Robert Schumann: Overview
- Born: 1810 - Zwickau, Saxony
- Died: 1856 - Endenich, Germany
- Historical Period: Romantic
- Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, opera, songs, choral
Robert Alexander Schumann was born in Germany in the year 1810. One of the most misunderstood and relatively unappreciated musical geniuses of his era, he still had a prolific career in musical composition, notably for his orchestral and piano works. Most of his finest work was composed as a devotion to his wife. After a relatively short life, which was riddled with as many hardships as exceptional works, Schumann passed away in 1856.
Dive deeper into Robert Schumann's life and works: The Misunderstood Master of The Romantic Wave
The composer came from a modest background; his father sold and published books. Schumann went to a regular private school for some time before being admitted to Zwickau Gymnasium in 1820. His education in the musical arts began at the piano when he was only six, and in the year 1827, he found great inspiration from Franz Schubert himself. Under some compulsion from family, he entered the University of Leipzig in 1828 to study law.
Most of Schumann’s time at Leipzig was spent writing songs and piano playing than actually studying law. He learned piano at this time under a popular instructor, Friedrich Wieck. During this time, he met Wieck’s daughter Clara. In the year 1829, Schumann went to Heidelberg and wrote waltzes, which would eventually be used in his Papillons, Opus 2 (1831). Schumann’s Abegg Variations, Op. 1, came out in 1831. This was followed by Toccata (1832), Carnaval (1835) and the Études symphoniques (1837). In between, he was able to establish the “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik”, intended to be for discussing and dealing with music of all ages and for the analysis of new work.
Schumann was engaged to be married to Ernestine von Fricken but the engagement was nullified because he was in love with Clara Wieck. She returned the feeling but wouldn’t go against her father who was dead against such a union. Despite obstacles along the way, the two eventually married in 1840, after Schumann went to court over the matter. Schumann composed the Fantasie in C major, Op. 17 (1836), the Kinderszenen (1838), Davidsbündlertänze (1837), Phantasiestücke (1837), Kreisleriana (1838), Novelletten (1838), Humoreske (1838), Arabeske (1838), and Faschingsschwank aus Wien (1840).
The year 1840 saw Schumann writing songs for solo singing again, Myrthen (1840), Liederkreis, Op. 39 (1840), based on the works of poets Joseph Eichendorff and Heinrich Heine, Dichterliebe (1840) and Frauenliebe und Leben (1840). The year 1841 was equally prolific for the brilliant composer with pieces like Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major, performed by Mendelssohn, the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op.52, and a Phantasie, which he converted into the Piano Concerto in A Minor (1845).
A number of chamber works were produced by Schumann in the year 1842, and the best of the lot here was the Piano Quintet in E-flat Major. Das Paradies und die Peri was composed in 1843, which he described as a secular oratorio. He also wrote the Symphony No. 2, Op. 61 (1847), along with the incidental music accompanying Byron’s “Manfred” (1848-49).
Album für die Jugend, Op.68 (1848) is a piece written for the piano, showcasing Schumann’s talents for children’s music, mixing tenderness and humor with a mastery over the art. Kinderszenen (1838) is another example of his talents for writing for the younger population, looking at childhood from an adult’s viewpoint. The year of 1850 saw the composer become Düsseldorf’s director of music in the municipality.
Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97 (1850), is said to have been inspired the construction of Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Schumann’s continuous behavioral issues and problems with the administration, due to his unprofessional and random antics on stage, resulted in his loss of dignity. This eventually forced him to leave the institution in 1853. He then wrote the Gesänge der Frühe, Op 133 in 1853, composed for the piano. Schumann’s health was already failing by 1852 with his gradually deteriorating nervous system and by 1854, he started to have serious nervous problems and a number of aural hallucinations. He is even said to have heard “angels” during his hallucinatory periods.
During this difficult time, he attempted suicide by jumping into the Rhine river and then, on his own request, he was put in a sanatorium. He believed that he had become a threat to those he cared about, especially his wife Clara, and his doctors didn’t let her meet Schumann for the next two years until he died in 1856. The two had a very limited communication between themselves in these final days.
If looked closely, much of Schumann’s earliest works were comprised of enigmatic musical elements, with extremely subtle hints. There is absolutely nobody to match him when considering the piano miniature or the application of musical aphorisms. A master at his art, Schumann’s compositions tended to capture exact moods and specific moments.