Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Robert Schumann was a German composer and music critic. Many of his works—including piano pieces, art song (lieder), symphonies, chamber music, oratorio, opera, dramatic music, and church music—are considered major contributions to their respective genres and significantly influenced subsequent generations of European composers, such as Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, and Gustav Mahler. Stylistically, Schumann’s lifelong love of literature frequently shaped his musical compositions, with traditional structures infused with narrative techniques drawn from literary models, leading to often bold and innovative conceptions. He also developed a new kind of music criticism, which took a historically informed, multi-perspective approach to describing musical processes that involved close analyses of works.
Born in Zwickau, Saxony on June 8, 1810, the youngest of five children, Schumann showed a talent for music at an early age—initially in singing, then on piano; his first compositions included piano miniatures and songs. To fulfill his family’s wishes, he went to Leipzig in 1828 for a course in law, though he left a year later to devote himself to composition lessons and studying piano with Friedrich Wieck.
During the 1830s, after hopes of being a concert pianist were dashed by a weakened middle finger on his right hand, Schumann sought a full-time career as a composer. While it progressed in starts and stops, he carved another intellectual and creative path as a music journalist, eventually founding the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, for which he was editor from 1835 to 1844. Meanwhile, he and Wieck’s daughter, Clara, already a highly lauded, touring concert pianist and composer, had fallen in love. After a protracted battle with Wieck who had forbidden them to marry, they were finally granted legal permission to do so and wedded in September 1840.
The 1840s were artistically fruitful years for Robert as he and Clara settled into family life while also continuing their respective professional careers. With Clara as muse and with her encouragement, Schumann composed numerous songs and completed major works for orchestra during this period, as well as made forays into other genres, such as his opera Genoveva. In 1850, he became Düsseldorf’s municipal music director; in this role, he made his début as a conductor and led the orchestra and the chorus of the Allgemeiner Musikverein in subscription concerts. He continued to compose prolifically, completing close to 100 new works between 1849 and 1854.
Throughout his adult life, Schumann suffered progressively worsening episodes of depression. Eventually, his mental condition deteriorated to the point that on February 27, 1854, he threw himself into the Rhine river, but he was rescued by local fishermen. To protect Clara and his children, he insisted on being placed in an asylum, and was admitted to a private sanitorium at Endenich, near Bonn. He died there on July 29, 1856.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley