Masters Of Music - Robert Schumann
( Originally Published 1922 )
MANY of the composers whose life stories we have read were surrounded by musical atmosphere from their earliest years; Robert Schumann seems to have been an exception. His father, August Schumann, was the son of a poor pastor, and the boy August was intended to be brought up a merchant. At the age of fifteen he was put into a store in Nonneburg. He was refined in his tastes, loved books, and tried even in boyhood to write poetry. He seemed des-tined, however, to live the life marked out for him, at least for a time. It grew so distasteful, that later he gave it up and, on account of extreme poverty, returned to his parents' home, where he had the leisure to write. At last he secured a position in a book store in Zeitz. In this little town he met the daughter of his employer. The engagement was allowed on the condition that he should leave the book store and set up his own business. But where was the money to come from? He left the store, returned home and in a year and a half had earned a thousand thalers, then quite a handsome sum.
He now claimed the hand of his chosen love and established in the book business, labored so unceasingly, that the business increased. Then he moved to a more favorable location, choosing the mining town of Zwickau, in Saxony.
Here, this industrious, honorable man and his attractive, intelligent, but rather narrow and uneducated young wife lived out their lives, and brought up their children, of whom Robert, born June 8, 1810, was the youngest; before him there were three brothers and a sister. All passed away before Robert himself.
He was the so-called "handsome child" of the family, and much petted by the women. Be-sides his mother there was his god-mother, who was very fond of him, and at her home he would spend whole days and nights. As his talents developed, the boy became the spoilt darling of everybody. This lay at the foundation of his extreme susceptibility, even the obstinacy of his riper years.
Little Robert at six was sent to a popular private school and now for the first time mingled with a number of children of his own age. The first symptoms of ambition, the source of much of his later achievement, began to show itself, though quite unconsciously. It made him the life of all childish games. If the children played "soldiers," little Robert was always captain.
The others loved his good nature and friendliness, and always yielded to him.
He was a good student in the primary school, but in no way distinguished himself in his studies. The following year he was allowed to take piano lessons of an old pedantic professor from Zwickau High School. This man had taught himself music, but had heard little of it. The kind of instruction he was able to give may be imagined, yet Robert was faithful all his life to this kind old friend.
In spite of inadequate guidance, music soon kindled the boy's soul. He began to try to make music himself, though entirely ignorant of the rules of composition. The first of these efforts, a set of little dances, were written during his seventh or eighth year. It was soon discovered that he could improvise on the piano; indeed he could sketch the disposition of his companions by certain figures on the piano, so exactly and comically that every one burst out laughing at the portraits. He was fond of reading too, much to his father's delight, and early tried his hand at authorship. He wrote robber plays, which he staged with the aid of the family and such of his youthful friends as were qualified. The father now began to hope his favorite son would become an author or poet; but later Robert's increasing love for music put this hope to flight.
The father happened to take his boy with him to Carlsbad in the summer of 1819, and here he heard for the first time a great pianist, Ignatz Moscheles. His masterful playing made a great impression on the nine year old enthusiast, who began now to wish to become a musician, and applied himself to music with redoubled zeal. He also made such good progress at school that at Easter 1820 he was able to enter the Zwickau Academy.
The love for music grew with each day. With a boy of his own age, as devoted as himself to music, four-hand works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, as well as pieces by Weber, Hummel and Czerny, were played almost daily. The greatest ecstasy was caused by the arrival of a Steck piano at the Schumann home, which showed that father Schumann endeavored to further his boy's taste for music. About this time Robert found by chance, the orchestral score of an old Italian overture. He conceived the bold idea of performing it. So a bit of an orchestra was gathered among the boys he knew, who could play an instrument. There were two violins, two flutes, a clarinet and two horns. Robert, who conducted with great fervor, supplied as best he could the other parts on the piano.
This effort was a great incentive to the boys, principally to Robert, who began to arrange things for his little band and composed music for the one hundred fiftieth Psalm. This was in his twelfth year.
August Schumann was more and more convinced that Providence had intended his son to become a musician, and though the mother struggled against it, he resolved to see that Robert had a musical education. Carl Maria von Weber, then living in Dresden, was written to, and answered he was willing to accept the boy as a student. The plan never came to anything how-ever, for what reason is not known. The boy was left now to direct his own musical studies, just when he needed an expert guiding hand. He had no rivals in his native town, where he sometimes appeared as a pianist. It was no wonder he thought he was on the right road, and that he tried more than ever to win his mother's consent to his following music as a life work.
And now a great change took place in the lively, fun-loving boy. He seemed to lose his gay spirits and become reflective, silent and reserved. This condition of mind never left him, but grew into a deeper reserve as the years passed.
Two events deeply stirred Robert's nature with great force—the death of his father in 1826, and his acquaintance with the works of Jean Paul. The Jean Paul fever attacked him in all its transcendentalism, and this influence remained through life, with more or less intensity.
After his father left him, Robert found he must make a choice of a profession. His mother had set her heart on his making a study of law, while his heart was set on music. Yielding to her wishes for a time he went to Leipsic in March 1828 to prepare to enter the University as a student of law. He also gained consent to study piano at the same time, and began lessons with Frederick Wieck. The desire to study with Wieck was inspired by the piano playing of his little daughter, Clara, then nine years old, who had already gained a considerable degree of musical culture and promised to make her mark as a pianist.
Under his new teacher, Robert for the first time was obliged to study a rational system of technic and tone production. He was also expected to learn harmony correctly, but strangely enough he seemed to take no interest in it, even saying he thought such knowledge useless. He held to this foolish idea for some time, not giving it up till forced to by realizing his total ignorance of this branch of the art.
