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Schumann, Robert

Category: Musician or composer

Robert Schumann (1810 –  1856) was a German composer.  He also suffered from severe mental illness.  For the last two years of his life, after an attempted suicide, Schumann was confined to a mental institution, at his own request. 

One of the more obscure but intriguing patterns that has emerged from this project has been the number of Germans who have suffered from  symptoms of lead poisoning.  Schumann is yet one more in the long list that includes Beethoven, Mozart and Nietzsche. 

Schumann began to compose before the age of seven, but began receiving general musical and piano instruction at the age of seven.  His father, who had encouraged the boy's musical aspirations, died in 1826 when Schumann was 16. Neither his mother nor his guardian thereafter encouraged a career in music. In 1828, Schumann left school, and after a tour during which he met Heinrich Heine in Munich, he went to Leipzig to study law.   But music won in the end, and he started to take lessons on the piano with the objective of becoming a concert pianist.  But a “permanent injury to his right hand”, cause unknown, forced him to abandon the idea of a concert career and devote himself instead to composition.

Schumann's published compositions were written exclusively for the piano until 1840; he later composed works for piano and orchestra; many Lieder (songs for voice and piano); four symphonies; an opera; and other orchestral, choral, and chamber works.

In the winter of 1832, Schumann, 22 at the time,  performed the first movement of his Symphony in G minor. The music was performed at a concert given by Clara Wieck, who was then just 13 years old. On this occasion Clara played bravura Variations by Henri Herz. 

Schumann's duties during the summer of 1834 were interrupted by his relations with 16-year-old Ernestine von Fricken – the adopted daughter of a rich Bohemian-born noble – to whom he became engaged. Having learned in August 1835 that Ernestine von Fricken was born illegitimate, which meant that she would have no dowry, and fearful that her limited means would force him to earn his living like a "day-labourer", Schumann made a complete break with her toward the end of the year.   

He turned instead to the, by then, 15-year-old Clara Wieck. They made mutual declarations of love in December, where Clara appeared in concert. His budding romance with Clara was soon brought to an end when her father learned of their trysts during the Christmas holidays; he summarily forbade them further meetings and ordered all correspondence between them burnt.

Carnaval, Op. 9 (1834) is one of Schumann's most characteristic piano works of the time and it is interesting as another indicator of his mental state. The work comes to a close with a march of the league of King David's men against the Philistines.  The work ends in “a degree of mock-triumph”. 

But as time went on his work softened.  In 1837 Schumann published his Symphonic Studies, a complex set of étude-like variations . Kinderszenen, Op. 15, completed in 1838 and a favourite of Schumann's piano works, depicts the innocence and playfulness of childhood. The "Träumerei" in F major, No. 7 of the set, is one of the most famous piano pieces ever written. It has been the favourite encore of several great pianists, including Vladimir Horowitz. Kreisleriana (1838), considered one of Schumann's greatest works, carried his fantasy and emotional range deeper. Schumann used the figure to express emotional states in music that is "fantastic and mad."

Clara Schumann

In 1840, when he was 30, and against her father's wishes, Schumann married  Clara Wieck, the day before she legally came of age at 21. Had they waited one day, they would have no longer needed her father's consent, which had been the subject of a long and acrimonious legal battle, which found in favor of Clara and Robert.

In the years 1832–1839, Schumann had written almost exclusively for the piano, but in 1840 alone he wrote 168 songs.   The strain of this long courtship led to this great outpouring of Lieder (vocal songs with piano accompaniment). This is evident in "Widmung", for example, where he uses the melody from Schubert's "Ave Maria" in homage to Clara. Most of his song-cycles of this period were about nature, marriage, children, love rejected, loss, renunciation and forgiveness.  His songs used the poems of Goethe, Rückert, Heine, Byron, Burns and Moore. In 1841 he wrote two of his four symphonies.

Clara Schumann by Franz von Lenbach

Their marriage proved a remarkable business partnership, with Clara acting as an inspiration, critic, and confidant to her husband. Despite her delicate appearance, she was an extremely strong-willed and energetic woman, who kept up a demanding schedule of concert tours in between bearing multiple children. 

Robert and Clara had eight children, Emil (who died in infancy in 1847); Marie (1841–1929); Elise (1843–1928); Julie (1845–1872); Ludwig (1848–1899); Ferdinand (1849–1891); Eugenie (1851–1938); and Felix (1854–1879).

The stage in his life when Schumann was deeply engaged in setting Goethe's Faust to music (1844–53) was a critical one for his health.



Robert and Clara Schumann

He spent the first half of 1844 with Clara  suffering from persistent "nervous prostration".  Schumann's diaries also state that he suffered perpetually from imagining that he had the note A5 sounding in his ears.  His state of unease and neurasthenia is reflected in his Symphony in C,  in which he explores states of exhaustion, obsession and depression.

The music to Byron's Manfred was written in 1849, the overture of which is one of Schumann's most frequently performed orchestral works. From 1850 to 1854, Schumann composed in an eclectic range of genres, a widely held view has been that his music showed signs of mental breakdown.

He began to edit his complete works but suffered a renewal of the symptoms. Besides the single note, he imagined that voices sounded in his ear and he heard angelic music. One night he suddenly left his bed, having dreamt or imagined that a ghost had dictated a "spirit theme" to him.  This theme for the piano, is today known as the Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations).

In late February 1854, Schumann's symptoms increased, the angelic visions sometimes being replaced by demonic visions. He warned Clara that he feared he might do her harm. On 27 February 1854, he attempted suicide by throwing himself from a bridge into the Rhine River. Rescued by boatmen and taken home, he asked to be taken to an asylum for the insane. He entered Dr. Franz Richarz's sanatorium in Endenich, a quarter of Bonn, and remained there until he died on 29 July 1856 at the age of 46. During his confinement, he was not allowed to see Clara. She finally visited him two days before his death. He appeared to recognize her, but was unable to speak.

It was rumoured that Clara and Brahms destroyed many of Schumann's later works, which they thought to be 'tainted by his madness'. However, only the Five Pieces for Cello and Piano are known to have been destroyed. Most of Schumann's late works, particularly the Violin Concerto,  and the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra  from 1853, have entered the repertoire.


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