Classical Composer : Robert Schumann
by Betty Fry
Robert Schumann’s evergreen ‘Piano Concerto in A minor’is a perfect introduction to the work of this famous and very prolific composer. The ‘Opus 54, Third Movement‘ of this joyous Romantic concerto is playing for me now as I write.
It started off in what I can only describe as a blaze of color with a solo piano taking center stage. A running theme, still on the piano, but with a softer orchestral accompaniment, soon leads to the famous march like tune, first given quietly on the strings, and then again taken up by the piano.
The sense of celebration throughout the music is infectious. And if you like piano music, then you will like this piece.
Schumann wrote it for his talented wife Clara, who became an influential teacher as well as a notable composer, and went on to become the most important woman pianist of the 19th century.
Born on 8th June, 1810, Robert Schumann, was the youngest son of August Schumann, an author and translator of Romantic literature, and a ‘notable citizen and bookseller’ of the town of Zwickau in Saxony. Successful as he was though, August Schumann suffered from attacks of severe nervous anxiety.
Robert’s mother, who gave him his first music lessons, lived in an exaggerated state of romance, and was subject to sudden violent passions and sentimentalism.
When Robert was only sixteen years old, his sister committed suicide, and not long after his father died suddenly. With so unstable a family background it is small wonder that all his life he was haunted by fears of madness.
Although his father encouraged his musical aspirations, Schumann’s mother sent him to study law at Leipzig. But when it became clear that he had no aptitude for law and was happy only when making music, she agreed to let him train as a concert pianist.
Thus it was that in 1828, aged 18, Schumann began to study for a career as a concert pianist with Friedrich Wieck in Leipzig, and found himself a fellow pupil of Wieck’s nine year old daughter Clara, who was already a pianist of outstanding ability.
However a permanent injury to Schumann’s right hand, possibly caused by wooden splints he used to improve his fingering technique, eventually put paid to any performing ambitions. In the event it was not important to him because composition was fast becoming his favored field, and helped him to decide to dedicate himself to writing music.
Schumann’s courtship and marriage to Clara Wieck is one of the most famous romances in music. Clara’s father, Friedrich had predicted a great future for his pupil, but he fiercely opposed the young man’s request to marry his daughter.
Not only did he disapprove of Schumann’s drinking, he also wanted Clara to become a famous pianist in her own right. By the age of sixteen Clara was famous and had many admirers, including Franz Liszt. Schumann had great respect for her musical opinion, and readily took her advice.
But for years Friedrich did everything he could to keep Robert and Clara apart. The young Schumann may have been a brilliant pianist, but he was also penniless, a waster, and far from the ideal husband Weick had in mind for his delicate and talented young daughter.
Eventually in 1839 Schumann took Weick to court and obtained permission to marry her, but it was a long and bitter struggle.
They had seven children and eventually in 1853 settled in a large house in Dusseldorf which provided room for Schumann to compose, and his wife to practice.
Schumann was one of the first composers to take childhood as a theme, recreating in music the sense of wonder of a child. His group of piano pieces, called Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) are his best known exploration of this theme.
‘Child Falling Asleep’ evokes a drowsy feeling as it switches from the minor to major key and back again, ending on an unexpected chord which signals the very moment when the child slips blissfully away into the land of dreams.
The well known and much loved Traumerei (Dreaming)creates a mood of tender and happy day dreaming which can be shared by young and old alike.
It is very short, but after it has moved to a hushed and blissful close , it lingers in the mind long after the final chord has died away. And again if you like piano, then you will love this piece.
These are pieces written by an adult about childhood, not music written exclusively for children.
But Schumann also wrote ‘Album for the Young’, a larger group of relatively simple pieces for children to learn and play. The ‘Happy Peasant’ is a well known piece from this collection.
And during his precocious musical childhood he would create piano improvisations for his own and other’s entertainment. Each piece was an amusing sketch of a friend’s personality, behaviour, manner of speaking, and appearance – and all were recognizable from the music.
For most of his life Schumann was also an influential music journalist. As the editor of the ‘Neue Zeitschrift ffor Musik’ he championed the Romantic composers.
He was among the first to recognize the genius of Chopin and Brahms, and he unearthed the manuscript of ‘Schubert’s ‘Great’ Cmajor Symphony’. He also taught composition at the Leipzig Conservatoire; traveled with Clara on her concert tours; and supported a family of seven children.
But by 1854 his mental health finally broke down, and he tried to drown himself in the Rhine. The last two years of his life were spent in a private asylum in Endenich.
The work of Robert Schumann is noted for its links with literature. Many of his compositions allude to characters or scenes from poems, novels and plays; others are like musical crossword puzzles, with key signatures or musical themes that refer to people or places important to the composer.
This intimate relationship with the written word gives Schumann’s music an extra dimension. At the same time, its sheer joyfulness ranks it among the best loved music of the age.
For the companion Music/Creative Writing assignment, see Schumann/BrahmsAssignment by Elaine Schneider