novels, so Schumann here brings together a "high" world and a "low" world—the latter represented by the popular waltz topos that runs through so many pieces in the collection. It is significant that such a large number of Schumann's early character pieces should take the waltz as their point of departure (the Papillons, for instance, drew liberally on waltzes that Schumann had composed in the late 1820s).46 For on one hand, Schumann clearly viewed the dance, and the waltz in particular, as a musical symbol for the ordinary as opposed to the poetic life; Johann Strauss Sr., whom many of the Davidsbündler would have dismissed as a composer of decidedly trivial music, was for Schumann "the most representative composer, in a way, of our time."47 On the other hand, Schumann indicates again and again in his writings of the late 1820s and 1830s that he is setting out to create extraordinary utterances in tone that will raise music to the level of poetry. Thus, in the Davidsbündlertänze, the way to musical poetry is cleared by poeticizing the commonplace, by the humorous commingling of high and low styles. In No. 3, for instance, the jaunty waltz theme generates a number of short-lived canonic parries between bass and treble (mm. 9-32), first at the distance of one measure, then of two. But nowhere is the humorous mixture of the artful and the ordinary better exemplified than in the first piece of the set (a joint effort of Florestan and Eusebius), where the thumping waltz bass merges with more graceful arpeggio patterns, at first rising, and then through a not-so-artful application of inversion, falling (mm. 14ff.). Furthermore, the rhythmic regularity of the waltz bass is offset by the numerous suspensions that prevent melody notes from falling on downbeats. Likewise, the variation form of the piece—an example of what Constantin Floros would call the "Phantasie-variation"48—is of greater complexity than a cursory listening might suggest. The first half of the first variation presents the theme's melodic descent from B to D in freely diminuted form, coupling it with a complementary descent from G to B; likewise, the leisurely descending arpeggios of the theme's second half are compressed into three gestures: a cascading plummet to E, then D (mm. 34-39), and a new cadential figure in G (mm. 39-41). As if to compensate for the compression of the first variation, the second is marked by various expanding techniques: the sighs of the first half of the waltz theme are spun out in a series of rising sequences, so that what was originally an eight-measure phrase grows to over double its length, and the second half of the variation rounds out the whole by supplying the cadential gestures from both the theme and the first variation. The "fantasy-variation" idea emerges in No. 3 as well. Its central "Schneller" section is built almost entirely around a recurrent bass figure which Schumann treats much like an ostinato or ground; at one point (mm. 45ff.) he even manages to combine it with a prominent motive from the "Promenade" in Carnaval.

Humorous duality emerges in other, more subtle ways as well, principally through Schumann's playful handling of tonality in a number of the pieces in the set. No. 3, for instance, begins and ends in G, the primacy of which is immediately challenged; the opening flourishes cadence in B minor already in mm. 7-8, and D, asserted in the following bar, remains in control for much of the remainder of the piece. The converse in terms of tonal direction obtains in No. 15, whose lengthy central section, in E flat, is framed by two eight-bar phrases in B flat. In the first piece, the "true" tonic is perhaps the dominant (D), and in the second, the subdominant (E flat). The D tonality of No. 5 (a three-part form whose central portion offers a variation of the main tune) is called into question by a concluding cadence which makes us hear D as the dominant of G; much as No. 12 commences firmly in B minor but closes (just as firmly) in E, so that it would be difficult to say whether the piece moves from tonic to major subdominant or from minor dominant to tonic if Schumann's one-sharp key signature did not indicate the latter, at least to the eye. The tonal duality in No. 11 (similar in form to No. 5) hinges on a third relationship; its opening phrase, in B minor, is complemented by two closing phrases which move, like the piece as a whole, to the relative major.49 And lastly, No. 16 states another third relationship by progressing from a firm G major opening to a conclusion on the dominant of B, which in turn allows for a direct link with the ensuing piece, also in B. Schumann even labels the piece "Mit gutem Humor," which might then not only refer to its metric irregularities, but to the tonal dualism which it embodies.

