Born in Saxony in 1810, Robert Schumann embodied the spirit of German Romanticism more than any other composer of the era. He is chiefly remembered for piano music and songs which capture the pervading themes of the era: love, nature, the supernatural and, above all, the inner life of the individual.
Schumann's private life was one of thwarted ambition and grand passions. As a boy he showed as much promise as a writer as he did as a pianist. In 1828 he studied law at Leipzig University but spent his time pursuing his musical and literary interests. From 1830 he began to study piano with Friedrich Wieck, lodging with him and his nine-year-old daughter Clara, a child prodigy at the piano. Schumann hoped for a career as a concert pianist but turned to composition after permanently damaging a finger. A finger-strengthening device is blamed for this by popular legend, although syphilitic sores are a more likely explanation. Schumann, always a ladies' man, probably contracted the disease as a student, its symptoms recurring throughout his life.
Schumann's piano music, though often difficult, was not written to impress through bravura and complexity. He wrote many collections of short pieces including Phantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), Nachtstücke (Night Pieces), Waldscenen (Forest Scenes), and Kinderscenen (Scenes From Childhood). Each individual piece has an evocative title suggesting emotions, memories or scenes from nature. Scenes From Childhood includes 'Träumerei' (Dreaming), one of the most famous Romantic piano pieces. Within these collections Schumann could create contrasts without the difficulty of unifying a large-scale work. A recurring theme was enough to structure the collection.
In 1834 Schumann began ten years as editor of a music journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Schumann wrote spirited articles on the musical aesthetics and philosophies of the time and through his reviews brought the young Chopin and Brahms to prominence. Schumann formed the Davidsbündler, a group of friends fighting for true art against 'Philistines'. This group became the inspiration for a collection of eighteen pieces for piano.
To highlight different sides of his nature Schumann often wrote under pseudonyms: 'Florestan' (a fiery revolutionary) and 'Eusebius' (a contemplative youth). These characters also appear as movements in his piano collection Carnaval (1835), along with 'Chiarina', his pet-name for Clara Wieck, and 'Chopin', a tribute to that composer.
In 1835 Schumann declared his love for Clara, now sixteen. Her father vehemently opposed this and took Clara away. Clara defied her father and pledged herself to Schumann in 1837 but Wieck kept them apart and Schumann fell into deep depression. In 1839 they took legal action to make Wieck's consent unnecessary and the couple were finally married in 1840.
During the dispute with Wieck, Schumann composed very little but had a sudden outpouring in 1840 when, finally married, he composed around 150 songs in this one year. His highly emotional settings of love poetry are a true partnership between voice and piano in which the piano supports and intensifies the poetry. The piano often has the climax of the work to itself in a postlude after the voice has finished.
By 1841 Schumann was anxious to compose successful orchestral music and wrote his first symphony and the beginnings of his famous Piano Concerto In A Minor. In 1842, while Clara was touring as a concert pianist, he turned to chamber music.
In 1843 Schumann suffered a breakdown. Forays into teaching and conducting were not successful and the depressions continued. Despite this he composed his second symphony and the Album For The Young, a collection of piano music for children.
A job in 1850 as Düsseldorf's town musical director seemed a positive step for Schumann and he was happy at first, composing his cello concerto and third symphony, the 'Rhenish'. But his conducting skills were limited and, with poor physical and mental health, Schumann gave up the job in 1853. The only light on the horizon seemed to be his new-found friendship with the young composer Brahms.
In 1854 Schumann began to experience hallucinations, attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine, and was admitted to an asylum where he spent his last two years. He died in 1856, cared for at the end by Clara and Brahms. His degeneration was almost certainly due to syphilis, and his chaotic mental state was reflected in his later compositions which lack the clarity of earlier works. Schumann's music reflects the man - a mixture of inspiration and weakness, but always fully embracing the spirit of Romanticism.
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