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Robert Schumann: 200th Birthday Feature: June 15, 2010

Robert Schumann
Best of Schumann
Various Artists


Rel. 5 May 1997

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Schumann, the Piano Composer
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Schumann, the Lied Composer
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Schumann, the Orchestral and Chamber Composer
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June 8, 2010 marked the 200th birthday of Robert Schumann (1810–1856), among the most gifted composers of the early Romantic period – one whose esteem and popularity in the concert hall, on recordings, and in scholarly literature reveal him as among the most beloved composers of all time. As both composer and music critic, Schumann embodied – indeed helped to define – the 19th-century Romantic musical aesthetic, with a fervent passion undoubtedly inflamed via his struggles with mental illness and syphilis, which likely hastened his early death at the age of 46.  Indeed, like many musical geniuses of the period – most notably Beethoven – Schumann’s life has become the stuff of legend, not least his impassioned love-affair with his Clara Wieck, who in recent years has been recognized as a brilliant composer in her own right.

Schumann was fortunate in being encouraged as a child in both music and literature – his father was an author, translator, and bookseller – and was able to intertwine the two disciplines in his professional life as few others have before or since. The interdependence of the two art forms in Schumann’s output in turn cast a major influence on the future of both music and musical criticism for generations to come. Of course, it is his music itself that most endures, as every new generation produces a bounty of gifted artists – pianists, conductors, vocalists, other instrumentalists – who are inspired to try their hand at his rich and inventive repertoire.

In celebration of Schumann’s 200th birthday, Classical Archives proudly present this special feature that highlights the dramatic career of this musical titan. First, we include a quartet of special Playlists – including a Free 1-Click Sampler for all our visitors; followed by three others dedicated to his output in the piano, Lied, and chamber / orchestral genres, that can be streamed with 1-click by our subscribers. Next, we present a brief overview of Schumann’s activities and achievements in the domains of piano music, vocal music, chamber and orchestral music, and musical criticism – which is then augmented by a few excerpts from his colorful writings. Finally, the various musical genres are enhanced by a set of videos of various live recordings of Schumann’s music. Enjoy!

“For me, music is always the language which permits one to converse with the Beyond”
– Robert Schumann

Part I. Robert Schumann, the Piano Composer

Robert Alexander Schumann was born on June 8, 1810 in Zwickau, Saxony (Germany), near the modern-day Czech border, where he early displayed musical talent, composing his first works by age 7. His father was a novelist, lexicographer, and book seller, who gained financial security by translating the works of such English writers as Walter Scott and Lord Byron into German; young Robert was thus encouraged in both his musical and literary ambitions, studying piano with local teachers, and becoming intimately acquainted by the writings of German poets and philosophers like Schiller, Goethe, and Jean Paul. When his father died in 1826, family support for his artistic pursuits waned, and Robert soon traveled to Leipzig to study law. But his passion for music and literature soon overtook such practical aims – in part through a famed encounter with Paganini in 1830 – and Schumann threw himself headlong into a musical career, studying piano with the famous pedagogue Friederich Wieck, in Leipzig.

With ambitions of becoming a concert pianist, it is not surprising that Schumann’s earliest composing efforts were largely devoted to piano music, wherein he often infused his philosophical and literary interests to create vivid musical “programs” – such as in his Papillons, Op.2 (“Butterflies”, a musical portrayal based on Jean Paul’s novel Die Flegeljahre); Carnaval, Op.9 (a self-created “story” based on the figures of the Italian commedia dell’arte, with a variety of literary themes and devices); Davidsbündlertänze, Op.6 (Dances of the League of David; a musico-literary manifesto named for an imaginary “band” intent on defeating aesthetic philistinism); Kreisleriana, Op.16, representing the tale of the fictional poet Johannes Kreisler from an E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novel; as well as the ever-popular Kinderszenen, Op.15 (“Children’s Scenes”) and Fantasy in C, Op.17. In these and other works, Schumann raised the technical capacity of solo piano music (indeed, his works were often considered too difficult to perform in his own day), and stretched the boundaries of musical form, harmony, and rhythm that yielded tremendous influence on later composers.

