Robert Schumann (born 1810 in Zwickau, died 1856 in Bonn-Endenich)

Robert Schumann was born on June 8th, 1810 as sixth and last child of wealthy parents in Zwickau, where the family moved to few years before from Ronneburg, Thuringia. His father, August Schumann (1773-1826) was a novelist and published trading compendia concerning. After this he was able to build up a publishing company where the focus was put on editing encyclopedias and collected editions, folkloric editions, foreign classics (that he himself translated from English to German) and the well known and widely read  “Erinnerungsblätter für gebildete Stände”. The father’s influence and his higher literary education were formative for Robert’s childhood and youth, so that he could say that he was familiar with the most famous poets and writers of fairly all countries. 

It didn’t remain with the passive recording of literature; he also had his own poetic attempts and founded a literary circle of classmates. A strong impression at the end of his school time was given by the reading of the works of Jean Paul. He copied his style in his romantic narrations and later it also influenced his composing. He playfully stated that Jean Paul taught him more about contrapoint then he ever received from his theory teacher“, („Jean Paul mehr Kontrapunkt gelernt zu haben als von seinem Theorielehrer“) and guaranteed the poetic quality of his musical works.

Also the music played a big role in Schumann’s life, although it initially had not a crucial impact on him. He took piano lessons with the organist of St. Mary's, Johann Gottfried Kuntsch and gained notably a "great skill in the prima-vista playing", which predestined him to participate in school and also in public performances. He also hosted "musical evening entertaining" in his parents' house and began to compose even before he had received proper instruction. Thus songs, opera fragments and a musical version of the 150th Psalm "with orchestra" arose.

He graduated from high school in spring 1828 with the second highest degree "omnino dignus". His mother Christiane (née Schnabel, 1767-1836) and after the death of his father appointed guardian, the business man Rudel, assigned him to law studies and had to banish the thought of a musical career. Schumann went along with their wishes, although his actual plan of life probably began to emerge under the facade of dreamy indecision. This is how the neglect of his law studies at the Universities of Leipzig and Heidelberg during the upcoming two years can be explained. Schumann dedicated himself more and more seriously and determined to the music especially piano and composing. 

Before he started his "Mulusreise" (journey) to southern Germany, Schumann applied in Leipzig to Friedrich Wieck, who became his piano teacher, and where he first met with Wieck’s nine-year-old daughter Clara. Then it went to Bayreuth, where he walked in the footsteps of Jean Paul, and to Munich, where he visited Heinrich Heine - later one of his favorite poets for creating songs. When he returned, a “new life” started for the student: piano playing, getting to know good music ("I understood Franz Schubert and Beethoven, and got to know Bach") and producing on his own filled most of these days. But he was also included very often in convivial and wild student and fraternity, without losing a residual critical distance. A trip to Switzerland and Northern Italy introduced Schumann's time in Heidelberg (1829/30), which consisted with the company of A. J. F. Thibaut’s circles as well as the crucial experience of attending a concert of Paganini in Frankfurt, of the most important musical inputs. 

A little later he took the decision to become musicians - pianist – to which his mother (also affected by the vote of Wieck) no longer opposed. Schumann goes back to Leipzig. He is already 20 years old and he wants to achieve his aim quickly - too quickly! Due to excessive and improper practicing, he suffered from a paralysis of the right hand in spring 1833. The failure of his plan did not shock him, but rather makes him able to set free forces that enable the young musicians to study the masters and to produce new original compositions. For a short time he studied music theory course with the Leipzig opera conductor and composer Heinrich Dorn, but his imaginative creativity feels constricted and from now on Schumann acquired his knowledge in a self-taught way.

At the beginning of the 1830s Schumann's first printed works (Abegg Variations, Papillons, Toccata, interludes, Impromptus, etc.) were published and excited astonishment and incomprehension, but also the attention of a few connoisseurs. The attention remained to a series of brilliant piano works, with which Schumann doesn’t get hold of a bigger part of the audience likewise with songs in the following decade. How should he, since he takes "as a composer ... perhaps a different way from all the others", namely the one of an unprecedented psychological depth and poetic refinement. He soared above the most of his contemporaries and was so far ahead of times that the knowledge of his great piano and song cycles was spread not before the second half of the century.

