Music with Ease > Classical Music > Robert Schumann
Composer, Editor and Essayist
Endeavour to play easy pieces well and beautifully; that is better than to play difficult pieces indifferently well. When you play, never mind who listens to you. Play always as if in the presence of a master.
The year 1809 has been called a wonderful birth year. And so it was it gave us Tennyson and Mendelssohn and Darwin and Edgar Allan Poe and Oliver Wendell Holmes and Mrs. Browning and Gladstone and Abraham Lincoln. But the years 1810 and 1811 were not less remarkable, in the history of music at least. During that period, Chopin, Liszt, Heller, Thalberg, and Henselt were all born. And Robert Alexander Schumann, with very good judgment, made himself one of the distinguished company by coming into the world on the 8th of June 1810.
The birthplace was Zwickau, a quaint little town in Saxony, with tall, picturesque houses, and broad, grass-grown streets. The father was a bookseller and publisher there. He was, by the composers description, "a very active and intelligent man, noted for his pocket edition of foreign classics; for many important business works; and for a translation of several of Byrons poems, published shortly before his death." He educated his boy, as the boy himself puts it, "lovingly and carefully." But unfortunately he and the mother -- the mother especially -- had set their hearts on making a lawyer of him. Thus, though Schumann early showed a love for music, his studies were checked not only by lack of home sympathy, but by actual hindrance. Music was regarded by these people as "as precarious living." Schumann had a very tender regard for his mother, and the knowledge that the exercise of his musical talent to any serious purpose was against her wish proved the reverse of inspiring. Moreover, such law studies as he undertook bent his mind somewhat into the groove which studies of that kind create. He could not be wholly uninfluenced by their narrowing effect, and much as he hated them, they contributed to the suppression of his emotional capabilities. This much he realised himself when he wrote that the law turns its devotee "into gristle and freezes him into ice, so that no follower of fancy will any longer yearn for the springtime of the world."
It was in pursuance of bookseller Schumanns idea that the future composer was sent in 1828 to study law at Leipzig University. The intention was that he should later complete his course at Heidelberg. But before this could be fully carried out, the bookseller died, and the embryo lawyer, who had been scribbling music more or less from his twelfth year, began to take to it more seriously. Like Wagner, he had shown a strong tendency towards literature, and wrote blood and thunder plays, which were produced by his chums under his direction. He wrote poems, too, some of which he subsequently set to music. Further, when only fourteen, he helped his father to prepare a "Picture Gallery of the most Famous Men of all Nations and Times." In all this we already see the future editor, essayist, and letter-writer; for Schumann was all that, in addition to being a composer.
At any rate, he would have nothing more to do with the law, with "chilling jurisprudence" and its "ice-cold definitions." That was his final decision, arrived at while he was still in Leipzig. He hated Leipzig. "Leipzig is a horrid hole, where one cannot enjoy life," he said. "It is far easier to make progress in the art of spending money than in the lecture-rooms." Apparently money was scarce with him about this time, though later on he fell heir to a modest competency, which relieved him from total dependence on his earnings by music. "For two weeks I have not had a shilling," he wrote one November day to his mother. "I owe Wieck 20 thalers, and Lühe 30, and I am actually living like a dog." His hair was "a yard long," yet he could not afford to have it cut. For a fortnight he had been obliged to wear white cravats, his black ones were so shabby. His piano is unbearably out of tune. He cannot even shoot himself, because he has no money to buy pistols.
The reference to Wieck is a trifle "previous." Schumann had just abandoned the law when he fell in with Heinrich Dorn and with Friedrich Wieck. The first, who was conductor of the opera and a notable figure in musical Leipzig, he immortalised by studying composition with him; and the second he honoured, as we shall see, by marrying his daughter Clara. Wieck was the leading piano professor in Leipzig, and Schumann had now determined upon being a virtuoso of the keyboard. Even when pretending to study law, he would often practice the piano for seven hours a day. Now he placed himself under Wiecks tuition. Unluckily, the obstinate stiffness of that third finger which gives trouble to all pianists, set Schumann unloosening and developing the sinews by a mechanical invention of his own. The contrivance was simple enough-a cord through a pulley fastened to the ceiling of his room. By this means he could draw back his finger at will, and prevent it moving while the other fingers played. As Ambros remarks, the device was a good illustration of the saying that a man is liable to break his neck if he jumps through a window in order to get down quicker than by the stairway. It was not only unsuccessful: it caused permanent injury to the hand, so that in the end Schumann had to abandon altogether the idea of being a great pianist.
