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Robert Schumann - his life and famous works

Robert Schumann was one of the main composers that intensively worked on connection between music and words. This was one of the main streams of romanticism – the cultural era during which Schumann lived and to which he so vastly contributed. Romanticism was all about showing feelings, passions, strangeness and expressiveness. We nowadays associate romance with all these things, although romanticism means something different – the comes from the Medieval age poem genre that were written in a Roman language (latin or its derivatives) and thus the genre got its “Romantic” label. Even though some romanticism existed in the past, the main ideas in early music philosophy were to either glorify God (Baroque) or to have an easy, luxury listening (Classicism). Only in the first half of the 19th century did the expressive power of music come to be acknowledged for conveying human feelings and desires. And Schumann was one of the foremost that took this idea to the extreme and therefore became a major influence on the musical romanticism.


Schumann was born in the house on the left, 1810 as the 5th and last child of the family in a charming town of Zwickau (in Sachsen, Germany) that at this time had about 5,000 inhabitants (see picture below). His father, August, was immensely interested in literature – he sold books – and had a liberation spirit, both of these qualities he managed to instill in his son. Robert started to play piano at 7 years of age, and wrote his first compositions, short piano dances, within one year. He would quickly become a pianist that loved to improvise, and he especially enjoyed musical painting of people’s feelings, behavior, or faces on the piano. From this love for expression of human nature in music, he wrote one of his most famous works – Carneval, Op. 9 – in 1834, dedicated to his two (!) loves Ernestine von Frieken, and the 9 year younger Clara Wieck – daughter of his piano teacher. Some of his early compositions were evaluated by the established musical critics in a negative manner, simply because they were liberating from the earlier musical ideas of form and because they described “youthful passions”. Indeed, one of the critics told Schumann to cut out such parts from his scores, a suggestion that, gladly for us and for the musical history, was never followed. Besides the early musical development, he and his childhood friends ran a popular local home theater (that people payed for!) and a book club where he became acquainted and much affected by the works of Schiller, Goethe, and Jean Paul. Being such an artistic individual, Schumann never really cared for the rigorous school education and often found himself daydreaming in the classes. Along with these general major childhood experiences he also had to go through some family tragedies – first, his sister Emily drowned herself probably due to mental illness, and shortly thereafter his father August died. Robert himself had a genetic predisposition to mental illness as well, which drove him to the edge of sanity at several occasions during his life, as we shall later examine. He became crazy, if you may say so, already at 23, in connection with these tragic events, and also at the time when he was struck by malaria that took him a long time to recover from.


March 1828: Schumann arrives at the university of Leipzig, a city with very good scholars, where Bach spent most of his late life, and where Mendelssohn and Goethe worked. It was a very musically cultural German city, with publication houses and good music environment. Schumann naturally didn’t care much for studying law – as intended by his mother – but devoted much of his time to music. His composing was associated with drinking alcohol, coffee, and smoking – the objects he saw as perfect stimuli for the artistic mind.  He also had an enormous sexual appetite, was a prolific masturbator during the time when medical textbooks warned against it, he suffered from insomnia, and probably died by syphilis that he acquired in some of his sexual activities that, by the way, were not restricted to women. So what did Schumann do in Leipzig really? First of all, he met Friedrich Wieck, the daughter of which he would later marry. Robert had as much passion for the piano lessons taken from the father as for Clara Wieck, the daughter that the piano teacher has determined to become the greatest pianist in the world. In Leipzig, Schumann also encountered one of his greatest literary influences – Jean Paul. This writer presented a very “chaotic” language of passions and feelings, and Schumann found this attractive. Why? Robert had an alter ego, or rather two of them, Floristan and Eusebius – the first one a hero from one of Beethoven’s works, and the second a Catholic priest with an unstable mind. Somehow, Jean Paul’s works could be recognized by Schumann’s internal personalities. Robert actually wrote reviews of other composer’s music, like Chopin’s Opus 2, as dialogues between Floristan and Eusebius. Sounds mentally unstable? Well, unfortunately (?) he was.


