Robert Schumann

• Composers and Lyricists

Robert Schumann (18101856)

The story of Schumann's life reads like romantic fiction. He was brilliant and handsome. His early jeux d'esprit as a composer celebrated friendship and love. Forbidden love frustrated and inspired him in his twenties. The fulfilment of that love was blighted by depression and eventual madness. He died young. It is not surprising that this charismatic figure has been the subject of countless books, plays, and films.

Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, Germany, in 1810. The son of a bookseller, he developed an early interest in literature, particularly in the romantic works of "Jean Paul" (J. P. F. Richter) and E. T. A. Hoffman. In 1821 he went to school in Leipzig, ostensibly to prepare for a career in law, but neglected his studies in favor of the piano. After a brief, unsuccessful period of study at Heidelberg University, he abandoned law to pursue a career in music. He returned to Leipzig in 1830, where he lived with his teacher, Friedrich Wieck (17851873). Throughout this early period Schumann developed a gift for portraying the characters of his friends in inventive and charming musical sketches. He was a talented improviser, but lacked the virtuosity to fulfil his ambition to become a concert pianist. An accident with a homemade device designed to strengthen his fourth finger ended his hopes of a performing career.

In 1834 Schumann's musical and literary aspirations led to the founding of a musical magazine, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he edited for ten years. Schumann was a perceptive critic-his first review introduced Chopin (18101849), and his last was in praise of the young Brahms (18331897). He adopted two critical personae which reflected his own dual nature: "Eusebius" was lyrical and contemplative, while "Florestan" was impetuous and fiery. These carried over into his piano compositions. Carnaval (1831) is a series of character and mood sketches; the Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David, 1833) are a spirited attack on the artistic philistines of Germany; and the Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood, 1838) are a tender evocation of childhood.

By 1835 Schumann had fallen in love with Wieck's daughter, Clara. Clara was at this time only 16, and Wieck forbade her to see Schumann. In 1837 they declared their intention to marry, but continued separation drove Schumann into a state of depression. In 1840 he found legal means to bypass Wieck's consent and married Clara. The fulfilment of their love led Schumann to write 150 songs between 1840 and 1841, among them the song cycle Frauenliebe und leben (A Woman's Love and Life, 1840) and Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love, 1840), a setting of poetry by Heine that tells a tragic story of love's blossoming and failure, and the poet's longing for death.

Clara was a virtuoso pianist. Schumann could not bear to be with her on tour when she was preoccupied with performing, yet could not bear to be without her. She was ambitious on his behalf and encouraged him to write larger-scale works. In 1841 he wrote his first symphony, as well as a deeply lyrical piece for piano and orchestra, dedicated to Clara, which he later reworked as the first movement of his Piano Concerto. When she was away in 1842, he wrote his three great string quartets and the Piano Quintet which has become one of the cornerstones of nineteenth-century Romanticism. He began work in 1843 on a secular oratorio, and on settings of Goethe's Faust, but his creativity was hampered by depression. He took a teaching post at the newly founded Leipzig Conservatory, but he was a poor teacher and an ineffective conductor.

Schumann was not productive again until 18471848. His opera Genoveva was produced in Leipzig in 1849, and he then resumed writing songs, piano music, and chamber music. In 1850, he became Musical Director of the city of Düsseldorf. At first he was happy and productive, producing the great Symphony no. 3 and the popular Cello Concerto. However his depression returned with symptoms that suggested the effects of untreated syphillis, which may have been congenital rather than acquired. Terrifying hallucinations led him to attempt suicide in 1854. Schumann died in an insane asylum in 1856, attended by Clara and the young Brahms.