The theoretic model of the “unreliable narrative” in fiction took flight in the early 1960s; it has since become a key concept in narratology, and an indispensable one. Simply put, first-person unreliable narrators are ones about whom we as readers, in collusion with the author, learn more than they know about themselves. Romantic precursors of modernist experiments in fiction—incipient cases of narrative unreliability—arise in the works of, among others, Jean Paul Richter and Heinrich Heine, two of Robert Schumann's favorite writers. In his early solo piano cycle, Papillons, op. 2, Schumann draws inspiration from Jean Paul's novel Flegeljahre, surely capturing something of the author's unreliably quirky literary style, in part through the strategy of tonal pairing. Whereas Schumann ultimately played down the programmatic elements of Papillons that trace back to the unpredictable Jean Paul, a genuine instance of the unreliable narrator is Heine's troubled poet-persona in Schumann's Dichterliebe. Here the composer invites us to perceive a second persona through the voice of the piano—one that understands the poet better than he does, and whose music reveals from the outset that rejection in love lies ahead. The emergence of narrative unreliability in fiction may have served as an influence that drove experimentation not only for Schumann but also for some of his contemporaries and successors. Debates about musical narrativity might profit from considering the recent literary concept of a “feedback loop,” in which the author, the narrator (text), and the narratee (reader)—in our case, the composer, the performer, and the listener (including analysts, performers, and composers, who are also intensive listeners)—continually and recursively interact.
From Literary Fiction to Music: Schumann and the Unreliable Narrative
Janet Schmalfeldt is professor of music emeritus at Tufts University. She is the author of a study on Alban Berg's Wozzeck and has published widely on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century music. Her book In the Process of Becoming: Analytic and Philosophical Perspectives on Form in Early Nineteenth-Century Music (2011) received a 2012 ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award and the 2012 Wallace Berry Award from the Society for Music Theory.
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Janet Schmalfeldt; From Literary Fiction to Music: Schumann and the Unreliable Narrative. 19th-Century Music 1 March 2020; 43 (3): 170–193. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2020.43.3.170
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