If I had to pick just one piece of classical music to listen to over and over again for the rest of my life it would probably be Papillons by Robert Schumann. I first got to know it when I was a teenager and my sister was learning to play it. Which means that I heard it over and over and over again, each section. Fast, slow, hands separate, hands together, with the metronome, without the metronome, with the music, without the music, a measure at a time, straight through from beginning to end. My sister was a pretty good pianist, and she was a very good practice-er. (Those two things don’t always go together, btw.)

Papillons is a gorgeous piece of music. It consists of a bunch of short movements that are played all as one, so it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the next begins. And they are very closely intertwined, with melodies in one showing up in another, not quite a theme and variations but close. It’s very romantic and deep, and you can listen to it forever and ever and never get sick of it.

There’s one thing that always puzzled me, though. Why “papillons”? Papillons means butterflies in French, and I’m sorry but this music does not even remotely remind me of butterflies. It’s got some very loud and thunderous parts, and even the lighter softer parts are just… not… butterfly-like. Yes I know Schumann was insane and all, but still. Here’s my favorite pianist, Murray Perahia, playing a section from the middle. Tell me, do you hear any butterflies in there?

And then I went to a recital given by a music school professor who played the piece and lectured from the piano *swoon* and I found out the real scoop. Are you ready?

Schumann based this piece on a chapter of a novel! It is supposed to depict a masquerade ball. If I recall correctly, it takes place in a gigantic mansion, and the hero goes from room to room observing people in different costumes — kind of like the way butterflies metamorphose from caterpillars, you know — and getting progressively drunker and drunker. By the end of the piece, which ends not with a bang but with a very charming musical whimper, he is passed out on the floor and the sun is rising.

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  1. Thanks for sharing this! It’s playing as I type! For me, those pieces were Claire de Lune and Rhapsody in Blue. My brother played them both a lot! I never got much past John Thompson’s Third Grade Book! But I can still rock the “Sarabande” in that book! And the “Spinning Song” if I’m a little loosened up!

  2. John Thompson! I remember those!!! Red covers with white letters, right? Wow.

  3. Have you seen the Russian Ark? Please watch this if you haven’t seen it. You would love it!! I totally thought of it as I was reading this post. Yet again, you’ve given me even more inspiration. Gosh, Mo, by the end of 2011…I don’t know how I’ll re-pay you?

    Oh, and to respond to your post, my girlfriend and I were at the park yesterday and we saw a beautiful monarch butterfly. I was am able to see its wings fluttering and hitting blades of grass as it flew about. The music actually goes well with my memory of it…Thanks again. Your post made me smile…but they, typically do. :)

  4. What is the Russian Ark? Tell me and I will watch it.

    And geez, you saw butterflies and blades of grass YESTERDAY??? *jealous* All I see is snow and ice.

    It’s so amazing the way this postaday is turning out, isn’t it? I never expected I would learn so much and feel so inspired too. It’s truly mutual.

  5. I meant to comment last night – thanks so much for this post – I quickly scanned my giant classical musical collection and found that I did have a copy of Papillons which I had never listened to (I collect and then don’t have time for it all – boo!)…. I am definitely in love! Thanks for the introduction!

  6. You’re welcome! Glad you like it.


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