Personalities | Robert Schumann | Early Romantic | Classical
(Ro’-bârt Shoo’-man) 1810–56
Robert Schumann, in his life and music, embodied many of the central themes of the German Romantic movement: steeped in German literary Romanticism, he composed Lieder combining the melodic simplicity of German folk tradition with expressive harmonic setting, wrote poetically titled miniatures, and composed music rich in literary inspiration and allusion.
His life, too, epitomized that of the Romantic artist: rebelling against a training in law that had been expected of him, he threw himself into the study of music; he struggled against the wishes of his beloved’s father to marry Clara Wieck; and he ultimately suffered from a mental disturbance and deterioration of health that led to his tragically early death.
Robert Schumann was born on 8 June 1810 in the town of Zwickau in Saxony. He did not show the same prodigious musical facility at a young age that is associated with many great composers – indeed, although he played the piano as a child he was also greatly interested in literature, both as reader and writer, and only when he was about 20 years old did he devote himself fully to music. At the end of his teens (1828–29) he had even begun to study law, first at Leipzig University and then at Heidelberg, but with little enthusiasm. At around this time he began a course of piano lessons with Friedrich Wieck, a celebrated teacher, and would probably have had a career as a virtuoso pianist had it not been for a severe weakness in his right hand that has traditionally been attributed to use of a mechanical finger-strengthening device, but that may have resulted from the effect of mercury, used at that time as a treatment for syphilis.
The energy that Schumann might have given to playing the piano was now channelled into writing music for it, and his first 23 opuses are for piano solo: the ‘Abegg’ Variations op. 1 show something of the virtuoso piano style of Moscheles and Herz, but also give an early example of a characteristic Schumann trait – the encoding into musical notation of names, phrases or ideas (here the theme A–B flat–E–G–G is suggested by the surname of a girl he knew). Soon there followed works of a more individual style: the colourful Davidsbündlertänze, a kaleidoscopic portrayal of various characters from Schumann’s life and imagination, the Carnaval op. 9, the virtuoso Symphonic Studies op. 13, and the Fantasy op. 17, the grandest of the piano works. This imagination stretched to creating two alter egos, under whose names he also wrote: ‘Eusebius’, reflecting his calm and contemplative side, and ‘Florestan’, his tempestuous side.
Clara and the Songs of 1840
Schumann’s courtship of Wieck’s daughter Clara – not only one of the leading pianists of the age but also a composer – was beset by difficulties, in particular the opposition of her father. Schumann and Clara successfully took legal action to force Wieck to agree to their marriage, though even this...
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