Zwickau 1810 – Endenich, Bonn 1856
The son of a bookseller, publisher and writer, Robert Schumann showed early abilities in both music and literature, the second facility used in his later writing on musical subjects. After brief study at university, he was allowed by his widowed mother and guardian to undertake serious study of the piano with Friedrich Wieck, whose favourite daughter Clara was later to become Schumann’s wife. His ambitions as a pianist were thwarted by a weakness in the fingers of one hand, but the 1830s nevertheless brought a number of compositions for the instrument. The year of his marriage, 1840, was a year of song, followed by attempts in which his young wife encouraged him at more ambitious forms of orchestral composition. Settling first in Leipzig and then in Dresden, the Schumanns moved in 1850 to Düsseldorf, where Schumann had his first official appointment, as municipal director of music. In 1854 he had a serious mental break-down, followed by two years in the asylum at Endenich before his death in 1856. As a composer Schumann’s gifts are clearly heard in his piano music and in his songs.
Schumann completed four symphonies, after earlier unsuccessful attempts at the form. The first, written soon after his marriage and completed early in 1841, is known as Spring and has a suggested programme. A second symphony followed in 1846 and the third, the Rhenish, a celebration of the Rhineland and its great cathedral at Cologne, was written in Düsseldorf in 1850. The fourth of the symphonies was an earlier work, revised for Düsseldorf in 1852. The Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52, was described by the composer as a symphonette.
Schumann’s only completed piano concerto was started in 1841 and completed in 1845. The Cello Concerto of 1850 was first performed four years after Schumann’s death, while the 1853 Violin Concerto had to wait over eighty years before its first performance in 1937. The Konzertstück for four French horns is an interesting addition to orchestral repertoire. Schumann’s Introduction and Allegro for piano and orchestra was completed in 1853.
The overture to Schumann’s only completed opera, Genoveva, unsuccessful in the theatre, is part of concert-hall repertoire, with an overture to Byron’s Manfred, again first intended for the theatre. Concert overtures include Die Braut von Messina (The Bride from Messina), based on Schiller’s play of that name, Julius Cäsar, based on Shakespeare, and Hermann und Dorothea, based on Goethe. A setting of scenes from Goethe’s Faust also includes an overture.
Schumann wrote three string quartets in 1842, a fertile period that saw also the composition of the Piano Quintet and a Piano Quartet. Other important chamber music by Schumann includes three piano trios, three violin sonatas and a number of shorter character-pieces that include the Märchenbilder for viola and piano, collections of Phantasiestücke with alternative instrumentation and the cello and piano Fünf Stücke im Volkston, with other short pieces generally suggesting a literary or otherwise extra-musical programme.
Choral and Vocal Music
Schumann wrote a number of part-songs for mixed voices, for women’s voices and for men’s voices. His Choral music with orchestra include Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Das Paradies und die Peri, based on Thomas Moore’s poem Lalla Rookh, and Requiem for Mignon, based on Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novel. In his final years he wrote a setting of the Mass and of the Requiem Mass. The solo songs of Schumann offer a rich repertoire, an important addition to German Lieder repertoire. From these many settings mention may be made of the collections and song-cycles Myrthen, Op. 25, Liederkreis, Op. 39, Frauenliebe und-leben, Op. 42, and Dichterliebe, Op. 48, all written in the Year of Song, 1840.
The piano music of Schumann, whether written for himself, for his wife, or, in later years, for his children, offers a wealth of material. From the earlier period comes Carnaval, a series of short musical scenes based on the letters of the composer’s name and that of the town of Asch, home of Ernestine von Fricken, a fellow-student of Friedrich Wieck, to whom Schumann was briefly engaged. The same period brought the Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David), a reference to the imaginary league of friends of art against the surrounding Philistines. This decade also brought the first version of the monumental Symphonic Studies, based on a theme by the father of Ernestine von Fricken, and the well known Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood). Kreisleriana has its literary source in the Hoffmann character Kapellmeister Kreisler, as Papillons (Butterflies) have a source in the work of the writer Jean Paul and Noveletten a clear literary reference in the very title. Later piano music by Schumann includes the Album für die Jugend of 1848, Waldszenen of 1849 and the collected Bunte Blätter and Albumblätter drawn from earlier work.