schumann1838Robert Schumann (June 8, 1810 – July 29, 1856) was the arch-Romantic composer, thoroughly committed intellectually and emotionally to the idea of music being composed to register the feelings, thoughts and impressions garnered by a sensitive spirit on its journey through life.


Schumann was born into a devoted family based in Zwickau, 40 miles south of Leipzig. His musical and literary leanings were encouraged by his father who secured a tutor for him; although the lessons were rudimentary, the boy was composing little pieces by the age of seven. He entered Zwickau Gymnasium aged 10, matriculating in 1828; the latter part of his time there was increasingly spent writing, especially poetry. While at the Gymnasium his beloved father died, leaving his mother with no alternative but to place Robert under the guardianship of a family friend. It was decided that Schumann should study law at Leipzig University, which he joined in 1828.


From the first, Schumann neglected his law studies, plunging instead into the musical and artistic life of Leipzig. Clearly a romantic and impressionable young man, he was not sparing in his affections towards women, apparently smitten by every pretty girl he encountered. But it was not all play; when he became acquainted with Friedrich Wieck, an outstanding piano teacher (whose daughter, Clara, was already a remarkable pianist), he arranged to take lessons with him. After two years in Leipzig, Schumann persuaded his mother to allow him to continue his studies at Heidelberg University. Again, he neglected his law studies, and in the summer of 1830 wrote to his mother begging her to allow him to take up music full-time. After consulting Wieck, a deeply conservative man whose judgment she felt she could trust, it was agreed that Schumann should move into Wieck’s house and submit himself to a year of Wieck’s rigorous teaching methods. Wieck’s intention was to make Schumann into a concert pianist, but Schumann’s obsession with the development of his finger technique led to his damaging the muscles in his third finger so badly that it remained useless for the rest of his life. He turned, instead, to composition. At this time Schumann also suffered an undisclosed crisis with his health which worried him deeply (he even made out his will). This could possibly have been the first signs of the syphilis which ultimately killed him.


With the publication of his earliest successful piano compositions, such as Papillons, Op. 2 and the Paganini Caprices, Op. 3, Schumann began to appreciate more clearly the interpretative abilities of 13-year-old Clara Wieck, describing her to one friend as “perfection”. The adolescent girl naturally idolized the handsome and romantic 22-year-old. But deeper bonds were in the future: first came the launch of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a weekly magazine initiated by a group of Leipzig musicians and writers with the express intention of countering the crushingly conservative orientation of Leipzig’s music critics. This was to prove a vital outlet for Schumann’s writings, and he was sufficiently committed to it to become its proprietor in 1835. In the magazine he made many astute observations and championed the recently deceased and almost forgotten Schubert, whose music he did so much to establish in Germany and beyond. It also carried his famous pronouncement on Frédéric Chopin after encountering the composer’s Variations on Mozart’s Là ci darem la mano for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 2: “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!”.


The years 1834-35 were also a turning point in his emotional life; he became engaged to another of Wieck’s students, Ernestine von Fricken – not the most obvious match he could have made, considering her lack of intelligence and her aristocratic background. This announcement led to Clara displaying her first signs of a strong emotional involvement with Schumann. As he began to cool towards Ernestine by late 1835, he and Clara acknowledged their mutual attraction. When Wieck became aware of the situation, to Schumann’s surprise he violently opposed it. An all-out war for the affections of Clara, which provoked staggering depths of vituperation from Herr Wieck, ended in a lawsuit. Wieck lost, which enabled Clara and Robert to marry in September 1840. The following day Clara turned 21.


Throughout this period Schumann had composed almost exclusively for the piano. Now there was a tremendous outburst of lieder and the following year, much to the approval of the ambitious Clara, Schumann buckled down to compose his first symphony. Their close working relationship, and the arrival of their first child in 1841 (they produced seven in all), meant that Clara’s career suffered. Although she continued her concert tours (they needed the money), she willingly suspended her other musical activities. The marriage at this time was blissfully happy. In the spring of 1841 Schumann’s Spring Symphony was premiered. By the following year Clara was on tour again: as women did not travel alone at that time, Robert had to accompany her. Deeply insecure away from domestic routine, his health deteriorated and he began to resent his wife’s addiction to the pleasures of concert-giving.


His professional career was still in the ascendant, and in 1843, when Mendelssohn provided the impetus for the founding of the Leipzig Conservatory, he also insisted that Schumann be given a teaching role there. Schumann, however, proved to be a diffident teacher; unable to communicate his ideas, he would often sit through an entire lesson without saying a word to his students. He resigned his post in 1844. By then his bouts of depression (he called them “melancholy”) were more severe and more prolonged.


