Tien Hsieh’s decision to couple Robert Schumann’s Opus 2 (“Papillons”) with his Opus 9 (Carnaval) for her second celebration of the bicentennial of Schumann’s birth at today’s Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral was inspired for a variety of reasons. At the surface level there is material from Opus 2 that reappears in Opus 9, but it does not show up where one might expect. This involves the deeper level through which Opus 2 can serve as a lens (if one may apply the noun “lens” metaphorically to listening) that discloses elements of the nature of Opus 9 that may better inform us about the nature of Schumann’s bipolar condition. Schumann certainly did not try to hide his bipolarity. One might even say that he celebrated it through his creation of the fictional characters Florestan (his “passionate, voluble side”) and Eusebius (“his dreamy, introspective side,” both quotes taken from Schumann’s Wikipedia entry). However, where Opus 2 is relatively innocuous, Opus 9 is downright grotesque, not only in the spirit of sinful excess that pervades the pre-Lenten celebration but also probably in the spirit of E. T. A. Hoffman (subsequently celebrated in the Opus 16 Kreisleriana), creator of the “insane musician” Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler.
Hsieh was not afraid to approach Carnaval as a composition that careens dangerously between its extremities of expression. Thus, that “passionate, voluble side” of Florestan approaches (if not crosses) the brink of pathological mania, while, at the other extreme, she lingered over the dreamy and introspective as if letting go might result in total breakdown. Of greatest interest, however, may have been the way in which she brought out the bipolarity of the final movement, which is supposed to be the march of the members of Schumann’s fictitious Davidsbund to do battle with the philistines of his contemporary German culture. This is where we encounter Opus 2 where we would least expect it. (We first encounter it when Florestan “remembers” its opening theme in “his” Carnaval movement, as in the excerpt from the score reproduced above.) As what begins as an ordered march threatens to devolve into a riot, the bass bursts forth with a slightly warped version of the final dance in Opus 2. This is actually music borrowed from the popular “Grandfather Dance” (which Pyotr Tchaikovsky also borrowed for his end-of-party music in the first act of his Nutcracker ballet); and through it Florestan and Eusebius threaten to come to blows. For Eusebius “Grandfather” entails respect for tradition, without which any practices of music would lose the essence of music itself; but for Eusebius “Grandfather” is just another old fogey whose death cannot come soon enough. Thus, in the frenzy of the carnival, the good intentions all but deteriorate into nervous breakdown; and Hsieh gave a disciplined performance through which that breakdown loomed without her having to succumb to it.
Needless to say, if Opus 2 is to serve as a lens for keener examination of Opus 9, it must be radically detached from the latter’s carnival spirits. It is intended as a relatively lightweight suite of dances, the sort of music that might be played in a home well enough endowed to support a ball for the neighbors. If the title implies anything, it is that the social setting was probably one of a costume ball; and there is even a sense that, in the final measures, all those butterflies “shed their wings” to become the mere mortals who must go home at the end of the party. Most important, however, is that all of the music must be able to support dancing, invoking again the spirit of the party music in Nutcracker, which has its own leave-taking episode. Unfortunately, the warped sense of beat that served Hsieh’s highly psychological interpretation of Opus 9 so effectively was just as much out of place in Opus 2. To borrow from William Blake, the world of Opus 2 is a world of innocence, while the world of Opus 9 is one of experience (complete with flesh-devouring beasts … at least metaphorical ones). By missing out on the innocence of Opus 2, Hsieh reduced it to virtuosity without purpose. Perhaps she had only selected it as a means to warm up for Opus 9, but Opus 2 deserved better treatment. On the other hand it is hard to imagine Opus 9 getting a reading superior to the one she offered.