Listening to the Davidsbündlertänze, we have the impression that Schumann has done more than merely assemble a group of delightful, but essentially slight and unrelated miniatures. There is a definite sense that the pieces in the collection make up a coherent entity, although the precise nature of this coherence is difficult to pinpoint. As we have seen, coherence arises in part from the tonal plan, and from the various possible formal designs which this plan articulates. But there is more. I would argue that Schumann was striving for a new, fanciful coherence; as he put it himself in a review of 1836; "today people are interested in thoughts, inner coherence, poetic totality—all of them bathed in a refreshing fantasy."50 And crucial to understanding how the "fantastic" coherence of the Davidsbündlertänze differs from that of, say, a symphonic or sonata movement, is the poetic faculty which Jean Paul and his contemporaries called "Witz." Drawing on elements from the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, many of the early Romantics allotted "Witz" a place of importance in the new aesthetics. For Jean Paul, it is the power which, proceeding with the rapidity of a flash of lightning, discovers remote similarities between apparently incommensurable terms. Chiefly a function of the imagination, it holds out the possibility for poetry to demonstrate that the most disparate entities are mystically related, if only the sensitive reader can fathom their relationship.51 At once a property of a given text and present in the mind of the text's alert reader, "Witz" is an associative power, as Karl Solger pointed out in his Erwin (1816); it manifests itself in "relationships and opposites, and not by means of unfolding and development."52 In addition, "Witz" figures as one of the chief terms in Friedrich Schlegel's critical arsenal. Commenting on the apparent fragmentariness of Lessing's output, Schlegel maintains that it is nonetheless unified by the power of "kombinatorische 'Witz,'" a stratum of hidden and purely internal associations that animate and shape the whole.53 It is "Witz" which is necessary in order to grasp the hidden coherence in, for example, the 156 laconic fragments that comprise Schlegel's Ideen (1800).54 The collection was meant to elaborate several themes—the relationship between poetry and philosophy, the nature of religion, the new role of the creative artist—but Schlegel intentionally withheld an arrangement whereby his thoughts on anyone of these issues might be logically unfolded in a continuous series. One must constantly refer from one fragment to several others that may occupy positions at a considerable remove, not only to piece together a coherent train of thought, but to attempt to fathom Schlegel's mysterious prose, shot through with paradoxical references to a "new mythology," "infinite plenitude," and "well-formed chaos"—terms whose meanings are less important than the new approach to reading which the search for meaning teaches.

If Schlegel was able to rescue Lessing's work from the charge of fragmentation by appealing to the animating powers of "Witz," then Schumann similarly defended Berlioz's efforts from the charge of formlessness ("Unförmlichkeit") by noting the "spiritual coherence" ("geistige Zusammenhang") which shapes them.55 And in a review of 1835, he describes a musical analogue for poetic "Witz" in noting that composers should not necessarily restrict the appearance of an idea to a single movement, but should rather "conceal" it ("man versteckte sie"), make abstruse and varied allusions to it, in subsequent movements as well.56 Schumann's music abounds in relationships of this sort, "witty" connections that are neither immediately apparent, contiguously presented, nor logically spun out through developmental procedures of a traditional sort. Take his treatment of the opening eight bars of No. 1 of the Davidsbündlertänze: a two-measure motto (drawn from the first of two mazurkas in Clara Wieck's Soirées musicales, Op. 6), its continuation, and the initial gesture of the piece's main waltz tune (see Ex. 1).


Example 1. Davidsbündlertänze, No. 1, mm. 1-8.



In a sense, the first five measures stand fundamentally apart from what follows (much like the verbal mottos that head many of the chapters in Jean Paul's novels). The ensuing waltz tune and its variations elaborate three gestures—an incomplete waltz bass ( vol30id99vol30id99vol30id99 instead of vol30id99vol30id99vol30id99 ), a rising arpeggio, and a metrically displaced sigh figure—none of which seem to have much to do with the sharply profiled mazurka figure of the motto. But in fact, the sighs of the waltz melody simply invert, and rhythmically dislocate, the pattern of m. 4, and will resurface in varying guises later on in the set: in Nos. 2, 7, 14, 15, and as if to round off the work, in the last two pieces, Nos. 17 and 18. Likewise, the chromatically enlivened arpeggio of the waltz theme is reworked later in the piece (together with the sigh), as a cadential figure (Ex. 2),


Example 2. Davidsbündlertänze, No. 1, mm. 39-41.



and will recur as the accompanimental pattern in No. 14 (Ex. 3).


Example 3. Davidsbündlertänze, No. 14, mm. 1-3.



