Carnaval | 2023 | English


Carnaval is an exhibition inspired by the work of the same name by Robert Schumann. These piano pieces musically recounts the penultimate chapter of a novel by Jean Paul, a popular 19th-century author. The chapter features a masked ball full of twists and turns. Marie H. Sirois had the idea of reviving this plot. She wrote a musical play based on Jean Paul’s story where Schumann’s work was interpreted. She then painted a series of portraits to illustrate her scenic universe.

The paintings represent characters from different historical periods and are rendered according to the artistic technique specific to each period, inspired by the works of well-known painters. There are two figures for every epoch, that is baroque (inspired by Simon Vouet and Francisco de Zurbaràn), impressionist (Jacques Émile Blanche and Édouard Manet), symbolist (Gustav Klimt) and modern (Pablo Picasso). In the center of the lot are paired as a couple, a canvas illustrating death (Gustav Klimt) and one birth (Pierre Soulages).

The paintings were exhibited at the Frelighsburg Art Center from June 8 to July 9, 2023. A mobile of 22 paper masks, made from the scores of Schumann’s Carnaval, and drawings of masks from different periods and cultures completed the show. The artist wants with Carnaval to question the viewers and her identity: who am I? What mask should I wear? What if life was just one long masked ball?

(Scroll to the bottom of the page for more explanations and to listen to the musical piece)

To set the scene…

Walt : A masked ball is perhaps the most elevated theme that humorous poetry can venture to sport with. In the view of the poet, all ranks and all periods are equal. The outward is only the garment, where the inward is happiness and splendor. Thus here, where the oldest fashions and customs have revived, and wander around, mingling with the latest and the youngest, humanity, and life itself, has become poetry. Enemies and friends are rounded in one easy, joyful circle; and this circle moves splendidly to the measure of music; for music is the climate of the soul, as this masquerade is the theater of the body.

Wina : Your observations are themselves pure poetry. To a being of a more exalted nature, the history of humanity may appear, indeed, only the long disguise of a masquerade … like a dream. Couldn’t life be one long dream?

Walt : Yes, the world is my representation…

Wina: What if we were to return every century, with this sun and this earth, not for a new life, or a better life, but to replay this life, only by choosing a new disguise?

Walt : As if we were actors in a long play and that at each era or rather each performance we changed costumes and sets, but always kept the same role?

(Free adaptation by Marie H. Sirois of an extract from Flegeljahre of Jean Paul translated from German to English by James Monroe and Company, 1846)

Schumann’s Carnaval

Carnaval (Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes) Opus 9, 1834-1835

Schumann’s Carnaval is arguably one of the composer’s most universally performed works, yet it is a complex and mysterious piece. Very personal, it is inseparable from its creator. Music and literature are intrinsically linked in Schumann’s aesthetic sphere. His musical language is full of codes and hidden messages that often find their source in German literature. The original idea of Carnaval comes after Schumann read a book by Jean Paul, his favorite author. The penultimate chapter of the novel “Flegeljahre” will have a great influence on the composer. The scene takes place at a masked ball on a carnival night and he will try to translate musically its atmosphere and eventfulness. At the same time, Schumann identified himself with the two protagonists of the story, Vult and Walt, twins as dissimilar as possible, one being a poet and a dreamer, the other being fiery and acerbic. Schumann will change their names to Florestan and Eusebius. They will then become the complementary pseudonymous figures of his personality and will be found practically in all his musical oeuvre.

Carnaval consists of 22 short pieces for piano, each presenting a character or a plot. Pantalon and Colombine, Pierrot and Arlequin rub shoulders with Chopin and Paganini, Ernestine (Schumann’s fiancée) and Clara (his future wife). Of course, Florestan and Eusebius are also there. Characters and plots in this musical work always go by pairs.
Schumann twice gave the title Carnaval to piano works, once in French and once in German. We can see how this idea obsessed him. But the fascination is even stronger than it seems, as the number of works that relate to this notion without bearing the title is impressive. One could consider the “carnavals of Schumann” as a cycle that spans over the entire creative life of the composer. The obsession follows him until 1854, when he will have a psychotic episode; it is on a carnival morning that he left his house in slippers and tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Rhine. He was  fished out by two boaters and was then interned in a psychiatric institute from where he died two years later at the age of 46.