It is through his piano works too that some of Schumann’s darker propensities and life events come into relief: first, his emotional instability, which certainly played some role in the ill-conceived medical attempts to improve his finger strength – and which ultimately dashed any prospects for a successful career as a concert pianist; and second, his stormy courtship of Clara Wieck, daughter of Friederich – who forcibly forbade the two young lovers to be joined. Clara naturally figures as a musical “character” in several of Schumann’s piano works – most notably Carnaval; Robert and Clara were eventually able to marry in 1840, and their dedicated love remains among the most celebrated romance in classical music history.

Part II. Robert Schumann, the Lied Composer

Schumann wrote songs (Lieder) and song cycles through much of his career, but they were largely a footnote until the year 1840 – often called his “Liederjahr” (year of songs), wherein he wrote 168 songs, to the near exclusion of everything else. The reasons for this sudden shift to song composition are varied, and stem from both personal and aesthetic reasons.

On the personal, 1840 was the year he and Clara were finally able to marry, after an often painful, long-distance courtship; Schumann was thus able to articulate the passion, joy, doubt, and despair he experienced in these individual songs and song cycles – with some, such as the famous “Widmung” (the opening song from his Myrthen cycle), dedicated explicitly to Clara. It has also been suggested that Schumann turned to the more popular, and thus potentially lucrative, genre of Lieder as a gesture of responsibility to his new, unhappy father-in-law.

On the aesthetic side, Schumann was now able to see the Lied as a more direct means to unite his love of music and literature. Having earlier dismissed the Lied genre as too often a mere pleasant melody with decorative accompaniment, he increasingly saw that by melding great poetry with a musical rendering that could “translate” the poem’s very essence, the composer could in effect become a poet, and could “produce a resonant echo of the poem and its smallest features by means of a refined musical content”. As such, Schumann insisted on the highest quality poetry – Goethe, Eichendorff, Heine, Rückert, Burns, Byron, etc. – and despite his general admiration of Schubert, was nevertheless critical of the latter’s song output for his all too frequent setting of mediocre poets.

From 1840 in particular are Schumann’s exquisite song cycles, notably Liederkreis (Eichendorff), Dicterliebe (Heine), Frauenliebe and –leben (Chamisso), and Myrthen (Goethe, Rückert, Heine, Byron, Burns and Moore), as well as a number of superb individual songs such as “Belsatzar” and “Die beiden Grenadiere” (both with poetry by Heine). Schumann’s song output continued sporadically through the remainder of his active career (particularly in the flurry years of 1849 and 50), though never with the same intensity as in this Liederjahr. In all, Schumann’s Lied output ranks as among his most valued contribution, and among the greatest song repertoire ever created; it likewise proved a great inspiration for later song composers such as Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler.

Part III. Robert Schumann, the Orchestral and Chamber Composer

It has often been stated that Schumann was better suited to the shorter forms of the piano miniature and the vocal Lied, and less so to the grand architectural schemes native to the symphony, the concerto, and the string quartet. While it is true that Schumann’s Romantic aesthetic was keenly tuned to these “smaller” genres, his significant contribution to the body of orchestral and chamber music is today well recognized – even if not to the extent of a Beethoven or Brahms. As with his obsession with the Lied in 1840, Schumann tended to circumscribe his interest in these genres within somewhat distinct bursts of energy – such that 1841 is sometimes called “the symphonic year”, and 1842-43 the “chamber year”.

The first two of his four symphonies were written in 1841 – No.1 in Bb, Op.38 (‘Spring’), and what with later revisions would become No.4 in D-, Op.120 – with the other two written in 1847 (No.2 in C, Op.61) and 1851 (No.3 in Eb, Op.97, ‘Rhenish’), respectively; this last is the most experimental, a 5-movement work with a program related to an ecclesiastical ceremony Schumann witnessed in the Cathedral of Cologne (in the Rhine Valley). Like many early Romantic composers, Schumann struggled with the challenges of the post-Beethovenian symphonic form, and in many ways turned more to the lyrical model of Schubert for inspiration, especially in his earliest attempts – though as with all his works, still managing to forge something entirely his own. Though few in number, Schumann also contributed successfully to the concerto genre, most notably with his beloved Piano Concerto in A-, Op.54 (from 1841, 1845), but also his Cello Concerto in A-, Op.129 (1850).

