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Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann


Robert Schumann was a true Romantic. The originality of his work pushed at emotional, structural and philosophical boundaries. As a young man, he fought to marry the pianist he had fallen in love with, finally taking his future father-in-law to court, and championed the work of other composers. In middle age, suffering the effects of tertiary syphilis, he threw himself into the Rhine and spent the remainder of his life in an asylum, writing music that he believed to have been dictated to him by angels. The family into which Schumann was born was literary rather than musical. His father was a publisher and bookseller. Schumann himself was a fine writer, and he was torn at first over whether to devote himself to words or music. Although the latter won, he was a perceptive critic. He founded and edited a music magazine. This was the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and in it he acclaimed the music of Berlioz, Chopin and, much later, the young Brahms. Throughout his career Schumann tended to concentrate on one genre at a time, exhausting the possibilities of each one before moving on to the next. The exception to this was piano music. A pianist himself, he wrote for the instrument until the end of his life. Indeed, the piano affected much of Schumann’s life. He went to Leipzig, at first to study law. He was following the instructions of his late father’s will, but in defiance switched to tuition with a well-known piano pedagogue, Friedrich Wieck. Schumann was not Wieck’s only pupil. His main focus was his own daughter, Clara, whom he was rearing as a child prodigy pianist. As Clara grew from little girl to young woman, she and Schumann fell deeply in love. By now Schumann was devoted to composition. Wieck, who had come to regard him as a dissolute wastrel, was furious at the idea that they might marry. Schumann drank heavily, had a good few other love affairs and showed signs of mental instability. He had also contracted syphilis, although it is not clear whether or not Wieck knew this. Schumann is said to have injured his hand irrevocably while using a contraption to strengthen his fourth finger. Other theories suggest, however, that his incapacity may have been down to mercury poisoning during treatment for syphilis. Forcibly separated by Wieck, Schumann and Clara communicated through music. Schumann’s works are full of musical ciphers, employing notes as letters and motifs as symbols: a ‘Clara’ motif and a quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte are just two examples. He also borrowed heavily from Clara’s own compositions, as if to bind the two of them together in music. Eventually the young couple took Wieck to court and won the right to marry. This they did in 1840, on the day before Clara’s 21st birthday. Through the 1830s Schumann wrote a vast quantity of piano music. It included pictorial cycles with literary or personal associations such as Papillons; Carnaval, containing musical ‘portraits’ of friends; and Davidsbündlertänze. This last was the dance of a group of idealistic artists and musicians marching against the Philistines. The group was populated with imaginary characters, including his twin alter-egos, the extrovert Florestan and the gentle Eusebius. Schumann devoted the year of 1840 almost exclusively to songs. His song cycles included Frauenliebe und -leben, in which the heroine experiences love, marriage, motherhood and widowhood – an all-too-prophetic vision, as it turned out. The songs built not only on Schumann’s own use of recurring motifs, but also on the work of Schubert, whose music he adored. Soon after Schubert’s death he had visited his brother Ferdinand and unearthed a range of music. This included the manuscript of the ‘Great’ Ninth Symphony, which had never been performed. Schumann persuaded his friend, the composer Felix Mendelssohn, to conduct it at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Schumann next turned his attention to chamber music. Between 1841 and 1842 he wrote three string quartets, a piano quartet and a piano quintet of sheer genius. As time went on, he attempted larger forms – choral works, the opera Genoveva and four symphonies. One reason he turned to larger-scale forms was simple necessity: he and Clara had seven surviving children to raise. Clara was now an internationally celebrated pianist who pursued her career as extensively as she could. She often chided her husband for the ‘obscurity’ of his compositions and encouraged him to write more accessibly for a paying public. This may occasionally have hampered the originality of Schumann’s music. For instance, his Symphony no. 4 consisted initially of one unbroken span of music. But Clara discouraged him from publishing it and he put it aside. On returning to it a decade later, he divided it into four conventional movements. Later still, after Schumann’s death, Brahms unearthed the original. When he arranged its publication Clara was furious. Brahms first visited the Schumanns in October 1853, aged 20. He carried an introduction from a mutual friend, the prodigiously gifted young violinist Joseph Joachim. Both Robert and Clara Schumann were bowled over by Brahms and his music. In his turn, he became devoted to both of them, and fell desperately in love with Clara. Five months later, Schumann suffered a nervous breakdown. He attempted suicide, throwing himself into the Rhine during the town carnival. On his own request he was sent to a mental hospital at Endenich, near Bonn. Clara was forbidden to visit him, and she saw him again only when he was on his deathbed. Fearing they might betray his faltering mind, she, Brahms and Joachim agreed to suppress some of his late works, including his Violin Concerto. Opinions are still divided over what caused Schumann’s mental illness and death. Tertiary-stage syphilis seems the most convincing of the various options. Whatever the truth, Schumann’s influence extended decades into the future. His music’s impact on Brahms, Liszt, Wagner, Elgar and Fauré – and beyond – is immeasurable. And he remains among the best-loved of all 19th-century composers.

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