About Robert Alexander Schumann
- "Träumerei" Op. 15,
- Dichterliebe, Op. 48 Pt 1-4 (Fischer-Dieskau),
- Fantasiestücke, Op. 12,
- 'Arabesque' (Horowitz).
Robert Schumann, sometimes known as Robert Alexander Schumann, (8 June 1810 – 29 July 1856) was a German composer, aesthete and influential music critic. He is regarded as one of the greatest and most representative composers of the Romantic era. Schumann left the study of law to return to music, intending to pursue a career as a virtuoso pianist. He had been assured by his teacher Friedrich Wieck that he could become the finest pianist in Europe, but a hand injury ended this dream. Schumann then focused his musical energies on composing.
Schumann's published compositions were written exclusively for the piano until 1840; he later composed works for piano and orchestra; many Lieder (songs for voice and piano); four symphonies; an opera; and other orchestral, choral, and chamber works. His writings about music appeared mostly in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), a Leipzig-based publication which he jointly founded.
In 1840, against her father's wishes, Schumann married pianist Clara Wieck, daughter of his former teacher, the day before she legally came of age at 21. Had they waited one day, they would have no longer needed her father's consent, which had been the subject of a long and acrimonious legal battle, which found in favor of Clara and Robert. Clara also composed music and had a considerable concert career, the earnings from which formed a substantial part of her father's fortune.
For the last two years of his life, after an attempted suicide, Schumann was confined to a mental institution, at his own request.
Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony, the fifth and last child of the family. Schumann began to compose before the age of seven, but his boyhood was spent in the cultivation of literature as much as music – undoubtedly influenced by his father, August Schumann, a bookseller, publisher, and novelist.
Schumann began receiving general musical and piano instruction at the age of seven from Baccalaureus Kuntzsch, a teacher at the Zwickau high school. The boy immediately developed a love of music and worked at creating musical compositions himself, without the aid of Kuntzsch. Even though he often disregarded the principles of musical composition, he created works regarded as admirable for his age. The Universal Journal of Music 1850 supplement included a biographical sketch of Schumann that noted, "It has been related that Schumann, as a child, possessed rare taste and talent for portraying feelings and characteristic traits in melody,—ay, he could sketch the different dispositions of his intimate friends by certain figures and passages on the piano so exactly and comically that every one burst into loud laughter at the similitude of the portrait." (W.J. von Wasielewski 17–19)
At age 14, Schumann wrote an essay on the aesthetics of music and also contributed to a volume, edited by his father, titled Portraits of Famous Men. While still at school in Zwickau, he read the works of the German poet-philosophers Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as well as Byron and the Greek tragedians. His most powerful and permanent literary inspiration was Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, known simply as Jean Paul, a German writer whose influence is seen in Schumann's youthful novels Juniusabende, completed in 1826, and Selene.
Schumann's interest in music was sparked by seeing a performance of Ignaz Moscheles playing at Karlsbad, and he later developed an interest in the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. His father, who had encouraged the boy's musical aspirations, died in 1826 when Schumann was 16. Neither his mother nor his guardian thereafter encouraged a career in music. In 1828 Schumann left school, and after a tour during which he met Heinrich Heine in Munich, he went to Leipzig to study law (to meet the terms of his inheritance). In 1829 his law studies continued in Heidelberg, where he became a lifelong member of Corps Saxo-Borussia Heidelberg.
During Eastertide 1830 he heard the Italian violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer Niccolò Paganini play in Frankfurt. In July he wrote to his mother, "My whole life has been a struggle between Poetry and Prose, or call it Music and Law." By Christmas he was back in Leipzig, at age 20 taking piano lessons from his old master Frederich Wieck, who assured him that he would be a successful concert pianist after a few years' study with him.
During his studies with Wieck, Schumann permanently injured his right hand. One suggested cause of this injury is that he damaged his finger by the use of a mechanical device designed to strengthen the weakest fingers, a device which held back one finger while he exercised the others. Another suggestion is that the injury was a side-effect of syphilis medication. A more dramatic suggestion is that in an attempt to increase the independence of his fourth finger, he may have undergone a surgical procedure to separate the tendons of the fourth finger from those of the third. The cause of the injury is not known, but Schumann abandoned ideas of a concert career and devoted himself instead to composition. To this end he began a study of music theory under Heinrich Dorn, a German composer six years his senior and, at that time, conductor of the Leipzig opera. About this time Schumann considered composing an opera on the subject of Hamlet.
In the winter of 1832, Schumann, 22 at the time, visited relatives in Zwickau and Schneeberg, where he performed the first movement of his Symphony in G minor (without opus number, known as the "Zwickauer"). In Zwickau, the music was performed at a concert given by Clara Wieck, who was then just 13 years old. On this occasion Clara played bravura Variations by Henri Herz, a composer whom Schumann was already deriding as a philistine. Schumann's mother said to Clara, "You must marry my Robert one day." Although the Symphony in G minor was not published by Schumann during his lifetime, it has been played and recorded in recent times.