Although Schumann had written a number of string quartets as a student, the genre was largely forgotten until 1842 – when he began a concentration on chamber music, including three string quartets, a piano quartet, and his masterpiece, the Piano Quintet in Eb, Op.44. Chamber works occasionally appeared subsequently, and in particular in the period of 1849-51, when Schumann experienced one final period of great productivity – including the delightful Fantasiestücke for Clarinet and Piano, Op.73.

All this is not to ignore Schumann’s contribution to other genres – notably choral and theatrical works; the latter includes the experimental opera Genoveva, Op.81 (1848) – which despite its lack of popular success then or now, points to later development of “endless melody” found in the operas and music dramas of Wagner. And while the vocal content of his dramatic poem Manfred, Op.11 (after Byron) is largely forgotten, its Overture remains among the composer’s most popular works.

Part IV. Robert Schumann, the Music Critic

Schumann’s literary talents, like those in music, were demonstrated early – first via an ability to pour over difficult literature under his father’s tutelage, and then by his own creative efforts (poems, plays, biographies, etc.), from age 13; the influence of such as demanding writers as the philosopher Jean Paul, were evident, for example, in Schumann’s novel, Juniusabende, written at age 16. As noted above, Schumann learned to channel his literary propensities into his musical compositions, but soon found an outlet for his writing skills in another medium – musical criticism, wherein he was a pioneer.

His first foray into musical criticism has become rather famous: in 1831, at the age of 21, he encountered for the first time the music of Frédéric Chopin – his Variations on ‘La ci darem la mano’, Op.2; Schumann’s review, published in the esteemed Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, included the famed expression, “Hat’s off, gentlemen: a genius!” still oft-quoted today (see below). This same review likewise introduced two fictional alter egos that Schumann would employ not only in his subsequent critical writings, but also in his music – such as in the piano work Carnaval, Op.9: Eusebius (a dreamy, “romantic” character) and Florestan (the more intellectual, talkative character); plus a mediator of sorts, Master Raro. This intersection of viewpoints made for lively discussions, whereby Schumann could utter his increasingly impassioned arguments against artistic mediocrity (so-called “Philistines”), and the need to unite a “David’s band” to root it out.

By the spring of 1834, Schumann had gained enough confidence to launch his own musical journal, entitled Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music). In it, Schumann developed his aesthetic campaign for artistic excellence, and in the process raised the profile of many young composers – including Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz – while re-kindling interest in masters of the past, including Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Weber. He likewise used his sharp writing tongue to disparage what he saw as the excesses and pyrotechnics in the school of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner – though Liszt was himself a long-time proponent of Schumann’s music.

Schumann was active in the Neue Zeitschrift from 1834 to about 1843, at which time his compositional demands and increasing psychiatric problems forced him to lessen this output. An exception came near the end of his life, in 1853, after meeting the 20 year-old Johannes Brahms – who appeared out of nowhere on his doorstep in late September. In an article entitled “New Paths”, he hailed Brahms as “the Chosen one, … destined to give ideal expression to the times.” Clearly Schumann had not lost his keen artistic insight, even as his inner emotional world deteriorated. See below for a few extended excerpts from his musical criticism.

After struggling against depression (likely a manic or bi-polar condition) for years – at times forcing him to abandon musical or literary projects, things became more serious from about 1850. He periodically showed signs of mental breakdown, interspersed with periods of lucidity and creative flurry. In 1854, he began to hear voices and see visions, often quite disturbing; in February of that year, he attempted suicide by jumping in the Rhine River – and was taken to an asylum near Bonn upon being rescued. He died there on July 29, 1856, at the age of 46. There are various theories of what led to his illness and death, the most current being mercury poisoning – commonly taken as a treatment for syphilis, which he likely contracted during his wild youthful days.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of his wife Clara, Schumann’s music was carefully compiled and published, and has since his death been celebrated for its emotional poignancy, power, and originality. After championing so many other great composers in his musical criticism, it is an honor for Classical Archives to do our own small championing of this master of the early Romantic era. Happy Birthday, Robert Schumann!

