Born in Zwickau, Saxony, June 8, 1810;
died in Endenich (near Bonn), July 29, 1856
Schumann was the ultimate romantic composer. He embodied just about everything we associate with nineteenth-century musical romanticism: He was idealistic, introspective, innovative and individualistic. He loved good literature and read voraciously. His music was deeply personal, even autobiographical at times, especially in the piano music and songs. He took Mozart’s and Beethoven’s forms like the symphony and concerto and reshaped them to suit his own creative needs. He was highly strung and had a low tolerance for shabbiness and mediocrity. As one writer put it, “his mind was a delicate seismograph upon which music registered violent shocks.” Everything Schumann did was with passionate intensity, starting with his courtship of Clara Wieck.
A Hollywood Script
The story reads like a Hollywood script. Schumann first began piano lessons with Clara’s father in Leipzig when he was eighteen. Soon afterwards Schumann left Leipzig to study law in Heidelberg. His travels took him through Switzerland and Italy as well, and when his money ran out he returned to Leipzig to resume musical studies, with both Wieck and others. He and Clara saw a lot of each other and slowly fell in love. By the time he was 26 and Clara 15, they could no longer deny their deepening affection for each other. Over the next five years the relationship alternately flamed and cooled, but when it flamed it was white-hot. However, when Schumann proposed marriage, Clara’s father bitterly opposed it. Which of course only fanned the flames further. Schumann went as far as taking the matter to court and won. That’s how determined he was to marry Clara.
All the while Schumann was pouring out his innermost dreams and passions in his music. He lived through his music. The piano was his instrument, and for the first ten years or so of his career nearly everything he wrote was piano music. His first 26 published compositions were for piano alone - again, that fervor and obsessive dedication of purpose.
The Year of Song
In 1840, shortly before Schumann married Clara, he abruptly turned to a new medium. Now he poured all his efforts into songs for voice and piano, generating some 140 works in this genre in just a few months. Biographers usually attribute this turn of events to his marital bliss. The future looked bright and rosy, and Schumann was ready to flex his musical wings in a new direction. He was a natural song-writer, and his intuitive understanding of emotion-laden texts by Romantic contemporaries served him well in the many superb songs he wrote.
Next: Orchestral Music, Then Chamber Music
The following year (1841) Schumann turned to orchestral music in earnest. He wrote his First Symphony, which he subtitled Spring. The vernal association in Schumann’s mind was not a calendar season but rather a personal emotional springtime - a season of romantic ardor, high spirits and creative exuberance. In 1840 he also wrote what later became his Fourth Symphony and got three-quarters of the way through another symphony whose fragments are known today simply as Overture, Scherzo and Finale. He began working on his Piano Concerto as well. The lyrical intensity of Schumann’s music is heard at its finest in the slow movement of his Second Symphony, where the oboe begins with a solo of heavenly beauty.
In 1842, continuing his manner of intense concentration on one thing at a time, Schumann next fixed his mind on chamber music: three string quartets, a piano quartet and a piano quintet, the latter two ranking among the finest examples of their kind.
Schumann Becomes a Critic
Schumann had planned on becoming a virtuoso pianist. Here too we see his dogged determination to pursue a goal As we all know, the fourth finger is the weakest on each hand. Schumann invented a device to strengthen it, but it did more harm than good, and he had to abandon all hopes for a career as a pianist. So, instead, Schumann became one of the first really good music critics. In 1834 he founded a journal called the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal of Music) in which he explained his philosophy of music and wrote about composers new and old. Among others, he brought Chopin and Brahms to the world’s attention (“Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” is his famous announcement of Chopin.).
Schumann’s lively, romantic, literary-minded spirit led him to invent an imaginary circle of characters who debated music in the pages of the Neue Zeitschrift. He called them the Davidsbund (Tribe of David), who, like the David of biblical fame, stood up to and defeated the philistines of music – those whose taste tended toward the safe and comfortable, the cheap and tawdry, or who couldn’t abide anything even slightly new or different. “The critic must be ahead of his times and ready armed to fight for the future” was his motto. Two of the characters in the Davidsbund represented the opposing sides of Schumann’s own character: Florestan (exuberant, impetuous, extroverted) and Eusebius (dreamy, reflective, introspective). These “characters” inhabit Schumann’s music as well. The Piano Concerto, for example, opens with both characters making brief appearances side by side: first a “shout” for full orchestra and a dramatic cascade of chords for the piano (Florestan); then, in the next moment, a hauntingly beautiful theme from the oboe, nostalgic and pensive (Eusebius).
Illness and Death
But all Schumann’s feverish concentration had its downside. Even as a teenager he suspected he might have a mental disorder. Already in his twenties he was showing signs of depression and making subtle references to the possibility of suicide, particularly when he was estranged from Clara (they hadn’t married yet). Although the marriage was initially idyllic, their relationship became strained since Clara was often away on concert tours (she was one of the few – the very few – women who carved out a successful career as a virtuoso pianist before the twentieth century). Periods of nervous tension, attacks of anxiety, exhaustion and phobias became more frequent and more severe. In 1854, at the age of 44, Schumann’s mental condition took a sharp turn for the worse. He began to hear voices, first those of angels, then of devils. One morning he tried to kill himself by jumping off a bridge into the Rhine River. He was rescued by a passing fisherman but spent the remaining two years of his short life in a sanatorium. Doctors kept his beloved Clara away from him until his dying days. It was a terrible, tragic, much too early end to one of music history’s most original musical thinkers.