In the next ten years, the 24 year old Schumann also decided on his second occupation besoming music writer, editor and publisher, with which he expressed his dispositive paternal (and also mercantile) skills. His high literary education and his extraordinary poetic talent shaped the character of the "Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik", which he founded together with friends, and make him stand out from comparable magazines. The emergence of the Davidsbündler (League of David), which most important reflection of aspects of the own personality - Florestan, Eusebius, and in some cases also Master Raro - give an inimitable charm to the journal. Another character trait is the constant work for the new, the promising future and concurrently the "loyal devotion to the obsolete" in music. In long term, the magazine becomes bothersome to Schumann and stops him in composing, which is the actual "productive activity".

The following years until his marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840, are probably the most moving and important ones in Schumann's human and artistic development. He continues the series of piano works with the three sonatas, the "Symphonic Etudes", "Kreisleriana" and "Novellettes". The friendship and love for the young talented artist Clara is exposed to increasing pressures by the resistance of her father. Wieck temporarily prevented any company of the loving and knew how to sow doubt. In desperate mood Schumann, who was (as often in his life) was liberating himself by work, wrote passionate rebellious Fantasy in C major. In the summer of 1837, he renewed the promise to Clara, his wife to be, and both courageously overcame the ensuing heavy fights with Wieck. Schumann wanted to completely abandon his former sphere of influence: he went to Vienna for half a year to establish the magazine there, but was stopped by the Austrian censors. He wrote the "Faschingsschwank from Vienna" (Carnival Scenes from Vienna) a reminiscence of the (banned in the Imperial and Royal Monarchy) Marseillaise in waltz time in his register. In 1839/40 the case against Wieck took place, in which Schumann and Clara wanted to enforce the judicial permission to marriage. In February 1840, the University of Jena venerated Schumann with an honorable diploma of the philosophical doctorate. The day before Clara's 21st birthday, she and Schumann married in the church of Schönefeld near Leipzig.

Even before the favorable outcome of the lawsuit, Schumann felt new creative impulses. The year of 1840 was the “Year of his songs", when he composed in addition to the great cycles and circles (on Heine, Eichendorff, Rückert, Kerner, Chamisso, etc.) the majority of his solo songs. In the years 1841/42, he acquired - with almost systematical awareness - the genres of orchestral and chamber music (after previous thorough studies of the classics), wrote two symphonies, a fantasy for piano and orchestra (later extended to the famous piano concerto in A minor), three string quartets, a piano quintet (it ranks among his most brilliant and most successful works) and a quartet for piano and strings. What he didn’t reached with the more intimate piano and song art, was more possible with the "large forms": the access to the general public. In fact, on 31 March 1841 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus his "Spring Symphony", one of the most played compositions by Schumann, was premiered under the conduction of Mendelssohn. The same is true for the in 1843 finished oratory ("... not written for the prayer room, but for cheerful people) "Paradise and the Peri "after a poetry of the Irishman Thomas Moore. The echo of this beautiful, today too little-known work, was even contributing to the reconciliation between Schumann and Wieck.

In this phase of joyful productivity, Schumann must have felt irritated by the becoming increasingly urgent ideas of his wife to go on mutual concert tours together. Wasn’t the trip to Denmark in 1842, which Schumann only joined until Hamburg, an extremely unhappy experience, since both partners surrendered in self-reproaches after meeting again longingly in Leipzig and Copenhagen? The big tour to Russia in 1844 was a considerable artistic and financial gain though, but still resulted in humiliation and weakening of Schumann’s health condition. The discrepancy between the composer and the by a housewife’s and almost annual maternal duties disabled performer, became a source of tension in the otherwise happy marriage. Clara tried her best to eliminate this discrepancy and at the same time she also tried to legitimize her own work: She encouraged Schumann, to get in appearance even more public - as conductor of his works. He agreed in doing so with varying success. In Vienna in 1847 - the trip was a fiasco for Clara - he was received in a very cool to negative way and then again, in the same year in his home town Zwickau during a complimentary music festival, he was highly celebrated.

After the trip to Russia and an interim activity as a teacher at the newly founded Leipzig Conservatory, the small family (two daughters were born in Leipzig, they were followed by two more and four sons!) moved their residence to Dresden in Saxony at the end of 1844. Although the music city Leipzig had more and more understanding for Schumann’s works, he did not like it there anymore after Mendelssohn's departure. The magazine he had already disposed of, was now managed by the music aesthetician Franz Brendel and soon opened to the "new German" direction. With the change of location Schumann also followed a recommendation of his doctors and hoped for a recovery of his nervous condition.

