The music of the German composer and critic Robert Alexander Schumann (1810-1856) made a significant impact on the burgeoning romantic movement in its rhythmic novelty and harmonic and lyrical expressiveness.
Robert Schumann created no intrinsically new forms, but he infused them with a personal subjectivity and emotional intensity that transformed an inherited classical tradition into the quintessence of romantic experience. Much of his music is characterized by literary allusions and autobiographical references, which are "nothing more than delicate directions for performance and understanding" added to the music to indicate the composer's poetic intent. Yet he was not averse to experimenting with the contrapuntal devices of a J. S. Bach or the symphonic structures of a Beethoven. He thus stands midway between the conservatives and ultraprogressives of the 19th century.
Schumann was born at Zwickau on June 8, 1810, the youngest of the five children of Friedrich Schumann, a bookseller and publisher, and Johanna Schumann. Robert spent hours in his father's bookshop and developed a lifelong interest in German literature, especially the works of Jean Paul (Richter), Heinrich Heine, and Joseph von Eichendorff. At 7 Robert went to a private school and studied piano with the local church organist, who introduced him to the works of C. P. E. Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. By the time Robert was 9, he had begun his first efforts at composition.
During his years in secondary school (1820-1828) Schumann continued to practice the piano, often participating in concerts at the school and in the salons of eminent patrons. By 1825 he had made such progress in improvisation and composition that his father tried to interest Carl Maria von Weber in becoming Robert's teacher, but Weber was on his way to England and nothing came of the attempt. The following year Schumann's sister, Emilie, committed suicide as the result of a mental disorder, and his father, also suffering from a nervous illness, died a few months later.
In 1828 Schumann began to study law at his mother's request at the University of Leipzig. After a short visit to Munich, where he met Heine, Schumann returned to his law studies in earnest. He continued his musical studies with Friedrich Wieck, an eminent piano teacher. At his teacher's home Schumann met Wieck's daughter Clara, already a remarkable pianist at the age of 9. In 1829 Schumann moved to Heidelberg, ostensibly to continue his law studies but essentially to study composition and piano. He frequented the home of the law professor Anton Thibaut, a musical amateur who was instrumental in reviving an interest in the choral music of the Renaissance and the baroque. That summer Schumann went on holiday to Switzerland and Italy and wrote the first part of his Papillons for piano.
A concert by Niccolo Paganini in 1830 in Frankfurt was the decisive factor that turned Schumann permanently to music. After some stormy correspondence with his mother, she finally agreed to let him continue his studies with Wieck. He took up residence in the Wieck home and concentrated on developing into a virtuoso pianist. In his anxiety to make rapid progress he experimented with a sling device to strengthen his fingers; by irrevocably straining his right hand he ruined all chance of becoming a virtuoso. He therefore decided to concentrate on his composition studies and worked with Heinrich Dorn, choirmaster at the Leipzig opera, under whom Schumann completed the second part of the Papillonsand an Allegro for piano. He also embarked on an intensive study of the music of J. S. Bach.
In 1834 the first issue of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music) appeared. It was the organ of the Davidsbündler, a group of musicians, named for the Old Testament King David, who concentrated their struggle against the musical Philistines of their own day. Schumann edited this reforming journal until 1844, and it became a model for music criticism. In order to observe music from all points of view, Schumann invented three artistic characters: the stormy, impetuous Florestan; the gentle, lyrical Eusebius; and the arbiter between the two, Master Raro. In later years Schumann signed many of his own compositions with these appellations.
Schumann's Twelve Symphonic Études appeared in 1834, and the next year saw the completion of Carnaval and the Piano Sonata, Opus 11. His mother died in 1836. He stayed on in Leipzig with the Wiecks, fell in love with Clara, and, over the strong objections of her father, became engaged to her in 1837. Through the success of his journal, Schumann became an eminent voice in cultural matters and an artistic critic of European rank, more famous for his writings than for his compositions, which most musicians found too difficult to play. Nevertheless, he kept on composing and produced such pianistic masterpieces as the Études symphoniques, the Scenes from Childhood, the Kreisleriana, and the Fantasy. On a visit to Vienna in 1838 to further the aims and influence of his journal, he made the sensational discovery of Franz Schubert's C-Major Symphony, which Mendelssohn eventually performed.