The 1833 deaths of Schumann's brother Julius and his sister-in-law Rosalie in a worldwide cholera epidemic brought on a severe depressive episode. The composer made his first apparent attempt at suicide.
Schumann's editorial duties during the summer of 1834 were interrupted by his relations with 16-year-old Ernestine von Fricken – the adopted daughter of a rich Bohemian-born noble – to whom he became engaged. Schumann broke off that engagement due to his growing attraction to 15-year-old Clara Wieck. They made mutual declarations of love in December in Zwickau, where Clara appeared in concert.
Carnaval, Op. 9 (1834) is one of Schumann's most characteristic piano works. Schumann begins nearly every section of Carnaval with a musical cryptogram, the musical notes signified in German by the letters that spell Asch (A, E-flat, C, and B, or alternatively A-flat, C, and B; in German these are A, Es, C and H, and As C and H respectively), the Bohemian town in which Ernestine was born, and the notes are also the musical letters in Schumann's own name. Schumann named sections for both Ernestine ("Estrella") and Clara ("Chiarina"). Eusebius and Florestan, the imaginary figures appearing so often in his critical writings, also appear, alongside brilliant imitations of Chopin and Paganini. The work comes to a close with a march of the Davidsbündler – the league of King David's men against the Philistines – in which may be heard the clear accents of truth in contest with the dull clamour of falsehood embodied in a quotation from the seventeenth century Grandfather's Dance. The march, a step nearly always in duple meter, is here in 3/4 time (triple meter). The work ends in joy and a degree of mock-triumph. In Carnaval, Schumann went further than in Papillons, by conceiving the story as well as the musical representation (and also displaying a maturation of compositional resource).
On 3 October 1835, Schumann met Felix Mendelssohn at Wieck's house in Leipzig, and his enthusiastic appreciation of that artist was shown with the same generous freedom that distinguished his acknowledgement of Chopin's greatness and most of his other colleagues, and which later prompted him to publicly pronounce the then-unknown Johannes Brahms a genius.
Despite the opposition of Clara's father, she and Robert continued a clandestine relationship which matured into a full-blown romance. In 1837, he asked her father's consent to their marriage, but was refused. Wieck ridiculed his daughter's wish to "throw herself away on a penniless composer."
In the series of piano pieces Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, Schumann expresses the fusion of literary and musical ideas as embodied conceptions in such pieces as "Warum" and "In der Nacht". After he had written the latter of these two, he detected in the music the fanciful suggestion of a series of episodes from the myth of Hero and Leander. The collection begins, in "Des Abends", with a notable example of Schumann's predilection for rhythmic ambiguity, as unrelieved syncopation plays heavily against the time signature, (leading to a feeling of 3/8 in a movement marked 2/8) somewhat analogous to that of the first movement of Faschingsschwank aus Wien. After a fable – and the appropriately titled "Dream's Confusion" – the collection ends on an introspective note in the manner of Eusebius.
The Davidsbündlertänze, Op.6, (also published in 1837 despite the low opus number) literally "Dances of the League of David", is an embodiment of the struggle between enlightened Romanticism and musical philistinism. Schumann credited the two sides of his character with the composition of the work (the more passionate numbers are signed F. (Florestan) and the more dreamy signed E. (Eusebius)). The work begins with the 'motto of C.W.' (Clara Wieck) denoting her support for the ideals of the Davidsbund The Bund was a work of Schumann's imagination, members of which were kindred spirits (as he saw them) such as Chopin, Paganini and Clara, as well as the personalized Florestan and Eusebius.
Kreisleriana (1838), considered one of Schumann's greatest works, carried his fantasy and emotional range deeper. Johannes Kreisler was the fictional poet created by poet E. T. A. Hoffmann, and characterized as a "romantic brought into contact with reality". Schumann used the figure to express emotional states in music that is "fantastic and mad." According to Hutcheson ("The Literature of the Piano"), this work is "among the finest efforts of Schumann's genius. He never surpassed the searching beauty of the slow movements (Nos. 2, 4, 6) or the urgent passion of others (Nos. 1, 3, 5, 7)...To appreciate it a high level of aesthetic intelligence is required...This is no facile music, there is severity alike in its beauty and its passion."