About the six years of residence in Dresden, a lot of contradicting has been said. Certainly, Robert and Clara Schumann yearned sometimes to return to Leipzig and Clara often played there in the Gewandhaus, while the "official" musical Dresden - the royal chapel and the court theatre - took little notice of them. But there were other good opportunities of private initiative, such as in the by Ferdinand Hiller launched subscription concerts on the Brühl's terrace and chamber music soirees, where Clara Schumann and the concert master Franz Schubert regularly performed inter alia many of Schumann's works. Only briefly Schumann was conducting the choir "Dresdner Liedertafel". He intensively devoted himself to the by himself in 1848 founded "Association for choral singing”, whose acts or semi-public performances contributed to the enrichment of Dresden's musical life and inspired the composer himself to new producing.

Despite fluctuating health, which was poorly helped in recovering by spa stays and leisure travels, Schumann was not tired in producing. Especially the years in Dresden give an astonishing abundance and variety of works, which, if not in the brilliant originality, at least in the intense, profound development could be seen as equally important to the previously-created ones. These include the in Dresden completed and in 1845 premiered piano concerto, the great symphony in C major of 1845/46, the piano trio of 1847 and other chamber music works and the trio of dramatic material - partly created simultaneously and in a latently linked with Schumann’s crisis.  It also includes the incidental music to Byron's "Manfred", the “Scenes from Goethe's Faust" and his only opera “Genoveva”, which was designed according to templates of Tieck and Hebbel. The latter is probably Schumann's most ambitious compositional project, but achieves at the premiere in Leipzig in 1850 only a hollow victory. The composer had more luck with such lovable "small-format" works like the “Piano and Song Album for the Youth”, while his ambitious Goethe settings (songs and requiem for Mignon from "Wilhelm Meister") stay unnoticed. However, the final scene from Goethe's "Faust" sounded at the centenary festivities of the poet in 1849 in Dresden, Leipzig and Weimar (with Franz Liszt).

The friends  and acquaintances circles of Schumann in Dresden consisted of visual artists as Eduard Bendemann, Julius Hübner and Ernst Rietschel, but also of writers like Robert Reinick, Berthold Auerbach and Karl Gutzkow and the musicians Reissiger, Hiller and Richard Wagner with whom Schumann maintained both artistic and political exchange. The composer had an open mind on the bourgeois-liberal aspirations of the time, did not conceal his sympathies for the "Völkerfrühling" in 1848 and his expressed disappointment at the failure of a democratic upheaval in Germany, if also he was himself more a revolutionary on the traditional field of art.
When Schumann left Dresden and his Saxon homeland for good in autumn of 1850, this is due less to general disgust at the prevailing conditions as to the desire to gain a solid sphere of public and secure income. He finds both in Düsseldorf, where he succeded Mendelssohn, Ferdinand Hiller and Julius Rietz as municipal director of music. The requirements of this appointment, which included the conduction of a large choral society and an orchestra as well as the implementation of ten concerts and several church music performances per season, were from the beginning out of his depth and already after six months of stay, Schumann had “concerns about staying longer in Düsseldorf". The artistic and human atmosphere was still quite favorable: the bourgeois musical life has formed fine traditions such as the Lower Rhine Music Festivals. The committee of the Düsseldorf Music Society was - with few exceptions – well-disposed towards Schumann and well aware, as the concert audience, of the honor of such a famous artist couple. The increasing, but of the concert committee most with great nobility in favor of Schumann dissolved conflicts mainly result from a deficit of his communication skills and energy, of which the composer either took no notice or – fatally encouraged by Clara – did not dare to admit. The reasons are due to the more and more emerging neurological disorder, whose impacts increase from relaxation to deep depression and drove Schumann to his suicide attempt in 1854.

Regardless of Schumann's failure in practical musical life that culminated in the abandonment of his conducting career in October 1853 (he formally remains in office until the end of 1854 and was rewarded accordingly), his intentions and goals as a music organizer are highly estimated which concerns in particular the promotion of contemporary neglected musical creation, but also the propagation of large-scale works of the past. Schumann presented both Bach passions, several Handel oratorios as well as sacred music by Beethoven, Cherubini and Haydn. He was always eager to stay in contact with younger composers and performers, which resulted in a circle of friends like Albert Dietrich, Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms, where he was able to follow his own aspirations. His last literary work, the appreciation of Brahms in the article "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths), is with its high pitched closing words something like Schumann's legacy: "Those, who belong together, tighten the group to make the truth of art shine ever more clearly, spreading all joy and blessings."