The disappointment arising from his unexpected shattering of his ambitions must have been intense. But we, who know the after history, know that music gained in a higher walk what it lost in a lower. The player leaves behind him, after all, little more than a memory amongst those who may have heard him; the great composer is remembered not alone by the age in which he writes but by all time. Still, one cannot help sympathising with Schumann in his discomfiture. Nor was it the only thing that seriously disturbed him about this date. He had fallen passionately in love with Clara Wieck, "one of the most glorious girls the world has ever seen" (so, in his rapture, he described her); but Claras father, while willing to retain him as a pupil, would not hear of him for a son-in-law. He had higher ambitions for his prodigy daughter. Imagine the prosaic fellow writing thus to Schumann: "I dont quite know what I mean to do with Clara, but, -- hearts! what do I care about hearts?" Aye, but hearts have a way of asserting themselves!
Clara Wieck had already, as a child of ten, made a sensation as a pianist, and we can readily understand how Schumann would be drawn to her while he was himself hopeful of posing as a player. In the Autobiography of Moscheles there are frequent references t o meetings with Schumann at the house of the Wiecks, and Claras playing is spoken of as "superb, and void of all affectation." It was lucky for Schumann that Clara Wieck was as much in love with him as he was with her. In the meantime they resolved to wait, hoping that old Wieck would relent. He did not relent. At first Schumann took it philosophically, remarking that the delay had at least this advantage, that they would gain a better knowledge of each other -- a knowledge that to most people usually came after marriage.
Two years went by, and Wieck still remained unyielding. Then, as a last resource, Schumann called in the aid of the law; for in Germany, if a father refuses to let his daughter marry, he can be forced to say why. The case dragged on for a whole year, but at length the courts decided that Wiecks objections were trivial, and the marriage took place in September 1840, when the bride was twenty-one, and the bridegroom thirty. Schumann felt perfectly justified in the step he had taken. "We are young," he wrote; "we have our fingers, power, reputation. I have, moreover, a modest property, which brings me 300 thalers a year; the profits of the Journal are almost as much, and my compositions are well paid for." Happy man among great composers, to be able to begin married life under such rosy auspices!
Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck are not only the ideal lovers of musical history, but their story is worthy of a high place in the love literature of the world. There is nothing more earnest and noble, from Heloise and Abelard to Paul and Virginia. A more satisfactory union has seldom been recorded. During the courtship, Schumann told his fiancée that "we will lead a life of poetry and blossom, and we will play and compose together like angels, and bring gladness to mankind." That was pretty much what they did-until the shadow fell. Schumann said to Mendelssohn that his wife was "a gift from heaven." And such she proved herself. The loftiness of her character was never more clearly shown than when she took up the burden of life after the great tragedy which sent her husband with clouded mind into confinement, leaving her with the cares of a young family. While they were together they lived for one another, and for their children, of whom there were eight in all. He created and wrote for his wife and in accordance with her temperament, while she looked upon it as her highest privilege to give to the world the most perfect interpretation of his works for the piano. She had a long widowhood of forty years, and during all that time she devoted herself to the popularising of her husbands works.
To return from his anticipation of events. Disappointed in his hopes of becoming a great pianist, Schumann took to composition as a congenial alternative. During the courtship period his imaginative mind received many happy inspirations, which found an outlet mostly in vocal pieces. In the year of his marriage alone, he wrote no fewer than 130 songs, some of them the finest things he ever did in that line. Larger works, such as symphonies and concertos, he also tried at this time; but only the lesser works of the period for piano have survived. It was but natural that his first successes should be for the instrument which he knew best. As a matter of fact, his sympathy for the piano continued to the end, and much of his best music is in the form of highly imaginative pieces for it. Most of them belong to the same order as Mendelssohns "Songs without Words," but they are far more characteristic and original, and more poetical and romantic. The standard of this ideas was so high, and his treatment of the instrument so rich in colour, that he raised this branch of art to a point which it had never attained before, and left a mass of genuine lyrics, the most enduring and enjoyable of all the thousands of such works which the nineteenth century produced.
Early in his career as a composer, Schumann was drawn into literary work on behalf of music. Musicians are seldom good writers, but Schumann, like Wagner and Berlioz, was a brilliant exception. In fact we must regard him always in the double character of composer and writer. He had been much impressed with the lowness of public taste in music, as well as by the badness of musical criticism; and with the view of remedying matters he started the New Journal of Music, which came to be mainly instrumental in bringing into notice Chopin, Berlioz, Weber, Brahms, Henselt, and other rising musicians of the time. As editor of this publication, which by the way still lives, Schumann exercised a very powerful influence, and established himself as a keen and incisive thinker and a master of literary style.