As Beethoven had problem with hearing and Bach had problems with vision, so Schumann did not escape any trouble – he injured one of his right hand fingers. There are speculations on how this happened, whether it was mercury treatment for syphilis, or excessive masturbation (as proposed by some of the early biographies!), most scholars think the problem was caused by a finger strengthening machine he used to become a (purposely) better pianist. Probably his intensive 8 hour daily piano practice regimen also contributed to the injury. Did he do anything about? He tried a cure of animal bathing – dipping his hand in remains of a freshly slain animal, supposed to nourish the fingers with vital forces of the flesh. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Of course, Schumann was very depressed by the fact that he couldn’t play piano, but he found some consolation in music composing, for which we today are grateful.


So what can we say about his compositions? One of his first piano compositions is Papillons, Op.2 (1832), which he wrote as a law school student. This short work is reflecting a chapter from Jean Paul’s book where a masquerade dance is described as a dance of butterflies (papillons). Whatever he meant by musically describing the work of Jean Paul, this Schumann work shows one very characteristic point of romantic music – music and literature, music and passions, music and the spontaneous thoughts… all this is intertwined. And much of his piano music is like that, and he wrote a lot of piano music – much more than for any other musical setting.


Clara Wieck was born 1819, and was one of the three surviving children of the pedantic and nasty, although reputedly fantastic piano teacher Friedrich. In her early life, the marriage of the father bursted, and the wife, Marianne, moved out and later married a purposed lover her. Clara continued to live with her father, after Friedrich used his stand to get back the children from the mother, and gradually became one of the finest musicians in Europe – a fine testimony to her father’s pedagogical skills. Clara was indeed meant to become one the best, as her father wanted from the very start of her life. Already at the age of eleven, she gave her first public concert followed by a European tour, and received very good reviews. Finally, in Paris, she met some very musically influential people who adored her playing, people like Mendelssohn and Paganini, along with an opera director and a piano maker. Ultimately, this led to her career being more and more driven by other people than her father. When did Robert Schumann enter the scene? As mentioned, 1828 he met Wieck for the first time, and since Wieck promised to make Robert a world-class pianist within three years was allowed to live in the Wieck house for about a year. Schumann didn’t like the personality of Wieck either, as none of people around him did anyway, but he did want to learn the virtuosic art of the piano. Anyway, this was the event that brought Schumann close to Clara, with whom he felt madly in love as she turned into a beautiful young woman.


Asch was the city where the previous love of Schumann was living – Ernestine von Frieken. The couple actually got engaged, but at the age of 25 Robert quit the relationship as he found out Ernestine was illegitimately born. Whatever that meant for him – let’s be honest, this man was not keeping any sexual moral standards of the time – he found it repulsive, but still he wrote one of his most famous compositions – Carneval – dedicated to Ernestine, and based on the letters ASCH (or A, Eb/Ess, C, B), that is the hometown of his love. Of course, this composition saw the daylight before the “tragic” discovery of Ernestine’s birth, about one year before to be precise. What is the composition about? We’re talking romanticism here, the revealing of a man’s internal ego without restrictions, which was all so obvious at the German and the Venetian carnivals. The composition opens with a grand prelude (Preambule), is followed by a slower movement about a clown Pierrot (one of Schumann’s friends?), then a lively part on Harlequine (a masquerade figure). Next, we hear a vals music movement, followed by two contrasting parts on Schumann’s alter egos – Eusebius and Floristan, Papillons, the next movement is a tribute to Schumann himself and to Jean Paul. Then follow parts on Clara Wieck and (!) Ernestine von Frieken, as well as Chopin, whom he admired (“hats off”, as he wrote in one of his music reviews), and Paganini. There are even some other parts of the Schumann’s carneval in his composition, more related to the actual events that happen at a carneval. The whole work, about 25 minutes in length, is concluded with a personal attack of Schumann on the academic, conservative musicians that try to stop the progress of music; and the movement is named after David’s fight against the Philistines. In all, Carneval is a very characteristic Schumann work, virtuosic, portraying something particular, and new for the era. However, his music was difficult for the listening audience to accept because of its constant changes in tempo and mood. Schumann knew that himself, and even Clara told him to not be that complicated, but he of course didn’t change his mind, purely for his idealistic fixation. And, as time has told, he was correct in not appeasing the expectations of the audiences and critics.