During his time in Düsseldorf, which was influenced by his personal problems and also the general social stagnation due to the revolution of 1848/49, Schumann was well aware of the importance of these aims and committed himself to his composing work more than ever. He succeeds an amazing revival in his producing, starting already at the very beginning of his stay with the creation of his violoncello concert and the symphony in E major (The Rhenish Symphony), which is inspired by the bold architecture of the highly symbolic impression of the Cologne Cathedral. 

The public character that this great orchestral work already has, breathes this great orchestral work, continued in a number of ballad compositions for soloists, chorus and orchestra based on poems by Uhland and Geibel, but also in concert overtures on Schiller's "Bride of Messina", Goethe's "Hermann and Dorothea" and Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar". Schumann also wrote besides high-quality chamber music more concert works for piano and violin, among which the recently created Violin Concerto in D minor embodies exemplarily the fate of some of these late works of Schumann:  Clara Schumann excluded them from publication because of her anxious concern, that the severe disease of the creator could be traced in them (publication and first performance take place until 1937!). Some other composition of the Düsseldorf time experienced after Schumann's death disregard and misinterpretation, which is opposed by the musicological research and practice of musical interpretation just very recently. Today, formerly little-known compositions of Schumann's late period have become present again through performances and sound recordings and found their audience. So it is possible to appreciate the subtle poetry of the fairy oratorio "The Pilgrimage of the Rose" or the seriousness of the ecclesiastic musical creations of 1851, the mass and the requiem. 

This is how differences and similarities of among the three great violin sonatas can be understood better. Thus, the poignant simplicity of Kulmann and Mary Stuart songs can be set in relation to Schumann's "extensive" previous song compositions. The incredibly poetic compression of the piano work "Gesänge der Frühe" reveal as bold, forward-looking vision, and above all: Only from the extensive knowledge of Schumann's late works comes clear that there is neither a descent nor an absolute end emerge, but that Schumann's path as an artist - in the sense of the titling of the Brahms article "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths) - would have continued, if he was not abruptly terminated by a tragic personal fate.

In the years 1852/53, Schumann putted a collection of his earlier musical essays and an anthology of literary works about music “Dichtergarten” (‘Poets’ Garden’, published 2006) together. End of 1853, he went on a concert tour together with Clara to the Netherlands, which turns out to be a triumphant success. In 1854, both travelled to visit Joseph Joachim in Hanover. Mid-February 1854, Schumann's health deteriorated, agonizing ear hallucinations occurred and by jumping into the Rhine on February 27, Schumann tried to commit suicide. On March 4, he was brought to the private hospital of Dr. Richarz in Endenich, near Bonn, where he died on 29 July 1856, after suffering agonizing two and a half years later. Apart from a few statements of the doctors or permitted visitors, the time in Endenich is fairly in the dark. The retrieval of the medical records (1994) gives information on the whole severity of the disease, probably a progressive paralysis, which was nonetheless incorrectly paraphrased with "mental derangement". Until the last days of his life states of consciousness again and again occur and the patient tried also for long time, to counteract his depression and the monotony of the outer life through intellectual pursuits like reading. 

The largely repression-free nature of the medical treatment involved the isolation of the patient from his closest relatives, so that Clara Schumann did not saw her husband again until his last days. Schumann's personal life ends in deeper tragedy, but the interest and attention concerning his artistic work increased, the deeper it is detected in its activating, life-enhancing force. The so hardly again achieved combination of poetry and intellect that characterizes his music attracts even today artists and listeners, which becomes apparent by concerts, music festivals and competitions not only to Schumann's life related sites, like Zwickau, Leipzig, Dresden, Düsseldorf and Bonn, but all over the world. 

Gerd Nauhaus
From: Gerd Nauhaus: Robert Schumann, in: Sächsische Lebensbilder, edited by Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, Leipzig 1999 (= Quellen und Forschungen zur sächsischen Geschichte, 17), p. 299 – 309.

(Translated by Katharina Ma)

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