The introductory measures of No. 1 furthermore present an important tonal topos, the dualism of third-related tonalities, here inscribed by a move from G to the dominant of E minor, and later elaborated in Nos. 11 (B minor/D), 12 (B minor/G/E) and 16 (G/B minor). Even the single pitch B, retained from the second chord of m. 4, has important implications, for it presages the B minor tonality around which the entire set revolves.57 And of course, the figure toward which the opening five measures aspire, the waltz motive, adumbrates the waltz topos and its derivatives that inform Nos. 2, 3, 4, 17, and 18. As Linda Roesner has shown, Schumann originally sketched out portions of a G minor dance for inclusion in the set whose motivic substance was drawn directly from the motto, but subsequently abandoned the idea.58 We might now interpret this as a conscious decision on Schumann's part to eschew obvious relationships and opt instead for remote, "witty" connections such as those that have been pointed out. The opening eight measures of No. 1, then, provide us with a cluster of topoi—a gesture (the sigh), a tonal relationship, a pitch (B), and a dance character (the waltz)—each of which becomes the subject of witty elaborations of one sort or another.

Viewed as a network of allusive musical ideas, the Davidsbündlertänze partake of a fanciful variation technique, where it is not so much a question of a single theme or set of themes that are systematically varied, but rather of a family of gestures, whose recurrence and degree of working-out cannot be predicted, but that nonetheless ensure a measure of coherence for the set. The opening piece obviously serves as a repository for many of these, although significant ideas are introduced in subsequent pieces as well. The cross accents and metric displacements of the central portion of No. 6, for instance, are echoed in No. 16, where downbeats are suddenly reinterpreted as upbeats, and implied 2/4 and 4/4 groupings jostle the notated 3/4 meter. No. 8, the only piece in the set whose phrase-lengths consistently depart from four-square regularity, belongs here as well. Similarly, Nos. 9 and 10 are bound together by shared metric preoccupations. While the former cannot decide on 3/4 (the notated meter, which doesn't assert itself until m. 9) or 3/2, the latter takes the hemiola idea to a further remove, often juxtaposing an implied 6/8 in the treble and 3/4 in the bass. The chromatic bass-line which supports the recitative-like beginning of No. 7 finds its parallel at the beginning of No. 9. In addition, the off-tonic opening in both cases suggests that we have tuned in to music already in progress, thus further bringing together two pieces of widely varying moods. A similar figure recurs as support for the main tune of No. 12 which, we have seen, also features an off-tonic opening, if only in retrospect. Nos. 3, 13, and 16 share neither gestures nor motives, but rather the technique of imitation: the short-lived melodic canons of Nos. 3 (mm. 9ff.) and 16 (mm. 9ff.) link up with the rhythmic canon between treble and bass in No. 13.

None of these connections should be pressed too far. Some listeners might well detect others that are more compelling, or take issue with some of those that have been suggested. The principal point, however, still holds: the Davidsbündlertänze force us to listen in radically new ways, so that even our notions of logical succession are challenged. For fragments, whether musical or literary, are mobile entities, subject less to a fixed order than to what Friedrich Schlegel paradoxically, but aptly called an "artful disorder" ("künstliche Unordnung").59 Thus, the sequence of movements in the Davidsbündlertänze (or any of Schumann's other collections for that matter) is interpretable as one possible ordering out of many others. We know from Schumann's sketches and drafts that the precise succession of the dances was in a continual state of flux (so that the earlier orderings cannot begin to be untangled with any exactitude) until the very end of the compositional process.60 Similar experiments with order are apparent from the sketches for Papillons; and, as Patrick McCreless has recently argued, Schumann considered two quite different, but equally effective orderings for the Op. 39 Liederkreis.61 This does not mean that we can simply reshuffle the pieces in a collection at will, but rather that we as listeners (much like Schumann the composer) are compelled to fashion, out of possibly non-adjacent movements, groupings whose extent will vary depending on the degree to which we exercise the faculty of "Witz."

It is hardly surprising that Roland Barthes, critical devotee of the "plural," "multivalent" text that he was, should have been so drawn to Schumann's piano music. In an essay on the Kreisleriana, Op. 16, he claims to hear nothing that would allow him "to reconstruct an intelligible structure of the work,"62 that is, a single intelligible structure, and I imagine that he would say much the same of the Davidsbündlertänze. Its richness likewise derives from the plurality of its structures: fanciful variation set, two-part form, open-ended arch pattern, alternation of the stylistically "high" and "low," system of "witty" allusions, chain of fragments. And not only does its richness stem from this multiplicity, but also the sense of incomprehensibility that this work, like so many of Schumann's creations, has elicited from its interpreters.

1This article is a revised version of a paper given at the Fourth Annual Colloquium of the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies Association, Portland State University, April 1989. I would like to extend my thanks to my colleague, Dr. Mark Evan Bonds, and my graduate assistant, Mr. James A. Davis, for their thoughtful comments and criticisms of earlier versions of this essay.

