Schumann's intention was to pursue a career as a virtuoso pianist, having been assured by his teacher, Friedrich Wieck, that he could become the finest pianist in Europe after only a few years of study with him. However, when a hand injury prevented those hopes from being realized, he decided to focus his musical energies on composition.
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 that he jointly founded.
In 1840, after a long and acrimonious legal battle with his piano instructor (Wieck), Schumann married Wieck's daughter, pianist Clara Wieck, who also composed music and had a considerable concert career.
For the last two years of his life, after an attempted suicide, Robert 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.
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, a German writer whose influence is seen in Schumann's youthful novels Juniusabende, completed in 1826, and Selene.
During Eastertide 1830 he heard 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, taking piano lessons from his old master Wieck, who assured him that he would be a successful concert pianist.
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. In fact, the cause of the injury is not known, but in any event 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.
The fusion of literary ideas with musical ones – known as Program Music – may be said to have first taken shape in Papillons, Op. 2 ("Butterflies"), a musical portrayal of events in Jean Paul's novel "Die Flegeljahre" (In a letter from Leipzig (April 1832) he bids his brothers "read the last scene in Jean Paul's Flegeljahre as soon as possible, because the Papillons are intended as a musical representation of that masquerade.") This inspiration is foreshadowed to some extent in his first written criticism, an 1831 essay on Frédéric Chopin's variations on a theme from Mozart's Don Giovanni, published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. Here Chopin's work is discussed by imaginary characters created by Schumann himself: Florestan (the embodiment of Schumann's passionate, voluble side) and Eusebius (his dreamy, introspective side) – the counterparts of Vult and Walt in Flegeljahre. A third, Meister Raro, is called upon for his opinion. Raro may represent either the composer himself, Wieck's daughter Clara, or the combination of the two (Clara + Robert).
A youthful Robert Schumann
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. It was also on this occasion that Robert's mother said to Clara, "You must marry my Robert one day." Although the G minor Symphony 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 apparently brought on a severe depressive episode, leading to the composer's first apparent attempt at suicide.
Schumann began receiving general musical and piano instruction the next year from Baccalaureus Kuntzsch, a teacher at the Zwickau high school. Robert immediately developed a love of music and made attempts at creating musical compositions himself, without the aid of Kuntzsch. Even though he often disregarded the principles of musical composition, his pieces were regarded as very admirable for his age. The Universal Journal of Music’s 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 (Wasielewski 17-19)."
Die neue Zeitschrift für Musik
By spring 1834, Schumann had sufficiently recovered to inaugurate Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik ("New Journal for Music"), first published on 3 April 1834. Schumann published most of his critical writings in the Journal, and often lambasted the popular taste for flashy technical displays from figures whom Schumann perceived as inferior composers. Schumann campaigned to revive interest in major composers of the past, including Mozart, Beethoven and Weber, while he also promoted the work of some contemporary composers, including Chopin (who did not like Schumann's work) and Berlioz, whom he praised for creating music of substance. On the other hand, Schumann disparaged the school of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. Among Schumann's associates at this time were composers Norbert Burgmüller and Ludwig Schunke (to whom Schumann's Toccata in C is dedicated).
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 Czech-born noble – to whom he became engaged. Schumann broke off that engagement due to his growing attraction to 15-year-old Clara Wieck. Flirtatious exchanges in the spring of 1835 led to a first kiss on the steps outside Wieck's house in November and mutual declarations of love the next month in Zwickau, where Clara appeared in concert. Having learned in August 1835 that Ernestine von Fricken's birth was illegitimate – a fact which meant that she would have no dowry – and fearful that her limited means would force him to earn his living like a "day-labourer", Schumann engineered a complete break with her toward the end of the year. Subsequently, his budding romance with Clara was soon brought to an unceremonious end. When her father became aware of their nocturnal trysts during the Christmas holidays, he summarily forbade them further meetings and ordered all correspondence between them burnt.
