Robert Schumann Life Experiences
Robert Schumann was born in Zwickan, Saxony, June 8, 1810
He died in Endenich, near Bonn, July 29, 1856.
The company of a great and noble man is always uplifting and fascinating, the more so if we are allowed to listen to his own words and to hear from his own mouth interesting details of his steadily growing, glorious career. Robert Schumann, through his letter’s and other writings, affords us such a rare opportunity; let us enjoy for a while his inspiring company. He never, as a composer, as a writer, as a man, departed from the lofty ideals which he had put before himself as his guiding stars. We shall consider him in this threefold aspect.
Music was to him not intoxication of the senses of hearing, or an arithmetic problem, as it is for many music lovers and composers, but the perfect expression of the soul. He was a poet, even in his ordinary writings, in his criticisms. Hear how he portrays Chopin’s playing: “Imagine that an aeolian harp possessed all the scales, and that an artist’s hand struck this will all kinds of fantastically elegant embellishment, even rendering audible a deep fundamental tone and a softly flowing upper voice – and you will have some idea of Chopin’s playing.”
As a man he was the most ardent and faithful lover, the most disinterestedly helpful friend, a wonderful figure from every point of view.
It can be said that Schumann embodied in music the tendencies which German Romanticism had for the most part embodied in its literary production. He was not exactly a revolutionary, but a member of a recognized party who counted among its leaders some of the greatest poets and essayists of his age. The romantic movement in Germany was not only a reaction against classical tradition, it was almost a war of Protestantism against Catholicism.
Schumann’s Early Love for Music
From his earliest childhood Schumann had a passionate love for music; he sat for hours at the piano and improvised. His father, a bookseller in a provincial town and a man of unusual perspicacity, was quicker to perceive his musical talent than his mother, who, anxious as all mothers are, preferred a so-called bread-winning profession to the thorny path or art. Robert Schumann was a pianist at six, a composer at seven, and within a few years we find the child, already famous as an extemporizer, taking part in public performance where he had to stand up at the piano in order to reach the keys.
His first teacher was Kuntzsch, organist of the Marien-Kirche of Zwickau, who soon declared that his pupil had nothing more to learn from him. There was at first some question of his studying with Karl Maria von Weber, but a delay was caused by the latter’s trip to England up to the time when death deprived him of his father, in 1826. Young Robert, then sixteen years old, was thus left to follow his own instincts without guidance. In a letter to Hummel, Schumann writes: “To give you an idea of the vigorous reforms my teacher had to institute, I must tell you that although I could play any concerto at sight, I had to go back and learn the scale of C major.”
Meanwhile his literary education was not neglected. In 1828 he matriculated at Leipsic as studiosus juris, although he had a hearty contempt for that subject, and his enthusiasm was all concentrated in the works of Jean Paul. Of all German musicians none was so powerfully influenced by this writer as Schumann. This influence certainly was not confined to the form, but affected the innermost being of the man and of the artist. “All the world would be better for reading Jean Paul,” he wrote to a friend. “He has often brought me to the verge of madness, but through a mist of tears shines the rainbow of peace and a hovering spirit of humanity, and the heart is marvelously uplifted and gently illuminated.” Obviously, the dry study of law did not advance with great success. “I have not been to a single lecture,” he writes to his friend, Rosch, and again, “Idealists are like bees; if you disturb them off their flowers, they sting.”
He was more interested in hearing good quartet playing at Dr. Carns’ and in having a chat with Wieck, the best pianoforte teacher of Germany. Soon young Schumann decided to take lessons from Wiech. It was a momentous decision, as he became intimate with his favorite teacher and his daughter, Clara, then only nine years old, who was destined to become a famous pianist. Her nature was sunny, and it is little wonder that she inspired Schumann with admiration and love, even at that early age. Besides the pianoforte lessons, Schumann worked at harmony and counterpoint, and made a special study of Bach that accounts for the polyphonic trend in Schumann’s music. In this respect it i is of great interest to hear what Schumann has to say: “Mozart and Haydn, although much nearer to Bach, knew him less than the later composers of the Romantic School. had only a partial and imperfect knowledge of Bach, and we can have no idea how Bach, had they known him in all his greatness, would have affected their creative power. Mendelssohn, Bennett, Chopin, Hiller, in fact, the so-called Romantic school, approach Bach far more nearly in their music than Mozart ever did; indeed, all of them know Bach most thoroughly. I myself confess my sins daily to that mighty one, and endeavor to purify and strengthen myself through him.”
As an explanation of this strange phenomenon, I must inform the student that only a small portion of the works of Bach were published while he was living, and for about 50 years this master was almost totally forgotten. To Mendelssohn is principally due the credit that Bach’s greatness was brought to light through the performance of his Passion of St. Matthaus, in Berlin, in 1829.
Meanwhile Schumann grew more and more dissatisfied with Leipsic and decided to go to Heidelberg. He did not go without regret: “A girl soul,” he wrote April, 1829, “beautiful, happy and pure has enslaved me. It cost me many struggles but it is all over now and her I am looking forward to a beautiful life at Heidelberg, full of hope and courage.”