Editing a journal is hard work under any circumstances, but it is doubly hard when a mans whole soul and most of his time are given to it. Schumann was in this position during all the ten years of his editorship, with the consequence that he composed very little. Indeed he was so absorbed in his writing that Mendelssohn is declared to have scarcely thought of him as a composer at all, but only as a literary man. By and by, however, a flood of works for the piano came forth, many of them among his finest compositions-such as the great Fantasia in C, the Humoreske, Novelletten, Fantasiestücke, and other pieces. Immediately after this he took to symphony writing, and in one year produced three of his most important works in that department, notably the Symphony in B flat which he wrote with a pen he had found lying on Beethovens grave. It was his fancy to imagine that the pen had been accidentally dropped by Schubert. Then he took up chamber music, and wrote the famous Quintet for piano and strings and the Quartet for a similar combination, both of which have gained an enviable popularity. Afterwards he struck out in yet another line, and tried choral composition. Taking Moores "Lallah Rookh" as the basis of his text, he produced a delightful cantata, Paradise and the Peri, which is not so well known as it should be.
It was about this time that his health began to give way. He had overtaxed his strength; for besides composition and literary work he had been acting as Mendelssohns coadjutor in the new Conservatorium at Leipzig. His professorship here greatly worried him, for, like most geniuses, he had no aptitude for teaching, and the continual listening to music indifferently performed worked on his nerves. The trouble began to manifest itself rather seriously in loss of musical memory, sleeplessness, and strange, uncanny imaginings. "Everything affects and exhausts me," he said. There was a vein of hypochondria in his family, and a sister had died at twenty of an incurable melancholy.
He moved to Dresden for quiet, but the quiet only made his habits of silence and abstraction more pronounced, and his health never fully returned. He got a little better about 1846, and began to compose again with something of his old ardour. The great Symphony in C, and the famous Concerto for piano both belong to this period, and the opera of Genoveva followed somewhat later. The stay at Dresden (where he met Wagner) continued until 1849, when political disturbances necessitated a removal. Presently we find him in Düsseldorf as conductor of an important orchestra. But this post proved equally intractable with the Leipzig professorship. Schumann was too shy, if not too morose, to make a satisfactory conductor. At rehearsals he often praised when he should have blamed; and if mistakes happened after repeated trials, he simply got angry without explaining the cause of his temper.
Although a faithful friend, Schumann was eminently unsociable, and his reserve became more and more marked as the years went on. He knew this himself. Once when an old acquaintance wrote that he meant to call on him, Schumann answered: "I shall be delighted to see you, but there is not much to be had from me. I hardly speak at all-in the evening more, and most at the piano." He once asked another friend to go with him for lunch to a restaurant in the suburbs, and during the walk there and back, about a mile each way, the only remark he made was about the fine weather. Henriette Voigt, an amateur friend, tells how, after she and the composer had been enjoying music together one lovely evening, they went out in a boat. And there they sat, side by side, for over an hour, without either speaking a word. When they parted, Schumann said, with a pressure of the hand that betokened his feelings: "To-day we have perfectly understood one another." Still another incident in illustration is reported by Dr. Hanslick, who writes: "Wagner expressed himself thus to me in 1846: Schumann is a highly gifted musician but an impossible man. When I came from Paris I went to see him. I related my Parisian experiences, spoke of the state of music in France, then of that in Germany; spoke of literature and politics, but he remained as good as dumb for over an hour. One cannot go on talking quite alone." It is only fair, however, to give Schumanns version of the same interview: "I have seldom met Wagner, but he is a man of education and spirit; he talks, however, unceasingly, and that one cannot endure for very long together." In other words, Wagner talked so incessantly as to give Schumann no chance of speaking.
Meanwhile, there were ominous signs of returning mental disturbance. At Düsseldorf things became so unsatisfactory that Schumanns engagement was terminated, and in a way that left a painful impression on his mind. A concert tour in Holland, which he undertook with his wife, brought back some of the old pleasure in life, but hallucinations of a strange kind continued to haunt him at intervals to such an extent that he even wished to be taken to an asylum. He was afraid to live above the ground floor, or to go to a height in any building, in case he might suddenly be tempted to throw himself down.
In 1853 the darkness further deepened. "He began to attend spiritualistic séances, and imagined that Beethoven was trying to communicate with him by four knocks on the table. He fancied himself haunted by Schubert, who begged him to finish the Unfinished Symphony; he imagined that the note A was always sounding in his ears, and gradually whole compositions seemed to grow above this continual organ point." Curiously enough, it was this same delusion about hearing a single note that drove the Bohemian composer Smetana mad, after making the note the foundation of one of his compositions. Schumann thought that spirits brought him musical themes; and in February 1854 he wrote down one of these themes, which Brahms afterwards "set" as piano variations, ending with a funeral march. Then came one of those dreadful lucid intervals, in which he realised that he was going crazy. His malady became more and more serious, and during a severe attack he tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. He was rescued just in time by some passing boatmen, but the shock was too severe, and he had to be placed in a private asylum at Endenich, near Bonn.