The Fantasie in C, Op. 17, composed in the summer of 1836, is a work of passion and deep pathos, imbued with the spirit of the late Beethoven. Schumann intended to use proceeds from sales of the work toward the construction of a monument to Beethoven (who had died in 1827). The first movement of the Fantasie contains a musical quote from Beethoven's song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98 (at the Adagio coda, taken from the last song of the cycle). The original titles of the movements were to be "Ruins", "Triumphal Arch" and "The Starry Crown". According to Liszt, who played the work for Schumann, and to whom it was dedicated, the Fantasie was apt to be played too heavily, and should have a dreamier (träumerisch) character than vigorous German pianists tended to impart. Liszt also said, "It is a noble work, worthy of Beethoven, whose career, by the way, it is supposed to represent." Again according to Hutcheson: "No words can describe the Phantasie, no quotations set forth the majesty of its genius. It must suffice to say that it is Schumann's greatest work in large form for piano solo."
After a long and acrimonious legal battle with her father, Schumann married Clara Wieck on 12 September 1840, at Schönefeld. They finally resolved the battle by waiting until she was of legal age and no longer subject to her father's consent for marriage. Their marriage proved a remarkable business partnership with Clara acting as an inspiration, critic, and confidant to her husband. Despite her delicate appearance, she was an extremely strong-willed and energetic woman who kept up a demanding schedule of concert tours in between bearing multiple children. Two years after they married, Friedrich Wieck at last reconciled with the couple, eager to see his grandchildren.
In the years 1832–1839, Schumann had written almost exclusively for the piano, but in 1840 alone he wrote 168 songs. Indeed 1840 (referred to as the Liederjahr or year of song) is highly significant in Schumann's musical legacy despite his earlier deriding of works for piano and voice as inferior.
Prior to the legal case and subsequent marriage, the lovers exchanged love letters and rendezvoused in secret. Robert would often wait in a cafe for hours in a nearby city just to see Clara for a few minutes after one of her concerts. The strain of this long courtship (they finally married in 1840), and of its consummation, led to this great outpouring of Lieder (vocal songs with piano accompaniment). This is evident in "Widmung", for example, where he uses the melody from Schubert's "Ave Maria" in the postlude—in homage to Clara. Schumann's biographers have attributed the sweetness, the doubt and the despair of these songs to the varying emotions aroused by his love for Clara and the uncertainties of their future together.
Robert and Clara had eight children, Emil (who died in infancy in 1847); Marie (1841–1929); Elise (1843–1928); Julie (1845–1872); Ludwig (1848–1899); Ferdinand (1849–1891); Eugenie (1851–1938); and Felix (1854–1879).
His chief song-cycles of this period were his settings of the Liederkreis of Joseph von Eichendorff, Op. 39 (depicting a series of moods relating to or inspired by nature); the Frauenliebe und -leben of Chamisso, Op. 42 (relating the tale of a woman's marriage, childbirth and widowhood); the Dichterliebe of Heine, Op. 48 (depicting a lover rejected, but coming to terms with his painful loss through renunciation and forgiveness); and Myrthen, a collection of songs, including poems by Goethe, Rückert, Heine, Byron, Burns and Moore. The songs Belsatzar, Op. 57 and Die beiden Grenadiere, Op. 49, both to Heine's words, show Schumann at his best as a ballad writer, although the dramatic ballad is less congenial to him than the introspective lyric. The Opp. 35, 40 and 98a sets (words by Justinus Kerner, Chamisso and Goethe respectively), although less well known, also contain songs of lyric and dramatic quality.
The stage in his life when he was deeply engaged in setting Goethe's Faust to music (1844–53) was a critical one for his health. He spent the first half of 1844 with Clara on tour in Russia. On returning to Germany, he abandoned his editorial work and left Leipzig for Dresden, where he suffered from persistent "nervous prostration". As soon as he began to work, he was seized with fits of shivering and an apprehension of death, experiencing an abhorrence for high places, for all metal instruments (even keys), and for drugs. Schumann's diaries also state that he suffered perpetually from imagining that he had the note A5 sounding in his ears.
His state of unease and neurasthenia is reflected in his Symphony in C, numbered second, but third in order of composition, in which the composer explores states of exhaustion, obsession and depression, culminating in Beethovenian spiritual triumph. Also published in 1845 was his Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54, originally published as a one-movement Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra. It is one of the most popular and oft-recorded of all piano concertos; pace Hutcheson "Schumann achieved a masterly work and we inherited the finest piano concerto since Mozart and Beethoven".
In 1846, he felt he had recovered. In the winter, the Schumanns revisited Vienna, traveling to Prague and Berlin in the spring of 1847 and in the summer to Zwickau, where he was received with enthusiasm. This pleased him, since at that time he was famous in only Dresden and Leipzig.
From 1850 to 1854, Schumann composed in a wide variety of genres. Critics have disputed the quality of his work at this time; a widely held view has been that his music showed signs of mental breakdown and creative decay. More recently, critics have suggested that the changes in style may be explained by "lucid experimentation".
