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Robert Schumann: Composer, Critic, & Correspondent

schumann exhibit poster

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On June 8, 2010, the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann. A central figure in the romantic movement in music, Schumann still ranks among the most frequently performed composers, thanks to his piano pieces, songs, symphonies, and piano concerto. Like Hector Berlioz and Virgil Thomson, he was as well known in his own day for his work as a music critic as for his compositions. His complex and sometimes troubled personality, his marriage to the pianist Clara Wieck, and their subsequent connections with Brahms make him one of the most vivid characters in the annals of music history.

Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony, in 1810. His father was an author, translator, and book seller, and from an early age Robert evinced what proved to be a lifelong passion for literature. As a boy he studied piano, flute, and cello and began composing, though he was not initially committed to a musical career. He attended the universities of Leipzig and Heidelberg, ostensibly working towards a degree in law, but he devoted himself instead to music, literature, and philosophy, as well as the more usual adolescent pursuits; his friends later reported that he skipped all his classes. In 1828 Schumann took his first lessons with the renowned piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, and in 1830 he persuaded his mother to let him try for a career as a keyboard virtuoso, and moved into Wieck’s house in Leipzig for a regime of daily instruction and intensive practice. Schumann’s pianistic ambitions were eventually thwarted by a myste­rious disorder with his right hand, but his time with Wieck proved fateful in another respect, as he came to know Wieck’s daughter Clara (1819–1896), who was already a piano prodigy. In 1835 they fell in love, but they had to wait five years before they could marry because of a long legal battle with her father, who considered Schumann an unfit husband for his daughter.

Over the course of the 1830s Schumann became known as a creative and somewhat eccentric composer. During this period he concentrated chiefly on piano music, especially short character pieces, many of them gathered into large sets, such as Papillons, Davidsbündlertänze, and Carnaval. These compositions are full of allusions and flights of fancy, and they often transform hackneyed popular genres into something intensely personal and poetic. In 1840, the year he married Clara, Schumann abruptly switched his focus to the voice, composing more than a hundred songs, including many enduring classics, such as the song cycle Dichterliebe. The next year, he turned his attention to the orchestra, with the composition of two symphonies and the first version of his piano concerto. He continued his exploration of genres in the following years, composing a variety of chamber works in 1842 and the oratorio Paradies und die Peri in 1843. These and later works—including more symphonies, concertos, and songs, as well as the opera Genoveva—helped cement Schumann’s reputation as one of the major composers of the century.

Schumann was famous for more than just his compositions; he was also the most important German music critic of his generation. He published his first article in 1831 (acclaiming the genius of the young Chopin), and in 1834 he founded an influential journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he edited until 1845. He had a vivid prose style, and his reviews often featured discussions between fictional characters who expressed different sides of his own multi-faceted personality.

In 1844 the Schumanns left Leipzig for Dresden, and in 1850 they moved to Düsseldorf, where Robert became the music director. Unfortunately, his record as a conductor was not always successful, and after a number of disputes, he resigned in 1853. That same year Johannes Brahms visited Düsseldorf, and quickly became friends with both Robert and Clara. Profoundly impressed by the young man’s compositions, Robert wrote a celebrated article that hailed Brahms as a genius and proclaimed him heir to the legacy of Beethoven.

Schumann suffered intermittently from psychiatric troubles throughout his adult life, and in 1854 he attempted suicide. He was voluntarily confined to a hospital in Endenich, but his mental and physical condition deteriorated further, and he died there on July 29, 1856.

During her marriage, Clara had cut back on her concert schedule because of the challenges of raising a large family as well as Robert’s anxiety about being in his wife’s shadow. After his death she resumed her career as a traveling virtuoso, and for the next four decades she was universally regarded as one of the world’s leading pianists. She was also an important advocate for her husband’s music (which she edited) as well as that of her friend Brahms. For most of the twentieth century she was remembered only as a brilliant pianist who had close ties to two great composers, but in recent years many of her own works have been revived with success.

Our exhibit focuses particularly on Robert Schumann the composer, featuring the manuscript of the song “Resignation” (Op. 83, no. 1), sketches for the Études symphoniques, and the handwritten title page of Paradies und die Peri, as well as several early printed editions. Schumann the critic is represented by his famous articles about Chopin and Brahms. The library holds numerous letters by each of the Schumanns, and from these we have selected three by Robert and two by Clara. Clara Schumann the composer is represented by a recently acquired manuscript of four piano studies, along with a published song. We are also proud to display the manuscript of an early version Brahms’s “Capriccio,” Op. 76, no. 1, which he gave to Clara in 1871, as well as a sketch for Charles Ives’s setting of “Ich grolle nicht,” a poem made famous by Robert Schumann’s setting in Dichterliebe.

--Richard Boursy, Archivist

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Web design by Rémi Castonguay.
Special thanks to: Suzanne Borsch, Rémi Castonguay, Emily Ferrigno, Eva Heater, Suzanne Lovejoy, Niloufer Moochhala, and Oliver Schowalter-Hay for their help with this exhibit.
Poster design by Niloufer Moochhala