He made occasional improvements, and was able to see friends and enjoy their company. Sad to say, however, his wife was forbidden to visit him, for it seemed to excite his emotions too greatly to see her. Yet it was in the arms of that noble, loving wife that he breathed his last, after two mournful years of seclusion, on the 29th of July 1856. He was buried at Bonn, the birthplace of Beethoven, and over his grave stands a superb monument, subscribed for by a wide circle of friends and admirers. His old intimate, Ferdinand Hiller, inconsolable for his loss, wrote a panegyric which may fittingly be transcribed:
Thou didst rule with a golden scepter over a splendid world of tones, and thou didst work therein with power and freedom. And many of the best gathered round thee, intrusted themselves to thee, inspired thee with therein inspiration, and rewarded thee with their deep affection. And what a love adorned thy life! A wife, gifted with a radiant crown of genius, stood at thy side, and thou wert to her as the father to daughter, as bridegroom to bride, and as master to discipline, and as saint to the elect. And when she could not be with thee and remove every stone from before thy feet, then didst thou feel, in the midst of dreams and sorrows, her protecting hand from the distance; and when the Angel of Death had pity on thee, and drew nigh to thy anguished soul, in order to help it again toward light and freedom, in thy last hours thy glance met hers; and reading the love in her eyes, thy weary spirit fled.
It is said that Schumanns mental disease was chiefly attributable to the formation of bony masses in the brain. There is an affecting story of Brahms going to see him at Enderich, when he heard him ask for a Bible. The physicians refused his request, choosing to read it as a convincing evidence of brain trouble! "Those fellows," said Brahms, "did not know that we North Germans want the Bible every day, and never let a day pass without it."
Schumanns personal appearance is familiar through his portraits. One of his biographers gives this description of him towards the close of his life:
Robert Schumann was of middling stature, almost tall, and slightly corpulent, his bearing, while in health, was haughty, distinguished, dignified, and calm; his gait slow, soft, and a little slovenly. He often paced the room on tiptoe, apparently without cause. His eyes were generally downcast, half-closed, and only brightened in intercourse with intimate friends, but then most pleasantly. His countenance produced an agreeable, kindly impression; it was without regular beauty, and not particularly intellectual. The fine-cut mouth, usually puckered as if to whistle, was, next to the eyes, the most attractive feature of his round, full, ruddy face. Above the heavy nose rose a high, bold, arched brow, which broadened visibly at the temples. His head, covered with long, thick, dark-brown hair, was firm, and intensely powerful -- one might say square.
This is not very flattering, to say the least. Sir Sterndale Bennett, who had met him in Leipzig, was more amusing, if less particular as to detail, when he wrote:
Herr Schumann is a first-rate man,
He smokes as neer another can;
A man of thirty, I suppose,
Short is his hair, and short his nose.
As a man, Schumann was kind-hearted and generous and devoid of all professional jealousy. It was only his fits of excessive depression and gloomy foreboding, his reserve and his extreme irritability -- all born of the brain trouble -- that prevented him from making friends more readily than he did. He once wrote to Clara Wieck: "I am often very leathery, dry, and disagreeable, and laugh much inwardly." And again: "Inwardly I acknowledge the most trifling favour, understand every hint, every subtle trait in anothers heart, and yet I so often blunder in what I say and do." One of the best features in his character was his fondness for young people, as indeed his famous Album for the Young would suggest. There is a pretty story of a little piece of funning he practised on his own children when, meeting them one day on the street, he pretended not to know who they were. Whatever his outward manner, his heart was in the right place.
It is only within comparatively recent years that Schumann has attained anything like world-wide recognition. He said of his own time that if he had not made himself feared as an editor he would never have got his works published. They were considered "dry, eccentric, heavy, out of rule." We look upon them rather differently now. Schumanns music, to use a common phrase, is of the kind that grows upon one. From its sheer originality, it is mostly difficult, sometimes even impossible, to grasp its full meaning at first. Not only are the passages so novel and unusual as to render the task of sight-playing more than ordinarily hard; but even when the notes are mastered, the whole beauty of the thought does not always strike the player. The music must be studied carefully and heard repeatedly to be fully appreciated. Wagner sneeringly said that Schumann has a tendency towards greatness." But in his own line Schumann is just as great as Wagner is in his line. Liszt may have exaggerated when he called him "the greatest music thinker since Beethoven"; but we can all agree with Liszt when he says: "The more closely we examine Schumanns ideas, the more power and life do we discover in them; and the more we study them, the more we are amazed at the wealth and fertility which had before escaped us." Schumann has now gained a secure hold among music-lovers, and it is probable that he will live when some of his contemporaries who passed him on the road to popular favour have been all but forgotten.