2Robert Schumann, Tagebücher, Band I, 1827-1838, hrsg. Georg Eisman (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1971), 339. All translations are mine unless noted otherwise.

3Tagebücher, 395; diary entry for 23 May 1832.

4Tagebücher, 397.

5Robert Schumann, Gesammelten Schriften über Musik und Musiker [hereafter GS], hrsg. Martin Kreisig, I (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1914): 484.

6Letter of 22 April 1838 from Spohr to Henriette Voigt, quoted in Wolfgang Boetticher, Robert Schumanns Klavierwerke-Neue biographische und textkritische Untersuchungen-Teil I. Opus 1-6 (Wilhelmshaven: Heinrichshofen's Verlag, 1976), 165.

7For a discussion of contemporary reviews of Opus 2, the Opus 4 Intermezzi, and Opus 6, see Boetticher, Schumanns Klavierwerke, 54, 113, 166; and also Tagebücher, 401, 425-26, 432.

8Edward Lippman, "Theory and Practice in Schumann's Aesthetics," JAMS 17 (1964): 320.

9GS I: 22.

10Letter of 23 August 1837; R. Schumanns Briefe, Neue Folge, hrsg. F. G. Jansen (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1886/1904), 92.

11GS II: 213. And further on in the same review: "I have carefully read through Florestan's words about the symphony and the symphony itself" (GS II: 215).

12See in particular Eric Sams, "The Tonal Analogue in Schumann's Music," Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 96 (1969-70): 103-117; Thomas Koenig, "Robert Schumann's Kinderszenen, Op. 15—Hermeneutische und form-analytische Untersuchungen," Musik-Konzepte, Sonderband, Robert Schumann 2 (1982): 299-318; Constantin Floros, "Schumanns musikalische Poetik," Musik-Konzepte, Sonderband, Robert Schumann 1 (1981): 90-104.

13See Leon Plantinga, Schumann as Critic (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1967), 61-69, for a discussion of Schumann's study of the early Romantic writers.

14See, for instance, L. Rellstab's review of the Intermezzi, Op. 4 (in which he saw "only the aphoristic"), quoted in part in Boetticher, Schumanns Klavierwerke, 113.

15See Schumann's self-disparaging comments on the Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 (as a mere gathering together of "little pieces"), quoted in Boetticher, Schumanns Klavierwerke, 165.

16See especially Thomas McFarland, Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 6-53; and Kathleen Wheeler, German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism—The Romantic Ironists and Goethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 10-13.

17See, e.g., Marcus Bullock, "Eclipse of the Sun: Mystical Terminology, Revolutionary Method and Esoteric Prose in Friedrich Schlegel," Modern Language Notes 98 (1983): 454-83; and Margaret R. Higonet, "Organic Unity and Interpretive Boundaries: Friedrich Schlegel's Theories and Their Application in his Critique of Lessing," Studies in Romanticism 19 (1980): 163-92.

18Many studies have been devoted to the question of Jean Paul's influence on Schumann; see Arnold Schmitz, "Die ästhetischen Anschauungen Robert Schumanns in ihren Beziehungen zur romantischen Literatur," Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft 3 (1920-21): 111-18; H. Kotz, Der Einfluss Jean Pauls auf Robert Schumann (Weimar, 1933); Robert L. Jacobs, "Schumann and Jean Paul," Music and Letters 30 (1949): 250-58; Linda Siegel, "The Interrelationship Between German Romantic Literature and German Romantic Music in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century," Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1964, 230-58. Among the many references to Jean Paul in Schumann's writings, see in particular Tagebücher, 82, 83, 96, 104, 105, 111, 113, 142, 410; GS I: 44, 74, 463; GS II: 13, 115.

19Tagebücher, 82-83.

20Review of 1841; GS II: 13.

21See my "Schumann's 'Im Legendenton' and Friedrich Schlegel's Arabeske," Nineteenth Century Music 11 (1987): 161-63; and Carl Dahlhaus, Die Idee der absoluten Musik (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1978), 143.

22See Floros, "Schumanns musikalische Poetik," 90.

23See Schmitz, "Die ästhetischen Anschauungen," 90.

24See Kathleen Dale, "The Piano Music," in Schumann, A Symposium, ed. Gerald Abraham (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), 51; and Charles Rosen, Liner Notes for "Schumann—The Revolutionary Masterpieces," Nonesuch 9 79062-4.

25Letter of March, 1838; Jugendbriefe von R. Schumann, nach den Originalen mitgetheilt von Clara Schumann (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1886), 279.

