1810 — 1856
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Robert Schumann was one of the most prolific composers of the romantic era. He is best remembered for his piano and vocal repertoire as well as his symphonic and chamber music, contributing significantly to each genre that existed at the time.
As well as being a pianist and composer, he was also deeply interested in literature, which made him a historically well-informed musician whose composition style can be said to owe homage to literary models. As a 14 year old he wrote an essay on the aesthetics of music and while still at school read works by the great philosophers Schiller, Goethe, Byron and the Greek tragedies.
At age 18, Schumann went to Leipzig in the spring, to study law, but unfortunately proved to be indifferent to it, describing it as ‘ice cold’. According to various fellow students, Schumann was said to have ‘not attended a single lecture’. Instead, music and literature featured strongly in his first year in Leipzig and by August of that year he was studying piano with Friedrich Wieck, who was to be a notable figure in Schumann’s professional and personal life.
Schumann seemed to have focused on various specific genres at different periods of his life. Keyboard music seemed to feature strongly between 1833 and 1839. After becoming engaged to Clara Wieck, following legal action and threats and personal criticisms from Clara’s father, Schumann had a very fruitful period of musical creativity. A few days after she agreed to marry him, he set to work on theDavidsbundlertanze, op 6 in which he proclaims his debt to Clara’s muse with a quotation of Clara’sSoiree musicale.
Clara’s own career as a concert pianist exceeded Schumann’s own reputation as a composer, which was a cause for great resentment. In his youth, Schumann had showed great promise as a pianist but his chances of life as a performer were hindered due to a hand injury.
Schumann actually claimed never to have considered song composition as ‘great art’ , which he wrote in a letter to Hirschbach in 1839. In 1840 Schumann pragmatically saw vocal music as the most marketable of genres, which led to him almost exclusively writing for voice in that particular year. He no doubt saw it as his duty to maintain a more stable income, because of Clara’s father’s disproval of his financial state during those years. However, Schumann manages to strike a great balance between apparent naivety and refinement with regard to melody and form. Schumann’s vocal compositions of 1840 are also linked to his feelings for Clara. He wrote to her in May of that year: ‘Much of you is embedded in my EichendorffLiederkreis and the same could justly be said ofMythen, Frauenliebe und –leben and the Kerner cycle op. 35’. Throughout his lieder, Schumann took inspiration from the verses of the finest poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries such as Goethe, Byron and Burns – about half of them lyrical texts and the rest narrative and dramatic.
The year 1841 was the year of Schumann’s the best orchestral output. In late February of that year he completed his First (‘Spring’) Symphony op.38, which is said to lie mid-way between absolute music and programme music, followed soon after by the beginnings of Overture, Scherzo and Finale op. 52. The A minorPhantasie is a built on sonata form, whereas ,the D minor Symphony, which takes a completely other type of form, is said to be the most radical of Schumann’s symphonic works from that year. In a passage that he wrote in his marriage diary of 1841, Schumann states that his next symphony would be a tribute to Clara, whom he liked to portray using ‘flutes oboes and harps’, which is thought to refer to the D minor Symphony.
Another genre that Schumann shows is genius is the string quartet. Schumann declared that the string quartet should be composed in such a way that it ‘avoids symphonic furore’ and instead keeps a conversational nature in which ‘everyone has something to say’ and additionally should be more than mere imitations of Haydn and Mozart. This was a time in which chamber music was beginning to have a place in both private entertainment and in public display.
Schumann suffered from episodes of mental illness including depressive episodes frequently throughout his life. On the 27th of February 1854, Schumann made a suicide attempt , throwing himself into the Rhine. After being rescued, he requested to be admitted to a mental institution, where he lived until his death in 1856 at the age of 46.