Article abstract: Schumann was important not only as a composer of music during the Romantic period but also as an editor of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which did much to establish standards of musical criticism.
Robert Alexander Schumann was born on June 8, 1810, at Zwickau in Saxony. His father was a publisher of scholarly books, and his mother was the daughter of a surgeon. Robert was the youngest of five children, four sons and one daughter. August Schumann’s publishing business was successful enough that Robert was able to enter a private preparatory school for his early education. Already, at his father’s instigation, he was studying the piano, the instrument that would remain his favorite throughout his life. After the preparatory school, Schumann attended the Zwickau Lyceum, where he studied the classics as well as the piano. Literature and music, then, were both strong interests of the young Schumann and remained so throughout his life.
At the lyceum, Schumann played the piano in concerts, read widely in classical Greek and Roman authors, and studied such German writers as Friedrich von Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He even wrote some poetry, although when he attempted to recite from memory one of his poems before the student body, his mind went blank, and he stood in silent embarrassment on the stage. This incident may have contributed significantly to Schumann’s aversion to public speaking throughout his life.
Schumann spent his formative years if not in affluence at least at a comfortable material level. In 1826, however, tragedy struck when his elder sister Emilie, who was afflicted with typhus fever and a terrible skin disease, committed suicide. August Schumann was crushed by this event and himself died a few weeks later. Schumann, too, was deeply affected by his sister’s death and from that time forward could never bring himself to attend a funeral, not even his mother’s. Schumann’s mother, Johanna, and Gottlob Rudel, the guardian appointed to look after Robert’s share of August’s estate, agreed that the boy should pursue a legal career. With no one to support his own desires, Schumann acquiesced, although he knew that he would never lose his love of music. In an 1828 letter to a friend describing his feelings upon leaving the lyceum, he wrote, “Now the true inner man must come forward and show who he is.”
Enrolling first at the University of Leipzig, Schumann found the study of law even more boring than he had feared. Influenced by a friend at Heidelberg, who wrote of the exciting university life there, Schumann persuaded his mother and Rudel that he should go to Heidelberg to continue his study. He was, however, anything but the model student, spending his time in taverns and restaurants instead of in the pursuit of his legal studies. He also spent much time with Anton Thibaut, a law professor much interested in music. Schumann spent many hours at Thibaut’s home, making and enjoying music.
On July 30, 1830, Schumann wrote what he called the most important letter in his life: one to his mother, pleading that he be permitted to give up his legal studies and journey to Leipzig to study piano with Friedrich Wieck, who promised to turn the young Schumann into a great pianist. Johanna Schumann agreed, and at age twenty Robert Schumann began his musical career.
Schumann had met Wieck in Leipzig. A kind of self-made man, the latter’s early life was the opposite of Schumann’s. Poor, and often forced to rely on charity for food and for money to cover his education, he developed into an autocrat with a violent temper. Following his own system of instruction, he set himself up as a piano teacher. He saw the clear relationship between playing the piano and singing and trained his students to strive for a “singing touch” at the keyboard. His prize student was his own daughter Clara. Viewing her almost as an extension of himself, Wieck carefully molded and developed her talent to a level that made her something of a sensation across Europe. In 1832, when Schumann came to study with Wieck, Clara was thirteen years old. The relationship between them grew over the next several years from one of elder brother and younger sister to one of love.
On one occasion, when Wieck had taken Clara on a performing tour, Schumann, perhaps in an effort to find a technique to help him catch up with the talented Clara, fashioned a sling of sorts to keep one finger out of the way while the others were being exercised. Exactly what happened to his hand is not clear. Schumann himself only said that it was lamed. Some scholars suggest that no injury actually occurred and that Schumann may have suffered motor damage from an overdose of mercury, a substance then widely prescribed for syphilis. Whatever the cause, the effect was devastating to the young pianist. He tried numerous cures to no avail.
When Wieck discovered that the relationship between Schumann and Clara was becoming more than simply friendship, he flew into a rage, vowing that his daughter was destined to be a concert pianist, not a hausfrau. Love, however, was not to be daunted, and the two young people applied to the courts for permission to marry. The wedding took place on September 12, 1840, and the couple settled in Leipzig, an important musical center of the time.
An ardent admirer of Franz Schubert’s piano music, Schumann, up to the time of his marriage, had written only for the piano. In 1840, however, he turned his creative efforts to Lieder (art songs), many of which were in celebration of his love for Clara. These Lieder show clearly Schumann’s attention to form and reflect the same power of emotion and flow of melody as do Schubert’s, although the harmonics are more complex. Schumann probably realized that such art songs gave him the opportunity to blend his feeling for poetry and his genius for melody. In these songs, as one might expect, the piano has a more...
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