Even now, 150 years after Schumann’s death in a mental hospital in Endenich, fresh views about the nature of his art are still appearing. His marriage to the pianist Clara Wieck dominates accounts of his life; mental illness, too, plays its appalling role. But Schumann was not only a turbulent genius; he was a forward-thinking intellectual, wielding a literary pen as sharp as his musical one, with which he championed younger composers, especially Brahms, and helped the reputation of others such as Chopin and Mozart. Fusing literary and musical thinking was central to his philosophy.
He was born in 1810 in Zwickau, the son of a publisher; initially he was torn between writing and composing. When he decided, despite early studies in law, to become a musician, he lodged with his piano teacher, Friederich Wieck, in Leipzig and there met Wieck’s small daughter, Clara, a child prodigy pianist. Schumann soon suffered a hand injury – the result, some said, of a contraption he had built to encourage independence of the fingers, but according to others a side effect of mercury poisoning after treatment for syphilis. Either way, a performing career was not a viable proposition. Clara was on hand to become Schumann’s pianistic amanuensis.
While Clara was still too young, Schumann was engaged to a girl named Ernestine von Fricken, whom he portrayed musically as ‘Estrella’ in Carnaval. But as Clara grew up, so did her relationship with Schumann. Herr Wieck can hardly be blamed for objecting: Schumann did not seem a suitable husband for a precious prodigy, with his reputation for dissolute living. Wieck did all he could to keep them apart, to no avail. Clara’s image returned constantly in Schumann’s compositions, as in the feverish G minor sonata. The pair took Wieck to court and won the right to marry, which they did the day before Clara’s 21st birthday in September 1840.
Their marriage was far from carefree. The pressures of managing two musical careers in a house with thin walls were difficult even before adding seven children. Schumann edited a musical journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he had founded in 1834, as well as composing prolifically and, on occasion, attempting to become a conductor. His greatest battles were against depression.
Schumann’s predilection for composing for one medium at a time has often been seen as a sign of unhealthy obsessiveness; but it could have been a means to deepen his understanding of a genre. First came piano music. His unprecedented piano cycles, such as Papillons Op. 2 (1829-31), Carnaval Op. 9 (1834-5), the Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6 (1837) and Kreisleriana Op. 16 (1838) were the musical equivalent of novels. Works drawing on his favourite writers, Jean-Paul Richter (Papillons) and ETA Hoffmann (Kreisleriana) followed episodes of their books. Schumann’s two contrasting alter-egos in fictionalised form were dominant characters at this time: ‘Florestan’, the extrovert, passionate self and ‘Eusebius’, the introverted, lyrical counterpart. They featured in his critical writings before finding their way into music.
In 1840, Schumann plunged into Lieder. Themes of love gained or thwarted, marriage, anticipation, loneliness and loss constantly appear, his chosen poets including Goethe, Eichendorff, Byron, Ruckert and the bitter-edged Heine, the poet of Schumann’s arguably greatest song-cycle, Dichterliebe, Op. 48. Two symphonies, the first version of what would become the Piano Concerto, and more songs appeared in 1841 and the following year Schumann turned to chamber music, producing three beautiful string quartets, the ebullient Piano Quintet and the Piano Quartet.
Schumann gradually abandoned his preference for working in one genre at a time, mingling the composition of intimate songs, piano pieces and chamber works with larger scale opuses. His four symphonies are fresh, personal statements ranging from a direct evocation of springtime in No. 1 (1841) through a virtual portrayal of manic depression in No. 2 (1845-6) – juxtaposing an anguished slow movement with a frenzied scherzo – and a powerful, Beethovenian striving against fate in No. 4 (written in 1841, revised ten years later). His ambitious choral works, including Scenes from Faust (1844-53) and the Requiem, Op. 148 (1852) are overshadowed by the equivalent works of Berlioz and Brahms.
His sole opera, Genoveva (1847-8), which suffers from weak libretto syndrome, has never entered the repertoire. Ironically, opera could have represented the fusion of literature and music; he dreamed of creating opera that would be ‘simple, profound, German,’ considering subjects such as Lohengrin and Till Eulenspiegel.
Schumann’s late music can be baffling. His Cello Concerto (1850) and Violin Concerto (1853) have been regarded as awkward, losing out to the popular Piano Concerto. These and works like the Gesänge der Fruhe for piano (1853) have been taken as indications of Schumann’s crumbling psyche: the music meanders and there is neither the élan of his early works nor the focused strength of his symphonies.
In 1853, the 20-year-old Brahms visited the Schumanns in Düsseldorf, carrying an introduction from violinist Joseph Joachim. Schumann and Clara were bowled over by his music. Soon Brahms was virtually part of the family. But five months later, Schumann attempted suicide, flinging himself into the Rhine. Was the timing coincidental? Could Schumann see his place as composer and, potentially, husband, being taken by a younger man?
Schumann, rescued, was sent at his own request to the asylum at Endenich. His death is now thought to have been the result of self-starvation. We’ll never know what Schumann could have achieved, given a different fate. But his musical legacy can be fully comprehended, not only for its beauty but also for its unfulfilled potential.