Robert Schumann, the German composer, aesthete and a renowned music critic was perhaps the most influential composer of the Romantic era. His works often incorporated autobiographical elements and usually had descriptive titles, texts, or programs. As a writer and a critic, he played a great role in popularizing some of the leading composers of his day. The most distinguishing feature of Robert Schumann's work is its links to literature. While several of his compositions depict characters or scenes from poems, novels, and plays, there are others that are like musical crossword puzzles with key signatures or musical themes that refer to people or places those were important to him. His songs are said to be among some of the best ever written. Apart from songs, he also wrote symphonies, concertos, and chamber music. He suffered from bouts of depression and often experienced shifts of mood that is evident in a lot of his music.
Robert Schumann’s Childhood And Early Life
Robert Schumann was born on 8 June 1810 in Zwickau, Saxony. He was the fifth and the last child of his parents. August Schumann, Robert’s father, was a bookseller, publisher and a novelist and therefore Robert’s childhood was spent in the cultivation of both literature and music. At the age of seven, Schumann began receiving general musical and piano instruction from Baccalaureus Kuntzsch, a teacher at the Zwickau high school. At a tender age, he developed a deep love and passion for music and worked at creating musical compositions himself, even without the aid of Kuntzsch.
When he was 14, Schumann wrote an essay on the aesthetics of music. He also contributed to a volume titled “Portraits of Famous Men”, which was edited by his father. During his school days in Zwickau, Schumann read the works of the German poet-philosophers Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang, Von Goethe, Byron and the Greek tragedians. However, Robert was most influenced by the works of Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, the German writer also known as Jean Paul, which is quite evident in Schumann's youthful novels “Juniusabende and Selene”.
However, his musical interests were kindled by a performance of Ignaz Moscheles playing at Karlsbad. Later, he also developed interests in the works of musical moguls such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. However, after the death of his father in 1826, when Schumann was only 16, neither his mother nor his guardian encouraged his musical aspirations, who wanted him to be a lawyer instead. In 1828, Schumann left school. It was during a tour that he met Heinrich Heine in Munich.He then went to Leipzig to study law (to meet the terms of his inheritance). In 1829, he enrolled in a law school in Heidelberg, where he became a lifelong member of Corps Saxo-Borussia Heidelberg. It is said that he hardly attended any lectures while he was in law school. He was more devoted to the study of music and literature and also women and drinking.
By the year 1830, Schumann was back in Leipzig and started taking piano lessons from the famous music teacher Frederich Wieck, who assured him that after a few years’ of study, he would be a successful concert pianist. During his studies with Wieck, Schumann permanently injured his right hand. One opinion is that he damaged his finger by the use of a mechanical device designed to strengthen the weakest fingers. While some other evidences suggest that the injury was basically a side effect of syphilis medication, which later claimed his sanity. Though the actual cause behind the injury is vague, but it is true that it shattered Schumann’s piano aspirations and consequently had to abandon his ideas of a concert career. He then solely devoted himself to composition. He began to study music theory under Heinrich Dorn, a German composer who was six years senior to him and, at that time, was the conductor of the Leipzig opera. It was during this time when Schumann considered composing an opera on the subject of ‘Hamlet’.
In 1831, Schumann wrote ‘Papillons’, a fusion of literary ideas and music. It was a musical portrayal of events in his favorite novelist Jean Paul's novel Die Flegeljahre. In the winter of 1832, during his visit to his relatives in Zwickau and Schneeberg, Schumann performed the first movement of his Symphony in G minor (without opus number, known as the “Zwickauer”) at a concert given by Clara Wieck.Clara, later to be his wife. Schumann’s mother said to Clara, “You must marry my Robert one day”. The deaths of Schumann’s brother Julius and his sister-in-law Rosalie during the worldwide cholera epidemic in 1833 brought a bout depressionin Robert’s life and the composer made his first apparent attempt at suicide.
In 1834, Schumann inaugurated Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), which was first published on 3 April 1834 in which Schumann published most of his critical writings.He had an abhorrence towards the the popular taste for flashy technical displays from figures, which he perceived as inferior composers and often reprimanded the taste in his journals. He strived for the revival of interests in prominent composers of the past like Mozart, Beethoven and Weber and held several campaigns in that regard.
It’s not that Schumann detested all of the contemporary composers; there were some like Chopin about whom Schumann famously wrote, “Hats off, Gentleman! A genius!” He also lauded Hector Berlioz for creating music of substance. On the other hand, Schumann disparaged the school of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. At that time, Schumann’s associates were eminent composers like Norbert Burgmüller and Ludwig Schuncke (to whom Schumann's Toccata in C is dedicated). In 1837, Schumann published his Symphonic Studies, a complex set of étude-like variations that he wrote during 1834–1835, and demanded a finished piano technique. During the span of seven years from 1832 to 1839, Schumann concentrated solely on piano. In 1840 alone, he wrote 168 songs, was quite rightly referred to as the Liederjahr or year of song, and hence bears great significance in Schumann’s musical legacy.
During 1850-1854, Schumann composed on variety of genres. However, there is a great dispute among critics regarding the quality of his work at this time. According to a widely held view, “his music showed signs of mental breakdown and creative decay.” In 1850, Schumann succeeded Ferdinand Hiller and was appointed the musical director at Düsseldorf. However, he turned out to be a poor conductor and hence, the composer had to face the opposition from the musicians and the contract was eventually terminated. From 1851 to 1853, he visited Belgium, Switzerland and Leipzig.
In 1834, Schumann fell in love and got engaged to 16-year-old Ernestine von Fricken. She was the adopted daughter of a rich Bohemian-born noble. Schumann broke off that engagement, as he grew more and more fond of 15-year-old Clara Wieck. In December, when Clara appeared in Zwickau for a concert, they made mutual declarations of their love. Robert met Clara in Leipzig, in1830 when he was working under the renowned piano teacher Friedrich Wieck. Clara was his favorite daughter and was already a famous piano prodigy. It is said that that Schumann and Clara were lovers by 1835. Though Clara’s father strongly opposed their relationship, their tryst continued. In 1837, when Schumann sought Friedrich Wieck’s consent to their marriage, he refused.
Schumann married Clara Wieck on 12 September 1840, at Schönefeld after the long and bitter battle with Clara’s father. The dispute was resolved by waiting until Clara reached the legal age and no longer required her father’s consent. Clara acted as an inspiration, critic, and confidant to her husband throughout his life. Robert and Clara had eight children.
Death And Legacy
Schumann’s symptoms neurasthenia increased by February 1854. He suffered from angelic visions that were at times replaced by demonic visions. He also feared that he might harm Clara. He attempted his second suicide on 27 February 1854. He jumped into the Rhine River from a bridge. He was rescued by a boatman and himself asked to be taken to a mental asylum. He entered Dr. Franz Richarz's sanatorium in Endenich, a quarter of Bonn, and remained there until his death on the 29July 1856 when he was just 46. During his confinement, he was not allowed to see Clara. Two days before his death, she finally visited. Though he seemed to recognize her, but couldn’t speak a word.
- Papillons, (1829–1831)
- Davidsbündlertänze (1837)
- Carnaval (1834–1835)
- 5 Lieder (1840)
- The Bride of Messina overture (1850–51)
- Fantasy Pieces for Clarinet and Piano (1849)
- Violin Concerto in D minor (1853)