Robert Schumann Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Robert Schumann 1810-1856

German composer and critic.

Schumann composed some of the most original masterpieces of Romantic music. His songs and piano miniatures inhabit an undisputed place in the pantheon of Western music. Schumann's famous struggle with mental illness has also fascinated researchers, including psychiatrists, who endeavor to shed light on the nature of the illness and his ability to create works of genius despite it.

Biographical Information

Schumann was born June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, a Saxon town located near present-day Germany's border with the Czech Republic. Official documents do not refer to a middle name, although Schumann's first biographer, Wilhelm Joseph von Wasiliewski, cited it as Alexander. Schumann grew up surrounded by books: his father was a successful bookseller and an author of some repute. After receiving an excellent secondary school education, which enabled him to read the Greek and Latin classics in the original, Schumann went to Leipzig in 1830 to study law. Uninterested in the law, Schumann immersed himself in literature, keeping abreast of all the momentous literary developments in Germany and writing many fragments, poems, and prose pieces which he hoped eventually to develop into great literary works. To his family's consternation, late in 1830 Schumann declared that he wanted to be a musician, and he remained in Leipzig to pursue a musical career. Schumann's future father-in-law, the eminent piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, declared that in his hands Schumann would become a rival to the greatest virtuosos. These hopes were dashed, probably in 1832, when Schumann suffered a mysterious hand injury about which scholars have offered several theories. This event signaled the beginning of Schumann's career as a composer, for it is in the 1830s that he started writing his astonishing piano miniatures. In the meantime, Schumann had made his debut as a music critic. In 1831, in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, Schumann reviewed Frederick Chopin's “Là ci darem la mano” variations for piano and orchestra, presciently declaring that the Polish composer was a great genius. Defining his literary work as a veritable crusade against mediocrity in music, Schumann cofounded the Neue Zetschrift für Musik, a journal into which he poured all his efforts, eventually assuming most of the writing and editorial responsibilities. For ten years, Schumann used his journal to champion talented composers, single-handedly establishing what posterity would accept as the canon of Romantic music. In addition, throughout the 1830s and 1840s, he composed his greatest masterpieces, including the Carnaval, for piano, and the sublime song-cycle, Dichterliebe (The Poet's Love), based on Heinrich Heine's poems. In 1840—after a fierce legal battle with Wieck, who did not want him as a son-in-law—Schumann married Clara Wieck, an immensely talented pianist on her way to becoming one of Europe's greatest virtuosos. Married life introduced a modicum of stability into Schumann's life, but his mental instability, evidenced by suicidal behavior in late 1833 and early 1834, remained a concern. Furthermore, despite his natural inclination toward smaller musical forms, Schumann constantly forced himself to attempt larger forms such as symphonies and concertos, often feeling despondent and frustrated by the public's lukewarm response. One of these disappointments was the failure of his only opera, Genoveva (1843). In 1843, Schumann accepted a teaching post at the newly-founded Leipzig Conservatory, but performed his duties without much enthusiasm. The following year, Schumann resigned from the position and moved his family to Dresden. After he left Leipzig, Schumann started experiencing serious professional difficulties. In 1850, he agreed to become conductor of a civic orchestra and chorus in Düsseldorf. His state of mind steadily deteriorating, Schumann threw himself into the freezing waters of the Rhine in February 1854. After his rescue, he voluntarily entered the asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, where he died in 1856. Hypothetical diagnoses of Schumann's ailments include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and syphilis, but none of these have been confirmed. Interestingly, in his 2001 Schumann, Eric Frederick Jensen cites evidence suggesting that Schumann's death was not due to his illness, but rather to the barbaric treatment he received at Endenich.

Major Works

Among Schumann's numerous critical reviews, scholars generally single out the prophetic “An Opus 2,” in which Schumann, upon hearing Chopin's “Là ci darem la mano” variations for piano and orchestra, op. 2, utters the famous “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” Much later, in 1853, in another famous piece, “New Paths,” Schumann announces the arrival of a new genius, Johannes Brahms. In both cases, Schumann's uncannily accurate assessment was based on slender evidence, the compositions in question being very early works of as yet unknown composers. These reviews exemplify a new style of criticism, inspired by E. T. A Hoffmann but brought to perfection by Schumann. As a critic, Schumann ignored established rules and relied on his intuition. Initially, Schumann's critical writings relied on an elaborate set of literary devices, including dialogues and conversations between imaginary characters. As music historians have pointed out, Schumann worked hard to forge an objective, analytical approach to music despite the immense success of his subjective style. Indeed, as Florestan and Eusebius faded away, Schumann's reviews and essays became a trusted guide to contemporary music. However, as Carl Dahlhaus observed, Schumann formulated his entire approach to music (including a revolutionary philosophy of music) during his early years as a critic. Thus, in “Master Raro's, Florestan's, and Eusebius's Booklet of Thoughts and Poems” (1833), Schumann identified Bach and Beethoven as ideals to be emulated. In linking Bach and Beethoven, Dahlhaus noted that Schumann departed from conventional thinking, which, following stylistic considerations, associated Bach with Handel, and Beethoven with Mozart. In fact, Dahlhaus identified Schumann's insight as the philosophical foundation of an original and epoch-making musical utopia that combined “Bach's contemplative depth and Beethoven's Promethean sublimity.”

Critical Reception

Viewed by his contemporaries as a critic in the imaginative and somewhat flamboyant tradition of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Schumann was perceived as a writer driven by his subjective views. This perception was radically revised in the twentieth century, when scholars started examining Schumann's ideas and observations in the larger context of nineteenth‐century German culture. Henry Pleasants stated that “it was in his craftsman's appreciation and assessment of craftsmanship that Schumann stands pretty much alone.” Often an inspired critic, scholars insisted that Schumann nevertheless strove to attain objectivity. Indeed, not only did Schumann reach his goal of critical objectivity, but he also became a relevant voice in German intellectual life. In his seminal Schumann as Critic, Leon Plantinga described Schumann's critical work as truly multi-faceted, one that offered important aesthetical views and an original philosophy of music history. Dahlhaus concurred with this line of thought, even suggesting with other scholars that Schumann's writings established a new paradigm of thinking about music, a paradigm that hardly seems dated in modern times.