Robert Schumann’s Carnaval is a colorful suite built on a complex web of personal, psychological, and literary associations. Though its 22 fragmentary movements fly by, filled with engaging music, the piece as a whole can seem unintuitive or even esoteric—and so it benefits from some explanation.
If Carnaval is puzzling, it might be in part because there is an actual puzzle at its center. Much of the musical material derives from the name “Asch,” referring to the Bohemian hometown of Ernestine von Fricken, who was briefly Schumann’s fiancée prior to his relationship with Clara Wieck. In the German musical notation system, A-S-C-H is equivalent to the notes A, E-flat, C, B-flat. It also spells out Schumann’s middle initial (A for Alexander) followed by the beginning of his last name. Schumann called these ciphers “Sphinxes,” and provided a key to unraveling them between the eighth and ninth movements of the score.
The movement titles reference Commedia dell’arte characters, friends of Schumann, and significant musicians like Chopin and Paganini. “Eusebius” and “Florestan” were Schumann’s terms for aspects of his own temperament: “Eusebius” represented his contemplative, inward-looking side,and “Florestan” represented his passionate, extroverted side.
Schumann began writing Carnaval in 1835, when he was known primarily as a music critic and a promising pianist (though not at the virtuosic level of Clara Wieck and Franz Liszt). That same year, he edited the first official issue of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a journal that served as the mouthpiece of Schumann’s “Davidsbündler”: a conceptual literary society that included both real and fictional members. He was engaged to Ernestine, but already shifting his attention toward Clara, the teenaged daughter of his piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck. In Carnaval, “Chiarina” represents Clara while “Estrella” represents Ernestine. The finale imagines members of the “Davidsbündler” marching against artistic Philistines.
It might be tempting to explain the idiosyncrasies of this suite as early reflections of Schumann’s mental illness, which would land him in an asylum two decades later—from 1854 until his death in 1856. But they can be better justified as part of a coherent, if perhaps fantastical, artistic project to unite music with literature and criticism. Setting aside its “Sphinxes,” Carnaval grasps at a large-scale, novelistic form built from fragmentary portraits, as imagined by a young artist at a conflicted moment in his life.