26Jean Paul Richter, Werke, Zweiter Band (München: Hanser, 1959), 1050. On Schumann's fascination with the imagery of masks, see Lippman, "Theory and Practice," 314-18, 322-23.

27Schumann, Tagebücher, 410. Or, as Carl Dahlhaus puts it, in Nineteenth-Century Music; trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988; orig. publ. 1980), 145: the mottos and eloquent titles of Schumann's piano pieces sometimes "appear to mean more than they actually say."

28See Eric A. Blackall, The Novel of the German Romantics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 71-73, 92-94.

29Daverio, "Schumann's 'Im Legendenton'," 150-63.

30Roland Barthes, "Loving Schumann." in The Responsibility of Forms (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), 295.

31See also the discussion in Anthony Newcomb, "Schumann and Late Eighteenth-Century Narrative Strategies," Nineteenth Century Music 11 (1987): 165-70.

32In the second edition of 1850-51, Schumann downplayed this element by adding repeats in Nos. 9 and 13.

33Briefe, Neue Folge, 102.

34See Blackall, 90, 92, on the open-ended form of Titan and Flegeljahre.

35GS I: 463.

36Schumann, Tagebücher, 105.

37Briefe, Neue Folge, 148; see also Tagebücher, 133, 142; GS I: 2; and GS II: 436.

38Letter of 31 January 1840; Briefe, Neue Folge, 151.

39See, e.g., René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950, Volume 2, The Romantic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981; orig. publ. 1955), 105-107; and Blackall, 96.

40Jean Paul, Werke, V (1963): 124-25.

41Jean Paul, Werke, V: 125-26.

42Blackall, 95.

43Jean Paul, Werke, V: 131-32.

44Diary entry of 9 June 1832; Tagebücher, 407.

45GS I: 112; GS II: 72; cf. Edler, 70, 146-48.

46See Boetticher, 62-68, where it is shown that Nos. 2, 6, and 7 were probably first intended for a set of Sechs Walzer.

47GS I: 389; cf. GS I: 107, 252.

48Constantin Floros, Brahms und BrucknerStudien zur musikalische Exegetik (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1980), 122-23.

49Examples of tonal duality involving third relationships occur in many of the pieces from other collections as well, e.g., Nos. 4 and 7 from Papillons; "Replique" and "Aveu" from Carnaval; and No. 7 from Kreisleriana. Of the seven miniature movements of the Humoreske, Op. 20, two open in the relative minor (G) and close in major (vol30id99).

50Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 5 (1836): 68; for a discussion of cohesiveness in Schumann's song cycles of the 1840s, see Barbara Turchin, "Robert Schumann's Song Cycles: the Cycle Within the Song," Nineteenth Century Music 8 (1985): 231-44.

51Jean Paul, Werke, V: 167-75, 182-85.

52Trans. Joyce Crick in Wheeler, German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism, 145.

53"Lessings Gedanken und Meinungen" (1804), in Kritische Friedrich Schlegel Ausgabe [KFSA], III, hrsg. Hans Eichner (Zürich, 1975): 84; see also KFSA XI, hrsg. Ernst Behler (1958): 93, where "Witz" is described as "a thought-complex of infinite variety and richness."

54KFSA II, hrsg. Hans Eichner (München, 1967): 256-72. Schlegel's literary/philosophical fragments, much like Schumann's sets of character pieces, were often criticized for their incomprehensibility. Schlegel responded in 1800 with a consistently ironic and aptly titled essay, "Über die Unverständlichkeit" ("On Incomprehensibility"), KFSA II: 363-72.

55GS I: 74.

56GS I: 59; for other references to "Witz" in Schumann's writings, see Tagebücher I: 105, 133, 142.

57Schumann eliminated the held B from the second edition, thus withholding another clue to the "meaning" (in this case, the tonal meaning) of the set.

58Linda Correll Roesner, "The Source for Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6: Composition, Textual Problems, and the Role of the Composer as Editor," in Mendelssohn and Schumann, Essays on Their Music and Its Context, eds. Jon. W. Finson and R. Larry Todd (Durham: Duke University Press, 1984), 58.

59KFSA II: lxxxii-lxxxiii.

60See Roesner, 57-58.

61See Boetticher, 75-77; and Patrick McCreless, "Song Order in the Song Cycle: Schumann's Liederkreis, Opus 39," Music Analysis 5 (1986): 5, 17-26.

62Roland Barthes, "Rasch," in The Responsibility of Forms, 299.

Read 4257 times

Last modified on Tuesday, 23/10/2018

Go to top