But even at Heidelberg he did not busy himself much with law. It is typical of the German students, especially those belonging to “corporations” that they very seldom if ever visit the University. Their time is taken up mostly with fighting duels and drinking enormous quantities of beer, and this is a matter of pride with them. Schumann practiced piano seven hours a day; he gave improvisation concerts in the evening and started in for earnest composition.
Further he wanted to educate himself by travel. The diary of his visit to Italy reads like a novel. From Milan he writes to his sister-in-law Theresa Schumann about “a beautiful English woman who seemed to have fallen in love less with me than with my piano playing. English women are all like that, they love with their intellect, that is they love a Lord Byron, a Mozart or a Raphael and are not so much attracted by the physical beauty of an Apollo or an Adonis unless it enshrines a beautiful mind. Italian women do the exact opposite and love with their heart only. German women love both with heart and intellect as a rule, unless they fall in love with a circus rider, a dancer, or some Croesus ready to marry them on the spot.”
Paganini’s playing stimulated him with new fervor for music and he wrote to Wieck his intention of becoming a pianist, and asking his advice. Wieck wrote back a cautious letter, pointing out to him the difficulties of the career. Schumann, however, was not to be shaken from his decision. Once back in Leipsic Schumann took up his residence with the Wiecks and studied for piano in earnest. His progress, though rapid, was too slow for his ambition, and he invented a machine for holding up the fourth finger while the others played exercises. This was a fatal mistake; after a few trials he strained the muscles in the third finger of his right hand and the injury was made worse by careless treatment. the finger remained practically useless and the career of a virtuoso was gone forever! Perhaps better for him, as it led him to the smaller and nobler company of great composers. Thus one can say that this seeming calamity was his greatest fortune. “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” He seemed not very much concerned about his crippled hand and he writes to a friend: “My prospects are very bright; my reception in the world of art could not have been more encouraging. Wieck is my oldest friend and as for Clara – imagine everything that is perfect and I will endorse it!” For composition he went to Dorn, the conductor of the Leipsic opera. Dorn’s new pupil does not seem to have been very docile, but he worked hard. During the winter of 1831 he wrote a symphony in F minor, started a pianoforte concerto, and began to revolve in his mind the project of forming a musical journal to embody the ideas of the new school.
Schumann the Journalist
Accordingly in April, 1834, appeared the first number of Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, issued twice a week and devoted entirely to musical criticism and polemics.
One feature of the new journal was the formation of the “Davidsbund,” whose members, however, were only in the imagination of Schumann. Florestan, Eusebius, Raro, Jonathan were creations of Schumann’s fancy, yet he treats them as real beings, records their meetings, mentions their works and composes even a march of the “Davidsbundler” against the “Philistines.” The name “Davidites” was invented by Schumann to include himself and his various impersonations as well as friends whose sympathies were with him in his war against the old fashioned Philistines. Schumann’s own criticisms were signed with their different names. Eusebius would be filled with enthusiasm over some new composition, while Florestan would ruthlessly reveal the faults which Eusebius had overlooked. Raro with his sound judgment was perhaps intended to impersonate Wieck. Schumann also provided his contributors with fanciful names when he enrolled them as Davidites. Thus Julius was Knorr; Jeanquirit was Stephen Heller; Diamond was Zuccalmaglio; Chiara or Chiarina was Clara Wieck; and Mendelssohn he called Felix Meritis.
Schumann remained always a true idealist who worked only for his noble cause, not for reward or wealth.
The compositions of 1834 include Carnival and Etudes Symphoniques.
A little episode of unfaithfulness to his Clara, by his entering into a short engagement of a few months to Ernestine von Fricken, needs hardly to be mentioned, for his feelings for Clara Wieck were too deep rooted to be thus set aside. In fact for nearly four years Schumann sustained all the torments of suspense regarding Clara Wieck, which inspired him with some of his most famous compositions, such for instance as his Fantasia in C, Fantasiestucke, Novelletten, Kreisleriano, Kinderscenen, Arabeske. He writes to Clara; “No maiden, no angel from heaven, would be truer to me than you are; you alone could lave me thus with a love so inexpressibly noble.”
And Clara writes of him in 1839; “My love for Schumann is, it is true, a passionate love. I do not, however, love him solely out of passion and sentimental enthusiasm, but furthermore because I think him one of the best of men, because I believe no other man could love me a purely and noble as he or so understandingly; and I believe also on my part that I can make him wholly happy through allowing him to possess me.”
Dorn speaks of her as “a fascinating girl, graceful in figure, of blooming complexion, with delicate white hands, a profusion of black hair, and wise glowing eyes. Everything about her was appetizing and I never blamed my young pupil Robert Schumann that only three years later she should have been completely carried away by this lovely creature.”
In 1840 Schumann received his Doctor’s degree from the University of Jena, and , armed with the new honor, he obtained the hand of his beloved Clara, a rare instance of genius allied with genius, a love symphony of two lives.
