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His performing career was thwarted, but Schumann’s wild imagination and prolific output made his name as a great romantic.
Schumann was the Romantic era’s gentle revolutionary. Although he was fascinated by the groundbreaking pianistic innovations of Chopin and Liszt and applauded Berlioz’s orchestral wizardry, he preferred the profound intimacy of a poet’s imagination to an orator’s grand gestures.
As he memorably put it in an 1838 letter to Clara Wieck,just two years before their marriage: “I am affected by everything that goes on in the world and think it all over in my own way – politics, literature and people – and then I long to express my feelings and find an outlet for them in music. That is why my compositions are sometimes difficult to understand, because they are connected with different interests; and sometimes striking, because everything extraordinary that happens impresses me, and impels me to express it in music.”
One of music’s supreme fantasists, Schumann brought a new lyrical impulse to the German strongholds of the symphony, sonata and concerto. If Beethoven was an instrumentalist at heart, constructing his music out of structurally potent thematic ideas, Schumann felt that music should above all sing with an exultant surge. His ingenious solutions to the problem of fusing symphonic form with profoundly lyrical ideas inspired a whole generation of composers, most notably the fast-emerging Nationalist schools. The music of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Grieg, Dvorˇák, Sibelius and many others is saturated with Schumannisms.
Yet whatever his majestic achievements in handling music on a large scale, it is Schumann’s unrivalled ability as a miniaturist that has secured him a place among the immortals.
When composing his song cycles Dichterliebe, Liederkreis (two sets) and Frauenliebe und -Leben, and such ravishing collections of piano miniatures as Carnaval, Davidsbündlertänze and Kinderszenen, ideas would come to him so fast that he barely had time to write them down before the next one arrived. In one four-month period during 1840 alone, Schumann produced nearly 150 songs of supreme quality.
Like a man possessed, he encapsulated the essence of his creative facility in an excited letter to Clara: “Since yesterday morning I have written 27 pages of music of which all I can tell you is that while composing them I was laughing and crying with joy. Farewell, my Clara! Sounds and music are killing me at this moment and I feel that I could die of them. Ah, Clara, what divine happiness there is in composing for the voice! I would like to sing like the nightingale and die of it!”
Unlike his great friend Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann was not a child prodigy. He began formal piano lessons aged 10 and was largely self- taught as a composer. Yet his Romantic sensibilities were all the time absorbing experiences from his travels, poetry, literature, the visual arts and music, fusing them together in his imagination to create idealised worlds that stood outside everyday experience. He fell under the spell of Jean Paul’s fantasy novels, began adopting aliases and became obsessed with the opposing sides of his creative psyche, which he named Florestan (a machismo extrovert) and Eusebius (a thoughtful introspective).
Aged 18, Schumann dutifully toed the family line by starting a law degree, but after just a year could stand the “ice-cold definitions of chilly jurisprudence” no longer. Up to this point, he had composed nothing of significance. However, his life was turned around by piano lessons with Friedrich Wieck, whose stern countenance and rigorous demands were alleviated by the presence of his nine-year-old prodigy daughter, Clara, whom Robert would go on to marry little more than a decade later.
After seeing the great Italian violin virtuoso Paganini in action, Schumann set his heart upon becoming a piano virtuoso, but an injury to his right hand caused by over-exercising put paid to his performing aspirations. His loss was the music world’s gain, however, as he turned to composing as a natural outlet for his creative urge.
What followed was nothing short of astonishing, as he produced an almost uninterrupted run of 26 opuses that redefined the solo piano genre. As a result of such timeless collections of fantasy pieces as Papillons, Kreisleriana and Faschingsshwank aus Wien, the first two sonatas and C major Fantasy, within a decade Schumann had risen from total obscurity to composing stardom. But this was only the beginning.
During 1840, the year Schumann finally won Clara’s hand in marriage despite her father’s blistering opposition, he turned exclusively to song-writing and miraculously repeated the success he had enjoyed with his piano works. Having composed only a dozen or so settings beforehand, Schumann began pouring out songs at an electrifying pace, often at the rate of two or three a day, each one an exquisite masterpiece worthy of comparison with his great hero, Franz Schubert. His unprecedented run of nearly 150 songs in just four months remains one of the most prodigious creative feats in all music.
So far the piano had been central to all Schumann’s composing, but in 1841 he passionately declared that he felt “tempted to smash my piano”. He was suffering one of the occasional mood swings that would punctuate his life and which are now thought to be the result of a form of bipolar disorder. He felt that the keyboard was becoming too restrictive for his ideas and began turning his attention to multi-instrumental composition. Once again, he proved himself an inspired exponent of both the orchestral and chamber music genres in a remarkably short space of time, producing two symphonies (Nos. 1 and 4), a piano quartet, piano quintet, three string quartets and the first movement of his Piano Concerto in quick succession.
For over two years Schumann’s creative urge had proved insatiable. Often for days on end he had worked in a state of incandescent flow, hardly daring to stop in case the inspiration dried up. However, by the winter of 1842 his composing had assumed a more natural pace, although for Schumann it felt like his musical powers were slowly diminishing. As if to rub salt into his artistic wounds, a new post in Dresden, which he hoped would improve matters, turned out to be something of a disaster due to the amount of political infighting he had to endure.
A move to Düsseldorf in 1850 proved more hospitable, however. Despite suffering increasingly from bouts of tinnitus, insomnia and a number of phobias, Schumann began composing again with renewed enthusiasm.
A series of choral works emerged, including a Mass, a Requiem and the long-overdue completion of his Scenes From Goethe’s Faust. He produced two sublime concertos for the cello and violin, which are at last receiving due recognition, and the glorious “Rhenish” Symphony, alongside a run of inspired chamber works that includes the three violin sonatas, and a handful of songs and short piano pieces.
Tragically, just as his creative revival was coming to fruition, Schumann’s physical and mental condition downturned so rapidly that he became overwhelmed by feelings of despair and attempted half-heartedly to drown himself in the Rhine. It now seems he was suffering from the debilitating effects of a long-term syphilitic infection picked up during his student days. Schumann was subsequently committed to a lunatic asylum, where his tenuous grip on reality ebbed slowly away over the two years remaining to him.