Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

Robert Schumann was an important German composer of the Romantic era. Along with Schubert, he was one of the greatest composers of art songs.

Schumann grew up with a love of literature due to his father, who worked as an author, publisher, and book seller. He displayed considerable talent and a love for music at an early age and began to write his own pieces. He was studying for a career in law until seeing a performance by noted violinist Niccolò Paganini, which convinced him to pursue music as a career. Schumann began piano studies with Frederich Wieck and would have been a concert pianist until an injury to his right hand forced him to focus on composition. Schumann later married Wieck’s daughter, Clara, against the wishes of her father. She became an important source of inspiration for him and was a noted interpreter of his piano works.

Schumann’s interest in literature combined with his love of music in two ways. First of all, he was an excellent writer and became one of the best known music critics of his day. He even wrote music criticism from the point of view of two characters named Florestan and Eusebius, which represented different parts of his personality. Another character named Raro may have represented Clara, who gave balance to the other two characters. Schumann published the “New Journal for Music,” in which sought to revive interest in earlier composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, while promoting newer composers he admired, such as Chopin, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and especially the young Brahms.

Schumann’s interest in literature also manifested itself in his compositions. He was one of the main developers of program music during the Romantic period and devised elaborate musical narratives in his music. Some early examples of this in his piano suites include the Papillons, Carnaval, and the Davidsbündlertänze (“Dances for the League of David”, an imaginary society invented by Schumann which included the Florestan and Eusebius characters as members). His most popular piano suite is the Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), which contains his best-known piece, “Träumerei”.

After a protracted legal battle, Robert and Clara Schumann were finally married in 1840. This year is often called the “Year of Song”. Schumann drew inspiration from the many love letters that the couple exchanged and composed over 150 art songs during this year, including the song cycles Liederkreis, Frauenliebe und -leben, and his masterwork for voice, the Dichterliebe. (The love story between Robert and Clara has been the source of two Hollywood movies: 1947’s Song of Love, starring Paul Henreid and Katharine Hepburn, and the 1983 film Frühlingssinfonie (“Spring Symphony”), with Herbert Grönemeyer and Natassja Kinski. In addition, pop musician Sting and his wife Trudie Styler have given several public recitals recently, narrating the Schumann’s love letters over performances of their music.)

Although Schumann continued to compose piano music and art songs, he also began to branch out into other forms. He wrote an opera, concertos for piano, violin, cello, and a quartet of horns; and four symphonies, including the Symphony No. 1, “Spring”. He also wrote a number of important chamber works, including the Three Romances for oboe and the Three Fantasy Pieces for clarinet, both of which he also arranged for violin or cello.

In the last few years of his life, Schumann began to experience tinnitus and visions of angels and demons. His delusional behavior continued until he attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge. After he was rescued and taken home, he checked himself into an insane asylum, where he died two years later. Causes of his mental illness are still unknown, but doctors and music historians have advanced many possibilities, including syphilis, brain cancer, and mercury poisoning. After his death, his wife Clara edited and published his works. Together with Brahms, they worked tirelessly to perform and promote his music.

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