Events Calendar

Music Graduate Colloquium: Janet Schmalfeldt

Friday, March 19, 2021
3:30 pm - 4:30 pm
via Zoom
Graduate Colloquium Series

Presented by Graduate Studies in Music, the Don Wright Faculty of Music Graduate Colloquium series includes lectures by distinguished guests, Western faculty members, and senior graduate students on all fields of research and creative activity in music.

Janet Schmalfeldt (Professor Emerita, Tufts University)
“From Literary Fiction to Music: Schumann and the Unreliable Narrative”

Admission is free, and all are welcome to join.

Please contact Audrey Yardley-Jones by email to request Zoom access information


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. A more developed 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. 

Audrey Yardley-Jones - Graduate Program Assistant
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