Robert Schumann: A Romantic Hero Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth, Morning Edition commentator Miles Hoffman takes the measure of Schumann, the man and his music.
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Robert Schumann: A Romantic Hero

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Robert Schumann: A Romantic Hero

Robert Schumann: A Romantic Hero

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A certain kind of music lover is celebrating today from Seattle to New York, from Duluth to Dusseldorf, because today marks the 200th birthday of a great romantic composer, Robert Schumann.

As the occasion approached, commentator Miles Hoffman sat down with our own Renee Montagne.


When it comes to what moved Robert Schumann to compose exquisite music, he said: You write to become immortal, or because the piano happens to be open, or because youve looked into a pair of beautiful eyes. Whatever his inspiration, his music is ours now.

And, Miles, happy 200th birthday to Robert Schumann from both of us, I guess.

Professor MILES HOFFMAN (Dean, Petrie School of Music at Converse College): From us, from all us, to all of us.

MONTAGNE: We all know, of course - there's Mozart, there's Beethoven. Give us a little musical perspective here. Where does Robert Schumann fit in.?

Prof. HOFFMAN: I'll tell you the image that I've thought about a number of times, Renee. The planet is about to explode and youve got an escape pod and you can only fit so much music on it, the music of three composers. Whose music do you choose? I think most music lovers would say, well, thats easy: Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

But my question is supposed they're not available and the only person whose music is available is Schumann's music. Would that be enough? Would that make a good impression on aliens? And would it present a complete picture of what humans have been able to accomplish with music? And I think the answer is yes.

MONTAGNE: That's an, you know, an interesting image, but I mean thats a powerful image.

Prof. HOFFMAN: But what am I talking about? What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HOFFMAN: Why do I say that? Yeah.

MONTAGNE: So it would be enough and why?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Because of so many things, Renee. Because of the depth, because of how well Schumann was able to capture the human spirit, and also in a vast range of works - all sorts of combinations per instruments per voice, for large forces, for small forces. There is an encyclopedic body of work.

(Soundbite of music, "Piano Quintet in Eb major: Scherzo Molto Vivace")

MONTAGNE: Why though, Miles, did he branch out so much? Why was his breadth so wide? I mean was it just because he could? Or...

Prof. HOFFMAN: All of his initial compositions were for piano. But then he did start branching out. And in fact, the first area where he branched out was in song. In the year 1840, he wrote I believe it was 168 songs.

MONTAGNE: Did he need to write songs? I mean, did he need to write different kinds of music because it would be a better way to make a living?

Prof. HOFFMAN: That is one thing - songs were easy to sell. People bought the songs, they sang them in their homes. Plus, Schumann was a literary man and he and his wife, Clara - we'll certainly talk about Clara. He and his wife collected poetry by the great poets of the time and they read them together. So there were lots of things that pushed him toward songwriting and he became one of the great songwriters ever.

(Soundbite of song, "Widmung")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

Prof. HOFFMAN: This is a song called "Widmung" or "Dedication." And it was part of a pre-wedding gift for Clara and it's essentially a love song.

(Soundbite of song, "Widmung")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: We have spoken of the romance and his life with Clara in other conversations at other times. It's one of the great musical love stories.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Indeed. Schumann first met Clara when she was probably about nine years old or so. And Clara grew up to be one of the great virtuoso pianists of the 19th century, really one of the greatest pianists ever. And it is a great love story. They had a wonderful domestic life, not an easy domestic life. They had eight children. Clara was sort of a modern woman in many ways, Renee, suffering the tension between a career and her home life, because it was very important to her to keep playing concerts and to tour and to keep practicing her art, as she said.

On the other hand, she was Schumann's wife. Schumann wanted her around - he hated it when she traveled. But she was very much his great muse and inspiration. And virtually everything he wrote for the piano, Clara would have been the first one to play. And there are things that he wrote specifically to show Clara off. I think, for example, of his piano quintet.

(Soundbite of music, "Piano Quintet in Eb major: Scherzo Molto Vivace")

MONTAGNE: Is it possible to say that if there had been no Clara, his muse, that we would not have as much of this music?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Oh, I think it's probable. And undoubtedly music would have been of a different character. I mean, he was inspired by this great love. Now, thats not to say that all his music was sweet, lovely love music. She inspired him on many, many levels. And I think she also encouraged him to expand his range. There is an entry in her diary where she wrote: It would be best if he composed for orchestra. His imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano. And she was very pleased that he did work at learning orchestration, and then he did write for orchestra and wrote very well.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: We've been talking about Schumann's life as being full of beauty and this great love for his wife. But he was also tormented and had psychological problems.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Oh, very definitely. He suffered from mental illness for most of his life. Some people say it was schizophrenia. Some people say it was a bipolar syndrome. It was terribly serious. He heard voices. He was tormented. He had hallucinations. Eventually, he threw himself from a bridge into the Rhine, and he spent the last two and a half years of his life in a sanatorium.

The cliche, unfortunately, Renee, is to somehow try to link genius and madness. We see great creators, we don't understand how they could be such geniuses, and we reduce them by saying somehow it's connected with madness. In fact, there's no explanation. Schumann's madness does not explain his genius any more than Chopin's tuberculosis explained Chopin's genius.

The truth is that Schumann composed despite his illness, and that's the true heroism. He was able - when he was lucid - to compose and to work very rapidly and to work magnificently.

MONTAGNE: And today is the 200th birthday of Robert Schumann.

Miles, it's been a pleasure having you guide us through just even a few minutes of Schumann's beautiful music.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is violist of the American Chamber Players and author of the NPR Classical Music Companion.


You can hear more special coverage of Robert Schumann and his music with concerts and studio sessions at our website,

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Deborah Amos.

INSKEEP: And Im Steve Inskeep.

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