Robert Schumann, Romantic Composer


When I was a music education student at Glassboro State College (now known as Rowan University), I took a vocal repertoire class on art songs and discovered German lieder. All the women in our class fell in love with Robert Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben:

Click for links to the lyrics and translations of all the songs in Frauenliebe und Leben. You can follow along as you listen. I’m sure you’ll agree that these songs are incredibly romantic! Several students in the class worked Schumann’s songs into their senior recitals. (I’m sorry to say I no longer have my program and I can’t remember if I did or not. It was 47 years ago.)

Schumann was born on June 8, 1810. He began piano lessons at age seven, and loved literature and writing. In his teens, he continued to study piano and he wrote novels. But his family was not a happy one. When he was 16, his father died and his sister committed suicide. In order for Robert to receive his inheritance, his father stipulated that he had to complete a three-year course of study at the university, so Schumann enrolled as a law student at the University of Leipzig. He boarded with Friedrich Wieck, and also studied piano with him. Wieck had a daughter, Clara, who was ten years younger than Robert. During this time he discovered the music of Franz Schubert, who became a major influence.

In 1830, Schumann dropped out of law to concentrate on his piano studies with Wieck. As Schumann realized that numbness in one of his fingers was preventing him from becoming the performer he desired to be, he became active as a critic, and his articulate analyses of music of the past and of up and coming musicians was as well-appreciated by the public as his own compositions.

During the 1830s he wrote the majority of the pieces that established his reputation as a composer for the piano: Carnaval, the Davidsbündler Tänze, the Symphonic Etudes, the Fantasy in C, Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Kreisleriana, and others.

Vladimir Horowitz playing Scenes from Childhood:

During this time, he befriended Frédéric Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn. He also fell in love with Wieck’s daughter, Clara, provoking her father’s opposition.

By 1840, Clara Wieck, now 20 years old, was a distinguished pianist and had been in the public eye for more than a decade. Because Clara’s father would not permit her to marry Schumann, Robert and Clara filed a lawsuit against him. Schumann focused his pent-up emotion on vocal music, composing nearly 140 songs in 1840, most of them in the anxious months before August, when the marriage permission suit was decided in their favor. In 1841 he wrote two symphonies — No. 1 in B-flat and No. 4 in D minor — as well as Overture, Scherzo and Finale, and a Fantasie in A minor for piano and orchestra. In 1842 Schumann focused on chamber music, composing three string quartets, the Piano Quintet in E-flat, and the Piano Quartet in E-flat.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein play Schumann’s Symphony No. 4:

Such incredible productivity in a single genre at a time was symptomatic of the manic cycles of what was probably bipolar disorder. The depressive cycle turned up as the 1840s wore on, leaving the composer incapacitated. At the end of 1844 Schumann and Clara moved to Dresden. During his next few years, he completed the Piano Concerto in A minor, his Symphony No. 2 in C, his one opera, Genoveva, and a dramatic poem based on Byron’s Manfred.

In 1850, Schumann accepted a position as municipal music director in Düsseldorf. During the three seasons he held the job, Schumann ticked off city administrators and, due to his increasingly erratic behavior on the podium, lost the respect of the orchestra and chorus. He was fired in the fall of 1853. But during that time the Schumanns cultivated friendships with the renowned violinist Joseph Joaquim and the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, who Schumann immediately recognized was extremely talented.

During the winter of 1854, Schumann’s insanity escalated, due to syphilis. On a February morning he walked to a bridge over the Rhine and threw himself in; he was rescued by fishermen. Insisting that for Clara’s protection he be institutionalized, he was placed in a sanatorium. His doctors prevented Clara from seeing him for more than two years, until days before his death. Meanwhile and after, Brahms stepped up and made sure that Clara and her and Robert’s seven children were cared for.

Schumann is best remembered for his vocal and piano music. His literary sensitivity and introspective nature shows in his work. Nearly all of his piano music refers to literature or poetry.

Schumann’s lyrical, intense musicality produced some of the most beautiful and moving lieder in the repertoire. His Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love), a setting of 16 poems by Heinrich Heine, is his best-known song cycle and a supreme achievement in German lied. Other cycles include the previously mentioned  Frauenliebe und Leben (Women’s Love and Life) and two sets titled Liederkreis (one to poems of Heine, one to poems of Joseph von Eichendorf).

He also composed four symphonies and a substantial amount of chamber music. His Piano Concerto is Schumann at his best. 

Biographical information for this post was taken from an article by Ted Libbey, author of The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music, who said about Schumann, “He never became a great pianist, was a failure as a conductor, and at times was not even a very good composer. But his entire being was music, informed by dream and fantasy. He was music’s quintessential Romantic, always ardent, always striving for the ideal.”

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