Nolan Gasser, Artistic Director

Excerpts from Schumann’s Musical Criticism:

An Opus 2 (1831)

Eusebius dropped by one evening, not long ago. He entered quietly, his pale features brightened by that enigmatic smile with which he likes to excite curiosity. Florestan and I were seated at the piano. He, as you know, is one of those rare musical persons who seem to anticipate everything that is new, of the future and extraordinary. This time, however, there was a surprise in store even for him. With the words, ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!’ Eusebius spread out before us a piece of music…

‘Well, let’s hear it,’ said Florestan. Eusebius obliged, while we listened, pressed against each other in the embrasure of a window. He played as if possessed, conjuring up countless figures of the most vivid actuality. It was as if the enthusiasm of the moment had given to his fingers a dexterity far beyond their normal endowment. Florestan’s applause, to be sure, not counting a serene smile, consisted of nothing more than a statement that the variations could have been by Beethoven or Schubert, had either of them been a great piano virtuoso. But then he looked at the title and read: Là ci darem la mano, varié pour le Pianoforte par Frédéric Chopin, Oeuvre 2, and we both exclaimed incredulously, ‘An Opus 2!’

We all started talking at once, our faces flushed with excitement. The general tenor was: ‘Something decent, at last – Chopin, never heard of him! – Who can he be? – A genius in any case!’ …

Berlioz’ ‘Sinfonie fantastique’ (1835)

Florestan: Let us enter the fray, not with wild cries as our old German forefathers did, but rather like the Spartans, with merry flutes. He to whom these lines are dedicated needs no shield-bearer, to be sure, and it is to be hoped that his destiny will be the reverse of Homer’s Hector. But be his art the flaming sword, then let these words be its protective scabbard.

A first glance at the symphony inspired me with the most extraordinary sensations… The writer was reminded of other scenes from his earliest childhood… When told about it next day he could recall only a strangely sounding dream and many odd things that he had heard and seen, and he could distinguish clearly three mighty names, one in the south, one in the east, and one in the west – Paganini, Chopin, and Berlioz.

The first two have soared to the peaks with eagle’s wings; they had the easier task, combining in their persons both poet and showman. The orchestral virtuoso, Berlioz, will have a more difficult time of it, and many a hard battle, but perhaps the more sumptuous laurel wreaths in the end. Le us hasten the moment of decision. Time presses on, always eternally. Whether forward or backward, for better or for worse we leave to the future to decide. No one has yet persuaded me, however, that our own time is headed for the worse.

Now that I have gone through Berlioz’ symphony countless times, astonished at first, then horrified, and finally with wonder and admiration, I shall try to sketch it for you. I will show the composer as I have come to know him, with his virtues and his shortcomings, in his vulgarity and his intellectual sovereignty, as a spiteful instrument of destruction and as a lover. For I know that what he has given us here can no more be called a work of art than can nature without the ennobling hand of man, or passion without the discipline of a higher moral force…

Genius of art, here you rescue your darling, and he understands full well the smile quivering on your lips. What music there is in the third movement! This intimacy, this remorse, this passion! The metaphor of the deep refreshing breath after a storm is overworked, but I know none other more beautiful or more appropriate. Creation still trembles from the embrace of heaven, and melts a thousand eyes, and the fearful flowers tell of the strange guest who still looks back from time to time, thundering…

New Paths (1853)

Many years have passed since I have been heard from in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, an arena so rich in memories for me – indeed, almost as many years as I once devoted to editing it – namely ten. A number of important new talents have come along in the meantime, a musical era has appeared to be in the offing, heralded by many rising young artists, even though the latter may be known to a rather small circle. Following their progress with the utmost interest, I felt certain that from such developments would suddenly emerge an individual fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner, who would achieve mastery, not step by step, but at once, springing like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove. And now here he is, a young fellow at whose cradle graces and heroes stood watch. His name is Johannes Brahms. …

Even in his external appearance he displays those characteristics which proclaim: here is a man of destiny! Seated at the piano, he began to disclose most wondrous regions. It was also most wonderous playing, which made of the piano an orchestra of mourning or jubilant voices…

May the highest genius lend him strength; and well it may, for in him resides a second genius – namely, that of modesty. Every age has a secret society of congenial spirits… Draw the circle tighter, you who belong to one another, that the truth of art may shine ever more clearly, spreading joy blessings everywhere.

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