Another famous composition of Schumann is Kreisleriana – dedicated to Chopin, although he promised to dedicate it to his love Clara. It is a work of eight short pieces that go through the different personalities or natures of Schumann. It is then as shifting in moods as Carneval, but it’s more a representation of Schumann himself. These works are both interesting and fascinating, and something completely novel at the time of their conception.


Did he make any money on his compositions? Considering what was said above, it may not be hard to guess that he didn’t. And, due to his hand injury, he couldn’t support himself by playing the piano. What did he do? Set up a musical review journal that became quite popular, despite the reputation of his music. He tried to set up some music business in Vienna as well, but it didn’t pay off. However, he found something there that we must be grateful for, and that was Schubert’s unpublished works collected by the brother who happened to live in Vienna and met Schumann. Actually, the first performance of Schubert’s Great Symphony no.9 was arranged by Schumann and Mendelssohn. After returning from Vienna, in 1839, he finally married Clara but it wasn’t without trouble – the always Schumann-hating father of Clara tried to stop it and didn’t consent to the marriage (which was required then if a girl was under 21 years of age). However, after a number of slanders and angry letters back and forth, the parts finally met in a court, and the issue became resolved – the court decided that the father had no case, and Clara could marry Robert at 1840, just one day before her 21st birthday (a final blow to the father?).


The year 1840 was a good composing year for Robert, following a several years hiatus from composition. Especially, he managed to write 147 high quality songs (which Clara also was engaged in on her own) this year, spanning op. 25-50, and these songs captured the appraisal by Edvard Grieg. They are really lyrical, passionate, and well – romantic – in style, many of which don’t have any clear beat but feel like a trance in mood. And finally, year 1841, Schumann wrote his first symphony, after a long drawn motivational talk from Clara’s part.


There simply was no other way to go for a composer if he wanted to become big – write for an orchestra. Until now, Schumann wrote mostly for his instrument, with or without a voice, and now he took the bull by the horns and decided to finally write  in a grand format. So, 1841 came the first symphony, or the Spring Symphony as it is also called. It was premiered in Leipzig, under conduction of Felix Mendelssohn, while the 4-month pregnant Clara played a number of piano works, which totally spellbound the audience and made Schumann couple’s name really famous and big. He also wrote an uncomplete, two movement symphony in G minor (WoO 29) called Zwickau Symphony (named after his home town), which displays clear influences of Beethoven whose works Schumann has been transcribing for piano. Obviously, he found himself struggling for originality and yet was attracted to write in the blueprints of Beethoven’s symphonies that were so tested and proven to work. Nevertheless, after he got confidence in writing for the bigger settings, Schumann also began to write chamber music, including the fine Piano Quintet op.44. It was reviewed by the contemporary critics as one of the most important chamber music works written, and is now one of his most known.


1843 was the year of more songs, but on a larger scale – he now write an oratorio, a fantastic (yet forgotten by many today due to its oriental theme) and secular Das Paradies und die Peri op.50. This work is based on a tale by Thomas Moore, a story about sin, redemption, and heaven, although not about humans but about elves. Schumann spent so much intensity on this oratorium that Clara began to be more and more concerned with the husband’s health. Ultimately, 1844 the couple traveled to Russia for a grand 4-month concert tour, in the midst of the Russian winter, and sure Clara was collecting the piano playing glory as usual, and money was good, but -  the longer the tour went on, the worse Schumann’s mental health became. Even after they returned to Leipzig, his health was unstable, despite a doctor’s intervention. This disorder lasted for three long years, during which Robert was depressed, suffered from insomnia, phobia of metal items and tall buildings, and on top of that – his doctor exposed him to some hypnotic and magic “cures” that obviously were to no avail. Nevertheless, Robert still managed to complete his fabulous Piano Concerto in A minot op.54, filled with lyricism, passions, and blends of masculinity and beauty. Following that, he wrote his second symphony op.61 (not to confuse with the earlier uncomplete Zwickau symphony), premiered by Mendelssohn that soon after died, something that shook Schumann vigorously. So how could Schumann live these two lives of psychic disturbance and still write the fine music and be an overall nice man? Who knows his tricks, but whatever he did he soon proceeded to write an opera Genoveva op.81, amongst other chamber works, songs, stage works, and an unconventional, yet interesting, concert work for four horns and an orchestra op.86.


1850 the Schumann’s moved to Dusseldorf, a big city at the bank of the Rhine river, with a rich cultural life, and with Robert taking on a job as a leader for the city’s fine symphony orchestra. Inspired by the Rhine river’s landscape, he wrote his third symphony, the so-called Rhenish Symphony op.97. The first movement of the work is one of the most recognized with a majestic parade of tones, and so is the second movement that is about the flowing waters of the river. In the fourth movement he expresses his remembrance and awe for the cathedral of Cologne, and finally in the fifth movement he returns to the normal life by the banks of the Rhine river. This symphony was a huge success in Dusseldorf, after which Schumann proceeded to writing of the fourth symphony and several other grandiose works. Soon, Clara also gave birth to their seventh child. But, all this happy life sadly had to end. Mainly it was the Robert’s strange behavior during orchestra rehearsals that made the musicians there unhappy, to say the least. Furthermore, Schumann’s mental health deteriorated, he sometimes lost his ability to speak, had problems to sleep, and was overall dizzy. No wonder he lost his job with the Dusseldorf orchestra, after three years in service.


At that time, the Schummans had the occasion to meet the young Johannes Brahms who, partly through performing his piano sonata, became appraised by the couple that put Brahms on the footsteps of fame. However, some time after this interesting meeting, Schumann’s health worsened once again as he now started to hear sounds in his head, some of which he actually converted into music. The illness didn’t gave way though, and he soon tried to commit suicide by plunging into the river, yet he was rescued by some fishermen that observed his attempt. His behavior was more and more hard to cope with for the family, and he more or less voluntarily was admitted to a mental hospital in Bonn. Who ran the Schumann household? Johannes Brahms! As he heard the news of Schumann’s suicidal attempt, and since he held the couple in a gratitude for what they done to him, he traveled to Dusseldorf and stayed and supported Clara and the children. Whether the two became lovers is still a matter of speculation, but there is no doubt Brahm’s intervention helped Clara extensively. And what happened to Robert at the institute? His health, at first reverting to normal, soon worsened even more, and he eventually caught a pneumonia that his body’s weakened immune system couldn’t fight off. Clara came to see him, after a hiatus of two-and-a-half year, just a few days before he died, and he died alone while Clara was out with Brahms on a train station to pick up their friend Joseph Joachim. As she came back to the institute, Robert was already dead. He was buried in Bonn, in simple manners, and with a small gathering of close friends. The year was 1856.


Why did Schumann die really? According to the symptoms that he described in his diary, he could have caught syphilis already at 1831, which slowly but surely progressed into a full-blown body disorder that consumed his mentality – neurosyphilis, which affects about one-third of the syphilis patients, leads to depression, mania, psychosis and personality changes. Some clues point to the option that the disorder was actually latent during most of his marriage, to explode later in life.

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