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Often troubled and enigmatic, Robert Schumann is considered one of the greatest Romantic era composers. This lesson will look at his difficult life and the music he created.

Robert Schumann – The Narrative

Their narrative is the troubled artist, the romantic idea of the musician struggling to create, despite their inner demons. Many composers fit this profile. Beethoven went deaf and was prone to fits of rage; Mozart, an insolent child, who may have suffered from depression.None so embodied this story as Schumann: he most likely suffered from bipolar disorder, had his father die and sister commit suicide in the same month, injured his hand training to become a virtuoso pianist (thus ruining his career), had to sue his future father-in-law to marry his daughter, may have contracted syphilis, and eventually died in hospitalization for mental illness.

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Oh, and one of his closest friends, the much younger Brahms, became quite close to his wife when he was hospitalized.

A Brief Biography

Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann was born in June of 1810 in Zwickau, Germany (part of Saxony).

He began musical study around 7. When he was 16, he lost his father and sister. As part of his inheritance, he was required to attend university for three years, so he began law school in Leipzig.During this time, he met Friederich Wieck, who would become his teacher and future father-in-law. Interestingly, Clara Wieck, Friederich’s daughter and Robert’s future wife, was a far greater performer than Robert would ever be. He suffered from mental illness (possibly depression and bipolar disorder), which severely limited (and at times increased) his musical output.By the end of his life, he was hospitalized after a suicide attempt, where he spent his final two years in near isolation.

Clara only saw him two days before his death, on July 29, 1856. There is some debate as to the cause of his death, with some believing it was mercury poisoning from the treatment of syphilis, others believe that the tumor found on his brain during his autopsy may have contributed to his death.

Schumann’s Music

Schumann’s music is best broken down into two categories based on their size: small-scale pieces like the lieder and piano pieces, and large-scale pieces, like his symphonies, piano concertos, and opera. Schumann was prolific in both categories though he is perhaps best remembered for his smaller pieces.

Regardless of size and scope, Schumann’s music is largely programmatic, meaning it tells a story (through music, not specifically through words).These next few paragraphs may seem like just a long list of his compositions but pay attention to the dates. You’ll notice pieces are clustered together, and then there are wide gaps with either no pieces or nothing of consequence.Starting with his smaller scale pieces for piano, Papillons is a musical depiction of butterflies for piano, is still widely performed, and was only his second mature composition (written in 1832). Continuing with the piano theme, Carnaval (1834) is perhaps the highlight of his earliest piano works. It is completely programmatic, with a fully developed story.

Kreisleriana (1838) is a tremendously difficult and masterful work, considered by some to be his greatest music written for piano. It is again programmatic and appears to depict Schumann’s own struggle with his bipolar disorder.Not to be pigeonholed as a composer for piano alone, Schumann was an incredibly prolific composer of lieder, basically the German word for songs (specifically classical genre songs – remember though, that classical music was a part of the popular culture of the day). How’s this for prolific? In one year (1840), he wrote 138 lieder. Look at your favorite CD. There are at most 13 tracks.

Now consider that Schumann wrote 10 CDs worth in one year.This was the year that Robert and Clara were finally wed, despite the objections of her father (and an ensuing lawsuit, which Robert won). Liederkreis, Frauenliebe und -leben, and Dichterliebe (in order those translate as: Song Cycle, A Women’s Love and Life, and A Poet’s Love) are his best-known collections of lieder, with Dichterliebe perhaps the greatest.Schumann’s large scale works are performed less often than his smaller pieces though they are still important to the repertoire. He wrote four symphonies, the first and third are still widely performed. He wrote two in one year (the first and fourth).

The fourth is not called his second because it wasn’t performed until much later because of extensive revisions. Each runs about an hour – about three CDs worth. This time, he wrote for the entire orchestra, not just a piano and voice.His piano concerto in A minor (1845) (a piece for orchestra featuring solo pianist – think of it like a rock band with a really long guitar solo) is another important piece, considered by many contemporary critics to be one of the most popular piano concertos ever written.Why the emphasis on dates? When he was in a good state of mind, Schumann was incredibly prolific and masterful. Unfortunately, there were times when he was completely nonfunctional, such as in 1844 when he had a complete mental breakdown, or in 1854 when he began to hear voices. He was paralyzed with phobias, including metal objects and medication, and he had a persistent ringing in his ears.

Lesson Summary

Robert Schumann was an incredibly prolific, incredibly tormented Romantic era composer. His music was largely programmatic (it told a story through the notes and sounds). He is best known for his smaller pieces, including lieder and pieces for solo piano. Of his larger compositions, his Piano Concerto in A minor is considered one of the most important and popular concertos ever written. He was challenged by mental illness – likely bipolar disorder, major depression, and two nervous breakdowns. He was eventually hospitalized after his attempted suicide and spent his last two years apart from his family and friends.

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