In February 1840 Schumann was honored by a doctorate from the University of Jena. A month later he met Franz Liszt, who played part of Schumann's Carnaval at a recital in Leipzig. Schumann married Clara, against her father's will, in September. Seven children were born of this union.
The ensuing years were a high point in Schumann's compositional activity. During 1840 he wrote a veritable outpouring of songs, including the cycles Myrthen (Myrtles), Frauenliebe und Leben (Women's Love and Life), and Dichterliebe (Poet's Love). The next year he composed his Symphony No. 1, the Spring Symphony and in 1842 he wrote many of his finest pieces of chamber music, including three String Quartets dedicated to Mendelssohn and the Quintet in E-flat for piano and strings. The Piano Concerto in A Minor and the Symphony No. 2 were also well under way.
A crisis of mental exhaustion followed on these productive years. A visit from Hector Berlioz in 1843, however, inspired Schumann to new activity, and he began his Paradise and the Peri for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra. That same year Mendelssohn called him to teach composition at the newly founded Leipzig Conservatory. In 1844, after a reconciliation with Wieck, the Schumanns embarked on a successful concert tour of Russia. On their return to Leipzig, Schumann suffered a serious nervous breakdown which caused him to resign as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift. The Schumanns moved to Dresden in December 1844, where they became acquainted with Richard Wagner, whose stage technique Schumann admired more than his music. In Leipzig, Schumann founded the Society for Choral Singing and taught privately for a living. Here he finished his Piano Concerto in A Minor, which was premiered by Clara in 1846, and the Symphony No. 2. He completed his opera Genoveva early in 1848.
In 1849 Schumann's health improved dramatically, and he composed more than 20 works that year, including the Album for the Young, the incidental music to Lord Byron's Manfred, and a group of short works for various instruments.
In 1850 Schumann became civic music director in Düsseldorf. The Düsseldorf years were not happy ones. Times of great inspiration in composition alternated with profound periods of melancholy and despondency, often lasting weeks or even months. His overall creativity began to lag so that one critic dared to write of him, "Schumann has worked his way down from genius to talent." Nonetheless these years witnessed the completion of the Scenes from Goethe's "Faust," the Waldscenen (Woodland Scenes) for piano, innumerable songs, and Symphony No. 3, the Rhenish.
Wagner had once remarked on Schumann's "strange lack of skill in conducting," and this unsuitability for the conductor's post led to constant bickering with the authorities in Düsseldorf. His choir also began to grow more and more recalcitrant. Eventually Schumann was left to conduct his own works only, and all the other conducting was entrusted to the concertmaster.
In 1853 Schumann's Symphony No. 4 was performed successfully at the Lower Rhine Festival, but his mental condition continued to deteriorate. The only bright spot in his life that year was a visit from Johannes Brahms, whom Schumann greatly admired and in whose behalf he wrote a laudatory article, "New Paths," for the Neue Zeitschrift. There was also a brief concert tour of Holland with his wife and a visit to Hanover, where Joseph Joachim conducted Schumann's Symphony No. 4 and played the Fantasy for violin and orchestra.
Schumann went completely berserk on Feb. 27, 1854, when he threw himself into the Rhine in a suicide attempt. He was rescued by some passing fishermen, and at his own request he was taken to an asylum in Endenich. Clara, aided by their loyal friend Brahms, did all that was possible to bolster Schumann's spirits but to no avail. He died on July 29, 1856.
Further Reading on Robert Alexander Schumann
There is unfortunately no really good work on Schumann in English. Even the monumental German study, Robert Schumann by Wolfgang Boetticher (1941), is marred by Nazi overtones. Very useful are Joan Chissell, Schumann (1948), and Gerald Abraham, ed., Schumann: A Symposium (1952). Percy M. Young, Tragic Muse: The Life and Works of Robert Schumann (1957), is also worth examining. For general historical background Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960), is recommended.