Robert Schumann and Music

Robert Schumann was one of the greatest composers of the Romantic Era, and arguably one of the most influential.  He was born in Zwickau, Saxony, on June 8, 1810.  Both of his parents loved him dearly.  He also had four siblings: Emilie, Julius, Eduard and Carl.  Having such a good and loving family with friends who were willing to support him in almost anything he did, though, did not make for an easy life.  Schumann had a long list of difficulties which can make any of us cry uncle.  However, no matter how bad things got for Schumann he always turned to the arts, especially music.

He was raised in a household that loved music but not did not view it as a viable career.  Schumann took music lessons and developed his talents very quickly, emerging into somewhat of a child star in the neighborhood.  He, his older sibling Carl, and some of their friends would even put on plays which people in the neighborhood could, and did, pay to see.[1]

In 1825, Schumann lost his Sister, Emilie, who committed suicide.  How exactly she did so is still unclear.  10 months later, Schumann’s father died.  With these two major losses in his life, he left home to study law at a university in Leipzig, one of the biggest musical and cultural centers in the German Principalities at the time.  He lied to his mother about his attendance at law lectures and his hard work, almost never attending classes.  Schumann, rather than fulfilling his mother’s wishes to start a career as a lawyer, studied to become a virtuoso pianist.

Schumann met an up-and-coming piano teacher named Friedrich Wieck.  Wieck was an old fashioned teacher who had no sympathy for failure,  He wanted results, nothing less.  Wieck had Schumann do an extraordinary amount of practice, entailing up to eight hours a day of hand exercises alone (no student has the right to complain about how much they practice compared to Robert Schumann)![2]  This excessive amount of playing started to hurt his right hand.  He even tried to correct it with machines to increase finger strength. Rather than helping it, Schumann ended up killing the muscles in one of his fingers, rendering it useless and ruining his career possibilities as a virtuoso pianist.[3]

At the same time that Schumann was experiencing this loss in his right hand, he also lost more family members: his brother Julius succumbed to tuberculosis and his sister-in-law, one of his best friends, from malaria (a disease which Schumann himself had contracted at approximately this time).  These life changes forced Schumann to reconsider everything.  He no longer had his brother, sister, father, and one of his best friends in his sister-in-law.  Not to mention that he was having trouble with his future father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck.  Schumann sunk into depression and needed to find an answer.  He eventually turned to both founding a music review and to composing his own songs.

Being a music critic often meant residing outside of the tight knit group of German speaking composers.  Composers tended not to be fans of critics, many of whom had trouble forgiving Schumann of this.[4]  In spite of this, Schumann needed to run and write in the music review in order to have enough money off of which to live.  It wasn’t until much later in Schumann’s life that he would eventually be able to make enough money from his compositions that he would no longer need to be part of the daily interactions of the review he founded.  His compositions, however, never became truly famous during his lifetime.  He was always known for being both a successful music critic as well as having married one of the most famous piano virtuosos, his former piano teacher’s daughter Clara Wieck.

Schumann’s life ended tragically at a young age.  He suffered from a severe mental health breakdown.  The Ghost Variations were the last song he ever wrote.  According to Schumann, he was visited by angels and demons to both help him and torment him.  They sung songs to him which he started to write.  While writing the songs of the angels one day, he decided to walk down to the icy Rhine river and throw himself into it.  Luckily, bystanders jumped into action, saved him from drowning, and returned him home. The next day, Schumann sat down and finished writing the piece.[5]  He was committed to an insane asylum soon after, where he battled his mental illness until his death in 1856.

To say Robert Schumann’s life was tough is an understatement.  He battled diseases like malaria.  He overcame the deaths of multiple family members.  He battled his father-in-law viciously.  He pushed through a physical ailment in his hand.  He even fought through mental illness until it took his life.  Robert Schumann’s life should be an example to those studying music now.  Through all of his highs and lows, all of his battles, he always returned to the arts.  He expressed himself through his notes and his words, never failing to find solace in his music.
[1] Lecture 1 from the Great Courses Great Masters: Robert and Clara Schumann.
[2] Page 14 from Great Course above
[3] Pages 14 and 15 from Great Course Above
[4] Page 40 of the Great Course on Clara and Robert Schumann
[5]  Wolf-Dieter Seiffert (1995). "Preface to Thema mit Variationen (Geistervariation)" (PDF). G. Henle Verlag. Retrieved 6 July 2012.

Josh Goulet