Schumann: An Appreciation

Schumann was the archetypal wayward genius whose ability to translate poetical ideas into music is unrivalled.

What makes Schumann the quintessential Romantic composer?

The Romantic era was intimately associated with the conjuring-up of dreamworlds, and no-one dreamed with the intensity of Schumann. "I am affected by everything that goes on in the world," he once confessed. "That is why my compositions are sometimes difficult to understand, because they are connected with different states of mind; and sometimes striking, because everything extraordinary that happens impresses me, and then impels me to express it in music."

What’s all this about a finger-strengthening device?

The story that a home-made contraption collapsed on Schumann’s hand leaving him unable to play the piano was for years largely discredited; however some important letters have recently come to light that suggest it’s absolutely true.

Didn’t Schumann have something to do with Florestan and Eusebius?

Schumann labelled the two emotional extremes in his changeable personality "Florestan" and "Eusebius", the former an outward-going, robust figure, the latter a moody introspective. These also appear regularly in his piano music.

And there are hidden codes – right?

Schumann was very fond of musical ciphers. For example, all 21 miniatures that make up Carnaval are derived from the musical motto A-S-C-H (German notation for A-E flat-C-B), the town where his fiancée at that time was living.

Is it true Schumann went insane?

Throughout his life Schumann was plagued by dizzy spells, auditory hallucinations, and momentary losses of consciousness. Following a paralytic attack that left his speech impaired, he attempted to drown himself in the Rhine. He spent the last two years of his life in an asylum.

So who wrote the best songs – Schumann or Schubert?

You’d have to call this one a draw. No-one has expressed in music the sense of lost youth and innocence as poignantly as Schubert, but for songs that conjure up the uncontainable elation of being alive or in love, Schumann remains unbeatable.