In 1850, Schumann succeeded Ferdinand Hiller as musical director at Düsseldorf, but he was a poor conductor and quickly aroused the opposition of the musicians. According to Schonberg (The Great Conductors) "The great composer was impossible on the platform...There is something heartrending about poor Schumann's epochal inefficiency as a conductor." His contract was eventually terminated. From 1851 to 1853 he visited Switzerland, Belgium and Leipzig. In 1851 he completed his Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish" (a work containing five movements and whose 4th movement is apparently intended to represent an episcopal coronation ceremony). He revised what would be published as his fourth symphony.
On 30 September 1853, the 20-year-old composer Johannes Brahms knocked unannounced on the door of the Schumanns carrying a letter of introduction from violinist Joseph Joachim. (Schumann was not at home, and would not meet Brahms until the next day). Brahms amazed Clara and Robert with his music, stayed with them for several weeks, and became a close family friend. (He later worked closely with Clara to popularize Schumann's compositions during her long widowhood.)
During this time Schumann, Brahms and Schumann's pupil Albert Dietrich collaborated on the composition of the F-A-E Sonata for Joachim; Schumann also published an article, "Neue Bahnen" ("New Paths") in the Neue Zeitschrift (his first article in many years), hailing the unknown young Brahms from Hamburg, a man who had published nothing, as "the Chosen One" who "was destined to give ideal expression to the times." It was an extraordinary way to present Brahms to the musical world, setting up great expectations which he did not fulfill for many years. In January 1854, Schumann went to Hanover, where he heard a performance of his Paradise and the Peri organized by Joachim and Brahms. Two years later at Schumann's request, the work received its first English performance conducted by William Sterndale Bennett.
Schumann returned to Düsseldorf and began to edit his complete works and make an anthology on the subject of music. He suffered a renewal of the symptoms that had threatened him earlier. Besides the single note (possibly evidence of tinnitus), he imagined that voices sounded in his ear and he heard angelic music. One night he suddenly left his bed, having dreamt or imagined that a ghost (purportedly the spirit of either Schubert or Mendelssohn) had dictated a "spirit theme" to him. The theme was one he had used several times before: in his Second String Quartet, again in his Lieder-Album für die Jugend, and finally in the slow movement of his Violin Concerto. In the days leading up to his suicide attempt, Schumann wrote five variations on this theme for the piano, his last published work. Brahms published it in a supplementary volume to the complete edition of Schumann's piano music. In 1861 Brahms published his Variations for Piano Four Hands, Op. 23, based on this theme.
In late February 1854, Schumann's symptoms increased, the angelic visions sometimes being replaced by demonic visions. He warned Clara that he feared he might do her harm. On 27 February 1854, he attempted suicide by throwing himself from a bridge into the Rhine River. Rescued by boatmen and taken home, he asked to be taken to an asylum for the insane. He entered Dr. Franz Richarz's sanatorium in Endenich, a quarter of Bonn, and remained there until he died on 29 July 1856 at the age of 46. During his confinement, he was not allowed to see Clara. She finally visited him two days before his death. He appeared to recognize her, but was unable to speak.
Given his reported symptoms, one modern view is that his death was a result of syphilis, which he may have contracted during his student days, and which would have remained latent during most of his marriage. According to studies by the musicologist and literary scholar Eric Sams, Schumann's symptoms during his terminal illness and death appear consistent with those of mercury poisoning, mercury being a common treatment for syphilis and other conditions. Another possibility is that his neurological problems were the result of an intracranial mass. A report by Janisch and Nauhaus on Schumann's autopsy indicates that he had a "gelatinous" tumor at the base of the brain; it may have represented a colloid cyst, a craniopharyngioma, a chordoma, or a chordoid meningioma. In particular, meningiomas are known to produce musical auditory hallucinations, such as Schumann reported. Still other sources surmise that Schumann had bipolar disorder, citing his mood swings and changes in productivity.
From the time of her husband's death, Clara devoted herself to the performance and interpretation of her husband's works. In 1856, she first visited England, but the critics received Schumann's music coolly. Critics such as Henry Fothergill Chorley were particularly harsh in their disapproval. She returned to London in 1865 and made regular appearances there in later years. She became the authoritative editor of her husband's works for Breitkopf & Härtel. It was rumoured that she and Brahms destroyed many of Schumann's later works, which they thought to be tainted by his madness. However, only the Five Pieces for Cello and Piano are known to have been destroyed. Most of Schumann's late works, particularly the Violin Concerto, the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra and the Third Violin Sonata, all from 1853, have entered the repertoire.
Robert Schumann's Timeline
June 8, 1810
Zwickau, Chemnitz, Saxony, Germany
July 29, 1856
Bonn, Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany