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Schumann, Robert
1810 - 1856

Robert Schumann 
Biography by writer and vocal coach Gordon Stewart

On the 8th June, 1810, Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, in Saxony, the youngest of six children.

The kingdom of Saxony at that time was large, thanks to Napoleon, but it was soon cut down to size by the Congress of Vienna in 1815-16, when Prussia was allowed to annex the northern part (though it had its eyes on the whole kingdom). .

Zwickau lies at the southern tip of a triangle formed with Leipzig and Dresden; and as the industrial revolution progressed, it prospered on the back of the coalfields on which it sat. .

August Schumann, Robert's father, a bookseller and publisher, had settled in Zwickau not long before Robert was born, and was making a success of his business. Surrounded by books, the boy acquired a love of literature and writing which never left him. .

He was educated privately at first, then at the Lyceum in Zwickau. From a very young age he read and absorbed classical literature and the works of Schiller, Goethe and Byron. His talent for music showed up early on, and took him in the direction of the piano, on which he made rapid progress. He wrote music from the age of seven, and, in his teens, poetry and prose, including novels (which he never completed), following in the path of his favourite authors, Jean Paul and ETA Hoffmann. Both, in their way, were obvious targets for an imaginative boy. Jean Paul (he dropped his family name, Richter, for his writing) was the very model of a Romantic author, his almost over-active imagination sharpened by a satirical pen. “The earth is the cul-de-sac in God's city…in truth it is almost nothing” is a quotable line. His novel Hesperus, published in 1795, became a best-seller, but it was in his incomplete novel Flegeljahre (the years of adolescence) that Schumann found the characters he most identified with – twins with opposing characters. For Schumann they became Eusebius, gentle and sensitive, and Florestan, positive and outgoing, and he took them over into his writing – both in words and music (they appear with their own pieces in his piano cycle, Carnaval). It’s possible to take that double identity as a sign that he had a dual personality, (schizophrenia, even, for some analysts) but it may have been a sign of nothing more than an imagination given to self-dramatisation. His other hero, ETA Hoffmann, was a polymath whose writings and music give evidence of a man with considerably more substance than what we know from Offenbach’s opera. Schumann wrote his eight fantasies, Kreisleriana, in direct response to a novel by Hoffmann. .

Schumann’s father died in 1826, close upon the death of his daughter. The understandable grief which Robert felt probably went beyond what might be considered “normal”, because the first bouts of the melancholia that bedevilled his adult life began not long afterwards. .

On leaving school he was inscribed at the University of Leipzig as a student of law, a typically middle-class choice, but in the gap months between school and university, he met Friedrich Wieck, an exceptional piano teacher, and decided he would like to study with him. For the moment, though, he dutifully went to university, transferred to Heidelberg, and then got his mother's permission to give up law for music. He came back to Leipzig and to Friedrich Wieck. .

The serious lessons began. But something happened to his hands. One story (not proved, but then none of the others is proved either) is that he invented some device for strengthening his fingers, and it rebounded on him. Whatever the truth of it, he gave up all notions of being a pianist, and the great talent he had for the keyboard translated itself into some of the greatest Romantic piano music. He composed his opus 1. And fell in love with another of Wieck's pupils, Ernestine von Fricken. They proceeded to an engagement which was broken off by mutual consent within weeks. .

More importantly, in 1834, having cut his journalistic teeth by writing for another publication, he founded the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. This new magazine was to give voice to the rising tide of Romantic feeling in music. After the first months, he virtually ran it alone, writing much of the copy himself. His style, at first, was very colourful – music triggered thoughts and dreams for him which could be described, while music in itself is much harder to get hold of with words. Later, as he got busier, his manner grew more practical. He was read widely throughout in Germany, making him better known as a writer than as a composer, at least at first. Two reviews stand out, amongst much that is interesting. His review of Chopin: “Hats off, gentemen, a genius,” was actually published before the Neue Zeitschrift began; and his salute to the young Brahms was perceptive and accurate. .