Carnaval (Op. 9, 1834) is one of Schumann's most genial and 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 town (then in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic) 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. Interestingly, the march, a step nearly always in duple meter, is here in 3/4 time (triple meter). The work ends in sheer delirium and 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 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.
Clara Wieck in 1838
Despite the opposition of Clara's father, she and Robert continued a clandestine relationship which matured into a fullblown romance. In 1837 he asked her father's consent to their marriage, but was refused, with Wieck ridiculing his daughter's wish to 'throw herself away on a penniless composer'.
In the series of piano pieces Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, Schumann once more gives a sublime illustration of 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 story 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.
In 1837 Schumann published his Symphonic Studies, a complex set of étude-like variations written in 1834-1835, and demanding a finished piano technique. These variations were based on a theme by the adoptive father of Ernestine von Fricken. The work – described as "one of the peaks of the piano literature, lofty in conception and faultless in workmanship" [Hutcheson] – was dedicated to the young English composer William Sterndale Bennett for whom Schumann had had a high regard when they worked together in Leipzig
The Davidsbündlertänze op.6, (also published in 1837 despite the low opus number) literally 'Dances of the League of David', is also an embodiment of the struggle between enlightened Romanticism and musical philistinism, with the two sides of Schumann's character actually credited 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' itself 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.
Kinderszenen, Op. 15, completed in 1838 and a favourite of Schumann's piano works, exquisitely depicts the innocence and playfulness of childhood. The Träumerei, no.7 of the set, is one of the most famous piano pieces ever written, existing in myriad forms and transcriptions, and has been the favourite encore of several great pianists including Vladimir Horowitz. Melodic and deceptively simple, the piece has been described as "complex" in its harmonic structure.
Kreisleriana (1838), considered one of Schumann's greatest works, carried his fantasy and emotional range deeper. Johannes Kreisler, the fictional poet created by poet E. T. A. Hoffmann who is characterized as a "romantic brought into contact with reality", was employed by Schumann as an imaginary mouthpiece for the sonic expression of 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 Fantasia 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. This is no doubt deliberate, since the proceeds from sales of the work were initially intended to be contributed towards the construction of a monument to Beethoven (who had died in 1827). The closing of the first movement of the Fantasy 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 Schumann dedicated the work – the Fantasy 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 visit to Vienna during which he discovered Franz Schubert's previously unknown Symphony No. 9 in C, in 1839 Schumann wrote the Faschingsschwank aus Wien ("Carnival Prank from Vienna"). Most of the joke is in the central section of the first movement, in which a thinly veiled reference to the Marseillaise (then banned in Vienna owing to the memory of Napoleon's Austrian invasion) is given. The festive mood does not preclude moments of melancholic introspection in the Intermezzo.
After a long and acrimonious legal battle with her father (one which was ultimately resolved by waiting until she was of legal age and therefore no longer subject to her father's consent), Schumann married Clara Wieck on 12 September 1840, at Schönefeld.
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 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).
Profiles of Clara and Robert Schumann
His chief song-cycles of this period were his settings of the Liederkreis of Joseph von Eichendorff (depicting a series of moods relating to or inspired by nature) (Op. 39); 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 opus 35, opus 40 and opus 98a sets (words by Justinus Kerner, Chamisso and Goethe respectively), although less well known, also contain songs of lyric and dramatic quality.
"He has made himself a new ideal world in which he moves almost as he wills."
Despite his achievements, Schumann received few tokens of honour; he was awarded a doctoral degree by the University of Jena in 1840, and in 1843 a professorship in the Conservatory of Music which Felix Mendelssohn had founded in Leipzig that same year. On one occasion, accompanying his wife on a concert tour in Russia, Schumann was asked whether 'he too was a musician'. He was to remain sensitive to his wife's greater international acclaim as a pianist.
In 1841 he wrote two of his four symphonies, no. 1 in B flat (op.38, known as the 'Spring') and no. 4 in D minor (first published in one movement, but later revised extensively and published as op.120- a work that is a pioneering essay in 'cyclic form'). He devoted 1842 to composing chamber music, including the Piano Quintet in E flat, Op. 44, now one of his best known and most admired works; the Piano Quartet and three string quartets. In 1843 he wrote Paradise and the Peri, his first essay at concerted vocal music, an Oratorio style work based on the "Lalla Rook" of Thomas Moore. After this, his compositions were not confined to any one form during any particular period.
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, 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 and in the winter 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.
His only opera, Genoveva, Op. 81, was written in 1848. In it, Schumann attempted to abolish recitative, which he regarded as an interruption to the musical flow (an influence on Wagner; Schumann's consistently flowing melody can be seen as a forerunner to Wagner's Melos). The subject of Genoveva – based on Ludwig Tieck and Christian Friedrich Hebbel – was not an ideal choice, often considered to be a text lacking dramatic qualities and, as a result, the work has not remained in the repertoire. As early as 1842 the possibilities of German opera had been keenly realized by Schumann, who wrote, "Do you know my prayer as an artist, night and morning? It is called 'German Opera.' Here is a real field for enterprise . . . something simple, profound, German." And in his notebook of suggestions for the text of operas are found amongst others: Nibelungen, Lohengrin and Till Eulenspiegel.
The music to Byron's Manfred was written in 1849, the overture of which is one of Schumann's most frequently performed orchestral works. The insurrection of Dresden caused Schumann to move to Kreischa, a little village a few miles outside the city. In August 1849, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Goethe's birth, such scenes of Schumann's Faust as were already completed were performed in Dresden, Leipzig and Weimar, Liszt, as always giving him unwearied assistance and encouragement. The rest of the work was written later in 1849, and the overture (which Schumann described as "one of the sturdiest of [his] creations") in 1853.
Robert Schumann monument at his birthplace Zwickau, Germany
From 1850 to 1854, Schumann composed in a wide variety of genres, however controversy has raged regarding the merit of his output at this time; a widely held view was that his works of this period already showed signs of mental breakdown and creative decay. However this popular belief that this music was inferior has been questioned heavily in more recent times: 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 5 movements and whose 4th movement is apparently intended to represent an episcopal coronation ceremony), and 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 the 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 (later working 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 for many years in the paper he founded) hailing the unknown young composer (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 enormous expectations of him 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 set himself to editing his complete works and making an anthology on the subject of music, but a renewal of the symptoms that had threatened him earlier showed itself. Besides the single note (possibly evidence of tinnitus), he now 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. In truth, this theme was merely a recollection of 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, and 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 his death on 29 July 1856.
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. Schumann was buried at the Zentral Friedhof ("Central Cemetery"), Bonn. In 1880, a statue by Adolf von Donndorf was erected on his tomb.
From the time of her husband's death, Clara devoted herself principally to the interpretation of her husband's works. In 1856, she first visited England, but the critics received Schumann's music coolly, with some critics such as Henry Fothergill Chorley 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 that 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 Birth House in Zwickau today
The Schumann/Schubert error stamps: Schubert's music is on the top stamp, and Schumann's on the bottom
Schumann exerted considerable influence in the nineteenth century and beyond, despite his adoption of more conservative modes of composition after his marriage. He left an array of acclaimed music in virtually all the forms then known. Partly through his protégé Brahms, Schumann's ideals and musical vocabulary became widely disseminated. Composer Sir Edward Elgar called Schumann "my ideal."
Schumann has not often been confused with Austrian composer Franz Schubert, but one well-known example occurred in 1956, when East Germany issued a pair of postage stamps featuring Schumann's picture against an open score that featured Schubert's music. The stamps were soon replaced by a pair featuring music written by Schumann.
Worthen, John (2007). Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician. Yale University Press. ISBN0300111606.. The author argues that the composer was mentally normal all his life, until the sudden onset of insanity near the end resulting from tertiary syphilis.