However, he was still composing prolifically and in 1843 his choral work Das Parodies und die Peri was premiered, Schumann himself conducting. It was an immediate success in Leipzig and also received a warm welcome in Dresden. Yet 1844 brought more problems: a Russian tour by Clara, accompanied by Robert, was a tremendous financial success and both artists were treated with enormous respect. But Schumann experienced frightening physical distress, including temporary blindness and frequent vertigo. He became so deeply depressed that he was often unable to engage in the most basic conversation. One observer noted: “Schumann sat mostly in a corner near the piano…with a sunken head, his hair was hanging in his face, he had a pensive expression, as if he were about to whistle to himself… Clara Schumann was a little more talkative; she answered all the questions for her husband…but one could hardly characterize her as a gracious or sympathetic woman”.


Sympathetic or not, Clara soon had to face a full-scale collapse by Schumann. Resigning his Neue Zeitschrift editorship, by the end of the summer, he was reduced to a pathetic condition, too weak to walk, often trembling for hours and frequently bursting into tears. Sleep eluded him. The two went to Dresden, where Clara’s family lived, and experienced “eight terrible days”, according to Clara; Robert failed to sleep, had terrifying hallucinations, and, in her words, “gave up completely”. In a decision which smacks of panic, the Schumanns decided to move to Dresden, then something of a quaint backwater, where they felt Schumann’s health might be restored. The slower pace of life helped initially and the compositions flowed from his pen with renewed vigour: in their first year at Dresden he completed his only Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony. Both were coolly received at their Dresden premiere, and afterwards Clara could not disguise her bitterness, but Robert replied: “Calm yourself, dear Clara. In 10 years it will all be different”.


Schumann became acquainted with another Dresden resident, Richard Wagner, whose ardent commitment to his own operatic genius inspired Schumann to compose an opera himself. The result was Genoveva, premiered after many delays to a mixed reception in June 1850. A move to Düsseldorf came that same year when Schumann accepted the position of Director of Music. The post demanded organization and management skills, both of which Schumann conspicuously lacked. After a heartening beginning, things deteriorated rapidly. After many absences through illness and a general inability to perform adequately, even with Clara’s repeated interventions, he was forced to resign in 1853 and began composing at such a frenzied pace that she was concerned for his health. Before the year was out, a young composer from Hamburg, Johannes Brahms, called on the Schumanns, and Robert was sufficiently in control of his faculties to write in his notebook: “Visit from Brahms, a genius”. For the first time in a decade he also wrote an article for the Neue Zeitschrift, declaring to the world that a majesterial talent had arrived in the shape of his new friend.


This was one of Schumann’s last acts of clarity; by early 1852 he had lapsed in to insanity. Clara remained with him day and night, but after a fortnight, he himself asked to be placed in an asylum “as he could no longer control his own mind and could not know what he might do next”. In late February he attempted suicide, but failed, and soon after he entered Endenich asylum near Bonn. In an attempt to stabilize his condition, Clara was kept away from him and her letters intercepted: it would be over two years before she saw her husband again. Their last child was born several months after he was committed. His last years were anguished and degrading; when he died in July 1856, after being fed wine and gelée at the asylum by Clara, she and their friends considered it a blessed release.


Schumann’s early piano works, many of them dedicated to Clara, are wonderful distillations of a wide range of sensibilities, with Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (1838) painting glorious miniature pictures of the life of children, while Album für die jugend, Op. 66 (1832-45) collated a long series of pieces meant to be heard and appreciated by children. Equally, his Carnaval, Op. 9 (1833-35) and Waldszenen, Op. 82 (1848-49) illustrated ideas and scenes from life, often taking as their inspiration – as did so much of his piano work – a literary source.


Another form of music much favored by Schumann – also taking its inspiration directly from literature – was lieder. The bulk of them were written between 1840 and 1849, and included such Romantic masterpieces as Liederkreis (two books, Op. 24 and 39), Frauenliebe und leben, Op. 42 (1840), and the four books of Lieder und Gesänge (1840-50). This is a treasure-trove of wonderful settings, and shows Schumann as a worthy successor to Schubert in this field. His four symphonies have been popular since his own day, and that popularity shows no sign of abating, while of the concertos (cello, violin, piano), the latter, Op. 54 (1841-45) has become one of the best-loved piano concertos in the repertoire.

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