It was common for teachers to take their pupils into their houses – it meant they could keep an eye on their habits while practising, as well as making it easier to give them lessons at any time. Schumann lived in Wieck’s house and he was in daily contact with the other students. And above all with Wieck's daughter Clara. She was a child of eleven in 1830, but already a great pianistic talent, and shown off in public by her father as such. By the time she was sixteen, she and Robert were in love. Once he found out, Wieck went to extreme lengths to prevent the two of them seeing each other. That and the legal action they eventually had to take to be able to marry spun matters out even longer. The marriage took place on the day before Clara’s twenty-first birthday, in 1840. Theirs has become one of the world’s great love stories. Their marriage was a remarkably fruitful one – not just in the children that were born to them – eight of them, one of whom died in infancy, and the last in 1938 – but equally as a marriage of minds and talents. It wasn’t always smooth, because the balance needed for two musicians to work fruitfully under the same roof is one that has to be worked at, and piano practice and composition are not good companions when they take place under the same roof. .

In his pre-marriage period from 1830 Schumann wrote most of his great solo piano music. In his marriage year he wrote songs. 1840, his ”song year”, produced a burst of them, including five cycles, four of which have become bastions of the singer's repertoire for the very good reason that they integrate their individual songs into a whole. The fifth is different – a wreath of myrtle, Myrthen, as for a wedding decoration, and it was Robert's wedding present to Clara. .

The music scene in Leipzig rose to its nineteenth century height once Mendelssohn arrived there in 1835 to be conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. He attracted lesser, but still significant, artists like Niels Gade and William Sterndale Bennett. Liszt was an enthusiastic visitor, too, though ultimately there was a parting of ways when Liszt set up another “music centre” in Weimar, with his own ideas of what modern music was about and where it should go. Having two composers of the stature of Mendelssohn and Schumann in the same place – not to mention instrumentalists like Clara Schumann – added to the golden days. Schumann wasn’t a patch on Mendelssohn as a conductor, and indeed that would become a major drawback in the future, but in 1838, on a visit to Vienna, he discovered the score of the great C major Symphony by Schubert, which his brother Ferdinand had in his keeping, still awaiting its first performance. He brought it back to Leipzig, where Mendelssohn programmed it into the Gewandhaus concerts. .

Once Schumann's song year was over, his composing energies moved on: his first symphony (The Spring) arrived in 1841. In the following year it was chamber music that claimed his attention: three quartets and the Piano Quintet resulted. He continued with the Neue Zeitschrift, and Mendelssohn invited him to teach at the Conservatoire he founded in 1843. The practical details of the Schumanns’ private lives had been sorted out, and Clara was playing (pregnancies permitting – children were born every two years for a while) not only in Leipzig, but abroad. In 1844 she took Robert with her to St. Petersburg, though he didn’t enjoy being “Clara’s husband”. Her reputation as one of Europe’s great pianists was established, which was fortunate, since later she would need to support her family. .

Schumann had two nervous breakdowns in 1844, and his health, especially his mental health, would from this point until his death be a sad factor in his life. He had to resign his teaching post. He consulted a homeopathic physician in Dresden, who advised him that Dresden would be a better place for them to live, presumably to be closer to him. Giving up the Neue Zeitschrift, in December of that year the Schumann family moved to Dresden, which was their home for some four years. .

At the end of that time it turned out not to be the best place to live at all. The Saxon court was at Dresden, and Friedrich Augustus II was one of the most reactionary of monarchs, on a collision course with the liberal ideas seeping through Europe. There were plenty of artists at court, but not much music. That was being catered for in the opera house, where the conductor was Richard Wagner. The year before, the first performance of The Flying Dutchman had taken place, and the following year Tannhäuser. Lohengrin was completed in 1848, but events prevented its premiere. .

Schumann was engaged to conduct the Dresden Liedertafel, a men's chorus which he amplified into a mixed one, writing part-songs for them which get overlooked today. Clara's playing had to be carefully scheduled – not without reason, since she gave birth to four children in these five years. Robert wrote The Album for the Young at this time, aptly enough. He finished his piano concerto, one of the major works of the concert repertoire, his second symphony, and his opera Genoveva, which was performed in Leipzig, not in Dresden. It would hardly have fitted into Wagner's plans at the opera house, since, alas, the two composers had no special regard for one another’s music, and thought little of each other's ability as a conductor. In the case of Wagner, it was un-called for, but in Schumann's case it was only too fair – he had little talent for directing public performances. Genoveva did well enough in 1850, but it has rarely been revived since. .

