Schumann’s intense musical sensibility was often felt by his companions as an intense irritability. In Vienna, he depended financially upon a group of bohemian admirers whose rowdy lifestyle further destabilized him, prompting violent outbursts as well as long periods of near-catatonic depression. Alienating–or alienated by–his friends, in January of 1834 Schumann abandoned the capital for the small town of Mariazell, where he took on the modest job of organist in the Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary.
Accustomed to the lively musical and theatrical world of 1830s Vienna, Schumann had trouble adapting to the life of a small-town church musician. He began drinking heavily, and in letters he often complained about the Kappelmeister, whom the composer described as “unpleasant, like a lizard, or a prison guard.” Upon arriving drunk to a mass one morning, so the legend goes, Schumann got into a fight with the cantor, and in the resulting tussle fell from the organ loft down into the pews below. Remarkably, his only injury was a broken arm, but this still left him unable to perform. The Baroness Wertmuller, a sympathetic parishioner vaguely aware of Schumann’s musical talents, offered him the use of a summerhouse on her estate while he convalesced. It was there that Schumann composed, without the use of any instrument, the Lebenszyklus einer Ringelblume (the Life Cycle of a Marigold).
The sonata begins with a berceuse in lilting compound time, growing steadily from an andante to an adagio before bursting open, unexpectedly and yet inevitably, into the celebrated rhapsody of the second and central movement. The liberal use of glissando and varying intonations achieve a lively, vitalistic effect whose alterations of key prevent any one emotional tone from taking primacy. (In his notes, Schumman specified that the sonata ought to be played in late summer, at 5 in the afternoon.) The dramatic contrasts of the piano find balance only in the tripling accompaniment of the flute, the true obligatto of the piece. The codetta brings together elements of the nocturne–a cantabile melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment–with the flute assuming an almost percussionary role, meant to evoke, wrote Schumann, the movement of fireflies or the chirping of crickets at twilight.
The Ringelblume is a sonata a dúo. To achieve its complex and tenuous harmonies, pianist and flutist will generally have performed together for many years. Schumann, who would live the remainder of his brief life alone in Mariazell, never performed the piece himself; indeed, it is doubtful that he ever heard it played at all.