Married life made him a “Minnesaenger,” a singer of love. In the happy years with his Clara he threw himself into song writing, and he set over one hundred and thirty poems of Heine, Rueckert, and others, including Liebesfruhling, written in conjunction with his wife; Frauenliebe, Dichterliebe and others. In 1841 he wrote three symphonies in B flat, in E and D minor and the Fantasie for piano and orchestra; to which, in 1845, were added the two more movements which were incorporated as the pianoforte concerto. 1842 he devoted to chamber music, and as a preparation he shut himself in his study with the Beethoven quartets, and produced afterwards in rapid succession three string quartets dedicated to Mendelssohn, the pianoforte quintet, and the pianoforte quartet.
1843 was an eventful year for Schumann. The quintet had it s debut with Calra Schumann at the piano and David as first violin. In April of that year was opened the Leipsic Convervatorium with Mendelssohn as director and Schumann as professor of composition, Gade and Moscheles joining the staff later on.
During his residence in Dresden Schumann made the acquaintance of Richard Wagner. Schumann was puzzled at the strange personality and he wrote to Mendelssohn: “Wagner is undoubtedly a clever fellow, full of crazy ideas and bold to a degree. The aristocracy are raving about this Rienzi, but I declare he cannot write four consecutive bars that are melodious or even correct.” And in another letter: “Wagner is – to put it concisely – not a good musician. He has no sense of form or euphony. His music, considered apart form the setting, is inferior – often quite amateurish, meaningless, and repugnant; and it is a sign of decadence in art that such music is ranked with the masterpieces of German drama.”
On the contrary, Schumann admired Mendelssohn; “Do you know,” he writes, “his St. Paul, which is a chain of beautiful thoughts? He is actually the first to give the graces a place in church music, and they really should not be forgotten, although until now the ubiquitous fugue had barred the way.”
1846-1847 Schumann visited Vienna, Prague and Berlin. In 1851 his illness, which had shown itself previously, grew worse. He became taciturn and apathetic. In 1854 the disease returned in a more malignant form. Hallucinations grew more persistent and vivid. Physical pain was intensified by periods of mental distress; memory began to fail, and, after an attempt at suicide, Schumann was placed under restraint in a private asylum near Bonn, where he lingered for two years. He died in his wife’s arms July 29, 1856, at the age of 46 years.
A few aphorisms taken from his letters and writings will give a clearer insight into the name and artist.
Can we not have our heaven on earth if we take a simple, sober view of life and are not unreasonable in our demands?
Deep down in my heart lies something I would not lose at any price: the belief that there are some good people left – and a God. Am I not to be envied?
There is no better way of answering a letter than immediately on receiving it.
We welcome sympathy from any quarter, but how much more heartily from the genuine art lover who is indeed rare as the genuine artist himself.
I believe the science of sound considered as the soul’s speech to be still in its infancy. May my good genius inspire me and bring the undeveloped science to maturity.
I am inclined to agree with Jean Paul that air and praise are the only things man can and should breath incessantly.
When I consider that although my music has nothing mechanical about it, it yet makes inconceivable demands on my heart, it seems only natural that the heart should need rest after such exertions.
Experience has proved that the composer is not usually the finest and most interesting performer of his own works.
He is a good musician who understands the music without the score, and the score without the music.
I love not men whose lives are not in unison with their works.
One voice that blames has the strength of ten that praise.
He who sets limits to himself will always be expected to remain within them.
The extraordinary in an artist is unfortunately not always recognized at once.
How few presents are made disinterestedly.
Mannerism is already displeasing in the original, to say nothing of the same fault in the imitator.
Nothing worse can happen to a man than to be praised by a rascal.
Two different readings of the same work are often equally good.
People say: “it pleased” or “it did not please” as if there were nothing higher in art than to please the public.
While Schumann was in Wien, 1838, the police authorities looked out sharp for any revolutionary symptom, and as a measure of precaution had prohibited the performance of the Marseillaise. Schumann composed the Faschingschwank aus Wien in which there suddenly appears a caricature of the forbidden tune. It is masked in so masterly a fashion that it passed un-noticed by the authorities.
One evening at Wieck’s Schumann was anxious to hear some new Chopin’s works which he had just received. Realizing that his lame finger rendered him incapable of playing he cried out despairingly: “Who will lend me their fingers?” “I will”, said Clara, and she sat down and played the pieces for him. She lent him her fingers, and that is especially what she did for him through life in making his piano and chamber music compositions known.
In one of his youthful letters Schumann writes to Clara: Promptly at eleven o’clock to-morrow morning I will play the adagio from Chopin’s Variations, and will think strongly – in fact only – of you. Now I beg of you that you will do the same so that we may meet and see each other in spirit. Should you not do this and there break to-morrow at that hour a chord, you will know that it is I.
Why Schumann Succeeded
Resuming, we find the following salient points in Schumann’s career:
- Never departing from the loftiest ideals, never making concessions to the ignobile vulgus, never working for reward or wealth.
- The strong influence of Jean Paul’s writings which made itself felt as well in the artist as in the man.
- The deep study of Bach and Beethoven.
- The self-inflicted injury to his finger, which turned him from piano-playing to everlasting creative work.
- The continuous endeavor to develop music into “soul speech.”
- The wonderful inspiration of a pure angelic woman and great artist; friend, tender wife, and the most genial interpreter of his works in one person.