hide captionMany aspects of composer Robert Schumann's life and music have remained largely misunderstood.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Many aspects of composer Robert Schumann's life and music have remained largely misunderstood.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
All this week, we'll be focusing our lens on the music of Robert Schumann and the lasting impact of his work. Leading the conversation is pianist Jonathan Biss, who's making a 30-concert project out of this Schumann exploration all season long and who has written a series of essays on Schumann. Starting things off for us today is musicologist and Schumann expert Eric Frederick Jensen.
Robert Schumann's music has never been more popular than it is now. But during his lifetime (1810-56), concerts were more likely to include pieces by Louis Spohr, Wilhelm Taubert, Ferdinand Hiller, or Julius Rietz. Not exactly household names today. So what led to Schumann's increased popularity? Definitely a change in taste, which included more of a willingness to accept music that sounded different. But there was also a concerted effort at reevaluation. Much of it focused on mental illness, a taboo topic in the 19th century. Friends and family of Schumann worked to create their own image of him, one which downplayed the role of mental illness in his life. At the opposite extreme was the public perception. It sensationalized the final years he'd spent in an asylum, and tagged any of his eccentricities as proof of his insanity. In the end, Schumann's reputation was broadly diminished, his music "tainted by his madness."
In the 20th century, as letters, diaries, and reminiscences came to light — and as the public's fear and hostility towards mental illness began to fade — a more balanced and nuanced view of Schumann emerged. New biographical information appeared as well. But misconceptions die hard. What follows is a small attempt to set the record straight.
1. Schumann became a composer because he failed as a pianist. The 1830s were the dawn of a new kind of piano virtuosity, exemplified by Chopin and Liszt. Schumann was eager to make his mark, and to try to speed up the process he constructed a weird device using a cigar box and some wire. It was intended to prop up his fingers while practicing, the idea being to strengthen them and develop independence. But instead, two fingers on his right hand were permanently injured. Schumann informed his family, who had only grudgingly given their approval to his intended career as a musician, that instead of now becoming a lawyer — which is what he promised to do if a piano career failed — he was going to focus on writing music.
If there hadn't been the injury, would he have been able to make a name as a pianist? That seems unlikely. Even if he'd acquired the technique, he lacked the temperament. We get the best idea of the type of virtuosity he had in mind from one of his first compositions, the Toccata Op. 7 from 1833. It's a dazzling display, and with its rapid runs and chords, presents challenges to the best of pianists. But it's also the kind of display for its own sake that he never used again.
2. Schumann was a poet as well as a composer — and he held an exalted opinion of both. Actually, until he was about 20, he was leaning towards becoming a writer. He continued to write all his life, primarily as a music critic in the 1830s and '40s, but also writing occasional (and unpublished) poetry, plays, and short stories.
One of the novelties of Schumann's music criticism was that some of it was written as if it were a short story. He developed a recurring cast of characters in the style of writers he admired — like Jean Paul Friedrich Richter and E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Those same writers inspired several of his musical compositions, as he transferred to sound their literary style. The result was some of Schumann's most imaginative music, but it took a long time to find an appreciative audience. One of the most fascinating works of this type is Kreisleriana Op. 16 from 1838. The title comes from one of Hoffmann's fictional characters: Johannes Kreisler, a composer. Kreisler's temperament was bizarre, eccentric, frenzied — and much the same could be said of Schumann's musical portrait.
3. Schumann was not a talker. That could be exasperating for his friends, but not for someone who felt there was no such thing as an embarrassing silence. On one occasion a friend introduced him to the composer Félicien David. The conversation languished.
"After a while," related the friend, "I was beginning to feel hot and uncomfortable, when Schumann turned and murmured to me: 'David doesn't seem to talk much.' 'No, not much,' I replied. 'I like that,' said Schumann with a gentle smile."
His preference for few words helps to explain his love for quiet and fondness for walks in the countryside, enjoying the sounds of nature. Another friend recalled sharing one of those walks with Schumann. Schumann said not a word, save for "one comment, but it provided me with a glimpse into his inner nature. He spoke of the special beauty of such a summer afternoon, when all voices were silent, when nature itself was completely peaceful and quiet. He was deeply moved, and noted that the ancient Greeks had a particularly appropriate description for it: 'Pan is sleeping.' The two of us made similar trips together, each time completely silent."
4. Schumann spent the last two years of his life in a mental asylum. But he had voluntarily committed himself and early on, to a considerable extent, he recovered. Being discharged was an option that didn't seem to occur to him. He didn't feel cured. He hated where he was being held and repeatedly asked friends and family to have him transferred somewhere else. Schumann was convinced that he was misunderstood by the physicians who were supposed to cure him — and there is evidence to support his claim.
While in the asylum, Schumann was not encouraged to write music; it was regarded as harmful. But he was very interested in what he had composed shortly before becoming a patient, and asked others whether the music had yet been published and what the public reaction had been. One of those recent pieces was the Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn) Op. 133 from 1853. They were his last works for solo piano. Not long after writing them, Schumann had the nervous breakdown which led to his institutionalization. Unlike most of his piano music, these fit awkwardly under the hands, and transitioning between musical passages can sound clumsy. The first of the five-piece set is majestic and hymn-like.
5. Nothing meant more to Schumann than being a father — and he was an extraordinary one. Fathers at the time tended to be distant, reserved, and authoritative. Not Schumann. He played games with his seven children, read to them, and took walks with them. He kept a diary for them of major events — like discovering a bird's nest. And he was an early advocate of kindergartens, which had been developed in Germany around 1840. Schumann's music was also affected by his love for his children. He wrote pieces directly inspired by their activities, as well as works written for children in general. These were not the usual boring sonatinas, but imaginative and entertaining works, like those he published in the Album for the Young Op. 68 in 1848.
Schumann was captivated by the idealism and innocence of childhood and he tried to represent it in another set of piano pieces, the Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op. 15 from 1838. These were conceived for adults as a recollection of their own childhood. The last two in the set are "Child Falling Asleep" and "The Poet Speaks." It was Schumann's way of showing the connection between the two, the poet representing the child in its natural and unconscious state.
(Eric Frederick Jensen is a music historian and the author of the biography Schumann, published by Oxford University Press, newly issued in a second edition.)