House where Robert Schumann was born in 1810
Schumann was born in Zwickau, in the Kingdom of Saxony, the fifth and last child of Johanna Christiane (née Schnabel) and August Schumann. 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, a bookseller, publisher, and novelist.
Schumann began receiving general musical and piano instruction at the age of seven from Johann Gottfried Kuntzsch, a teacher at the Zwickau high school. The boy immediately developed a love of music and worked at creating musical compositions himself, without the aid of Kuntzsch. Even though he often disregarded the principles of musical composition, he created works regarded as admirable for his age. The Universal Journal of Music 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 everyone burst into loud laughter at the similitude of the portrait." (W.J. von Wasielewski 17–19)
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 Friedrich Richter, known simply as Jean Paul, a German writer whose influence is seen in Schumann's youthful novels Juniusabende, completed in 1826, andSelene.
Schumann's interest in music was sparked by seeing a performance of Ignaz Moscheles playing at Karlsbad, and he later developed an interest in the works of Ludwig van Beethoven,Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. His father, who had encouraged the boy's musical aspirations, died in 1826 when Schumann was 16. Neither his mother nor his guardian thereafter encouraged a career in music. In 1828 Schumann left school, and after a tour during which he met Heinrich Heine in Munich, he went to Leipzig to study law (to meet the terms of his inheritance). In 1829 his law studies continued in Heidelberg, where he became a lifelong member of Corps Saxo-Borussia Heidelberg.
During Eastertide 1830 he heard the 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, at age 20 taking piano lessons from his old master Friederich Wieck, who assured him that he would be a successful concert pianist after a few years' study with him.
During his studies with Wieck, it has been claimed that Schumann permanently injured a finger on his right hand. Wieck claimed that Schumann 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. This claim has been discredited by Clara Schumann, who said that the disability was not due to a mechanical device, and Robert Schumann himself refers to it as "an affliction of the whole hand". Some have argued that, as the disability appeared to have been chronic and have affected the hand, and not just a finger, it was unlikely to have been caused by a finger strengthening device.
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 dated April 1832, Schumann bids his brothers "read the last scene in Jean Paul's Flegeljahre as soon as possible, because thePapillons 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).
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.Schumann's mother said to Clara, "You must marry my Robert one day." Although the Symphony in G minor 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 in the worldwide cholera pandemic brought on a severe depressive episode.
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 (about whom Schumann famously wrote, "Hats off, Gentlemen! A genius!") and Hector 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 Schuncke (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 Bohemian-born noble — to whom he became engaged. Having learned in August 1835 that Ernestine von Fricken was born illegitimate, 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 made a complete break with her toward the end of the year, due to his growing attraction to 15-year-old Clara Wieck. They made mutual declarations of love in December in Zwickau, where Clara appeared in concert. His budding romance with Clara was soon brought to an end when her father learned of their 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 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 Bohemian town in which Ernestine was born, and the notes are also the musical letters in Schumann's own name. 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. The march, a step nearly always in duple meter, is here in 3/4 time (triple meter). The work ends in 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 Felix 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.
Despite the opposition of Clara's father, she and Robert continued a clandestine relationship which matured into a full-blown romance. In 1837, he asked her father's consent to their marriage, but was refused. Wieck ridiculed his daughter's wish to "throw herself away on a penniless composer."
In the series of piano pieces Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, Schumann expresses 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 myth 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, which demanded 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 an embodiment of the struggle between enlightened Romanticism and musical philistinism. Schumann credited the two sides of his character 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 Bundwas 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, depicts the innocence and playfulness of childhood. The "Träumerei" in F major, No. 7 of the set, is one of the most famous piano pieces ever written, which has been performed in myriad forms and transcriptions. It has been the favourite encore of several great pianists, includingVladimir Horowitz. Melodic and deceptively simple, the piece has been described as "complex" in its harmonic structure.
Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838), considered one of Schumann's greatest works, carried his fantasy and emotional range deeper. Johannes Kreisler was the fictional poet created by poet E. T. A. Hoffmann, and characterized as a "romantic brought into contact with reality". Schumann used the figure to express 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 Fantasie 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. Schumann intended to use proceeds from sales of the work toward the construction of a monument to Beethoven (who had died in 1827). The first movement of the Fantasie 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 toFranz Liszt, who played the work for Schumann and to whom it was dedicated, the Fantasie 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 theFaschingsschwank 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 is made to "La Marseillaise" (the song had been banned in Vienna due to harsh memories of Napoleon's invasion). The festive mood does not preclude moments of melancholic introspection in the Intermezzo.
After a long and acrimonious legal battle with her father, Schumann married Clara Wieck on 12 September 1840, at Schönefeld, the day before her 21st birthday. Had they waited another day, they would no longer have required her father's consent. Their marriage proved a remarkable business partnership, with Clara acting as an inspiration, critic, and confidant to her husband. Despite her delicate appearance, she was an extremely strong-willed and energetic woman, who kept up a demanding schedule of concert tours in between bearing multiple children. Two years after they married, Friedrich Wieck at last reconciled himself with the couple, eager to see his grandchildren.
In the years 1832–1839, Schumann had written almost exclusively for the piano, but in 1840 alone he wrote no less than 138 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 of 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 (1846–1847), who died at 1 year; Marie (1841–1929); Elise (1843–1928); Julie (1845–1872); Ludwig (1848–1899); Ferdinand (1849–1891); Eugenie (1851–1938); and Felix (1854–1879).
His chief song-cycles of this period were his settings of the Liederkreis of Joseph von Eichendorff, Op. 39 (depicting a series of moods relating to or inspired by nature); the Frauenliebe und -leben of Chamisso, Op. 42 (relating the tale of a woman's marriage, childbirth and widowhood); theDichterliebe of Heine, Op. 48 (depicting a lover rejected, but coming to terms with his painful loss through renunciation and forgiveness); andMyrthen, 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 Opp. 35, 40 and 98a sets (words by Justinus Kerner, Chamisso and Goethe respectively), although less well known, also contain songs of lyric and dramatic quality.
Franz Grillparzer said, "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 often harbored considerable resentment over Clara's success as a pianist, which exceeded his own reputation as a composer. (Schumann had had dreams of being a concert pianist himself, but his playing abilities were never as good as his wife's, possibly due to muscle damage in his hands as discussed above).