His health did not improve. The question of the cause of his physical – and mental – state is one which has not been answered definitively, and probably never will. Some medical analysts believe that he had syphilis (and that the mercury treatment he would have received protected Clara and the children from contracting it). Others think the question is much more open. The mood swings that characterised his life (which he acknowledged in his characters Eusebius and Florestan) were extreme – not to the extent of schizophrenia, it seems, but presenting as a bad case of bipolarity. The injury to the hand in his twenties may have been syphilitic, or not. By the time he died, he was obese, and some of the characteristics of his terminal disease may have arisen from that. Whether it will ever be possible to find the truth or not, the tragic fact is that this man of genius suffered, and caused suffering to those around him. .

In May 1849 Dresden was torn apart by an uprising against the monarchy, in a somewhat late imitation of the other revolutions that had taken place in Europe the year before. Typically, Wagner fought on the side of the revolutionaries. Schumann didn’t take sides – he had a family to think of. But he only just avoided being conscripted into the army. Not without danger, led Clara and the children to safely in Kreischna, a small village on Dresden's outskirts. While Wagner was able to escape to Zürich (with Liszt's help), Schumann was offered a job in Düsseldorf, as director of music. .

It didn’t go as well as everyone hoped. He continued to compose larger works – the cello concerto and the third (Rhenish) symphony were completed. But the directing and the conducting came to serious grief. There was a large choir and a good orchestra in Düsseldorf, but he lost the confidence of both, partly because he had no conducting technique, and increasingly because his rehearsal manner became stranger and stranger. In 1852 he was asked to resign. A formula was found to cobble things together, but they came apart again, and a year later he had to abandon the job. .

The same year he contributed his first article for ten years to the Neue Zeitschrift, to welcome a young composer of undoubted genius. Johannes Brahms, aged twenty, had come to visit and play his compositions to the Schumanns. He was welcomed into the family, and became a staunch friend to Robert through the final, horrible, days of his life. He was, too, a great support to Clara, whom he loved deeply, though exactly how explicitly will never be known. His feelings for her certainly never interrupted the friendship of the three musicians, despite some malicious gossip. .

In February, 1854, came a crisis point. Depression, delusions, drove Schumann to an extreme point. He asked to be taken into a lunatic asylum, but on the next day, before any decision had been made, he threw himself into the Rhine. .

He was housed at a place in Endenich, near Bonn, and remained there for the last two years of his life. He was not allowed to see Clara until the two days before he died. Whether this was a decision on the part of his doctors (as likely to be too disturbing for him), or on the part of Clara (who had enough to concentrate on with earning a living and caring for her brood of seven children, the last born after Schumann's commitment to Endenich) isn’t clear. He had other visitors, Brahms, the violinist Joachim, and the writer and “personality” Bettina von Arnim, who stirred up trouble by writing to Clara that Schumann’s doctors were not giving him the right treatment. She may have been right, but Clara hardly needed to hear such things; a letter from Joachim reassured her. .

The final stage didn’t last long. In July, Clara was summoned by a telegram from the carers at Endenich, who clearly wanted to make sure that she would be there at her husband’s death. He died on 29th July, 1856. .

As with all great artists, the works are the best guide to the human being behind them. Schumann was a true Romantic, broadly based in works of literature as in music, and imaginative to an almost self-destructive degree. He used traditional forms, and created others – he could fuse smaller items into larger units without losing the individuality of the individuals, most strikingly in his piano cycles like Kreisleriana and Carnaval, and in his song cycles such as the Dichterliebe. There is a tendency to see his creative life as a crescendo to his marriage year in 1840, and a diminuendo (morendo, even) after that. Looking for patterns and reasons is an admirable activity for the human intelligence, but the dates in this short list of his main works might warn us against looking too rigidly. .

Robert Schumann
Born 8th June 1810 in ZwickauDied 29th July, 1856

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