Robert now became greatly impressed by the genius of Franz Schubert. He eagerly played everything the master had composed for the piano, both for two and four hands, and Schubert's death during this year, filled him with profound grief. The young musical friends with whom Robert had become intimate, while living in Leipsic, shared his enthusiasm about his hero of German song, and they desired to enlarge their knowledge of Schubert's work. They did more, for they decided to take one representative composition and practise together till they had reached the highest perfection. The choice fell on the Trio in B flat major, Op. 99, whose beauties had greatly impressed them. After much loving labor the performance was well nigh perfect. Schumann arranged a musical party at which the Trio was played. Besides students and friends, Wieck was invited and given the seat of honor.
This musical-evening was the forerunner of many others. Weekly meetings were held in Robert's room, where much music was played and discussed. The talk often turned to grand old Bach and his "Well-tempered Clavichord," to which in those early days, he gave ardent study.
With all this music study and intercourse with musical friends there was very little time left for the study of law. Yet he still kept up appearances by attending the lectures, and had intended for some months to enter the Heidelberg University. This decision was put into execution in May 1829, when he started by coach for Heidelberg.
We find Robert Schumann at nineteen domiciled in the beautiful city of Heidelberg, and surrounded by a few musical friends, who were kindred spirits. With a good piano in his room, the "life of flowers," as he called it, began. Al-most daily they made delightful trips in a one-horse carriage into the suburbs. For longer trips they went to Baden-Baden, Wurms, Spires and Mannheim. Whenever Robert went with his friends he always carried a small "dumb piano" on which he industriously practised finger exercises, meanwhile joining in the conversation. During the following August and September, Robert and two or three chosen companions made a delightful journey through Italy, the young man preparing himself by studying Latin, in which he became so fluent that he could translate poems from one language to the other.
The next winter Robert devoted himself to music more than ever—"played the piano much," as he says. His skill as a pianist gradually became known in Heidelberg and he frequently played in private houses. But he was not content with the regular study of the piano. He wanted to get ahead faster and invented some sort of a device to render his fourth finger more firm and supple. It did not have the desired effect however, but was the means in time of injuring his hands so that he never could attain the piano virtuosity he dreamed of.
Before starting on the trip to Italy just mentioned, he felt that a decision must be reached about his music. It had become as the breath of life to him. He wrote his mother and laid bare his heart to her. "My whole life has been a twenty years struggle between poetry and prose, or let us say—between music and law. If I follow my own bent, it points, as I believe correctly, to music. Write yourself to Wieck at Leipsic and ask him frankly what he thinks of me and my plan. Beg him to answer at once and decisively." The letter was duly written to Wieck, who decided in favor of Robert and his plans.
Robert on hearing his decision was wild with joy. He wrote an exuberant letter to Wieck promising to be most submissive as a piano pupil and saying "whole pailfuls of very very cold theory can do me no harm and I will work at it without a murmur. I give myself up wholly to you."
With a heart full of hope, young Schumann returned to Leipsic, which he had gladly left more than a year before. It was during this early resumption of piano lessons with Wieck that he began the treatment which he thought would advance his technic in such a marvelously short time. He fastened his third finger into a machine, of his own invention, then practised unceasingly with the other four. At last he lost control over the muscles of the right hand, to his great distress. He now practised unremittingly with the left hand, which gained great facility, remarkable long after he had given up piano playing.
Under these difficulties piano lessons with Wieck had to be given up and were never resumed. He studied theory for a short time with Kupach, but soon relinquished this also. He was now free to direct his own path in music and to study—study, and compose.
One of the first pieces he wrote was "The Papillons"—"Butterflies,"—published as Op. 2. It was dedicated to his three sisters-in-law, of all of whom he was very fond. In the various scenes of the Butterflies there are allusions to persons and places known to the composer; the whimsical spirit of Jean Paul broods over the whole.
Robert began to realize more and more his lack of thorough theoretical knowledge and applied to Dorn, who stood high in the musical profession in Leipsic. On his introduction, in spite of his lame hand he played his "Abegg Variations," published as Op. 1, and Dorn was willing to accept the timid quiet youth as pupil. He studied with great ardor, going from the A. B. C. to the most involved counterpoint.
Thus passed two or three busy years. Part of the time Schumann had a room in the house of his teacher Wieck and thus was thrown more or less in the society of Clara Wieck, now a young girl of thirteen or fourteen. Later he gave up his room—though not his intimate relations with the family—and moved to a summer residence in Riedel's Garden, where he spent the days in music and the evenings with his friends.
The year 1833, was one of the most remarkable in his life so far. Not the least important event was the establishment of the "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik." Schumann himself says of this:
"At the close of the year '33, a number of musicians, mostly young, met in Leipsic every evening, apparently by accident at first, but really for the-interchange of ideas on all musical subjects. One day the young hot heads ex-claimed: `Why do we look idly on? Let's take hold and make things better.' Thus the new Journal for music began.
"The youthful, fresh and fiery tone of the Journal is to be in sharp contrast to the characterless, worn-out Leipsic criticism. The elevation of German taste, the encouragement of young talent must be our goal. We write not to enrich tradespeople, but to honor artists."
Schumann took up arms favor of the younger generation of musicians and helped make the fame of many now held in the world's highest esteem. Sometimes, he admits, his ardor carried him too far in recognition of youthful talent, but in the main he was very just in his estimates. We do not forget how his quick commendation aided Brahms.
The young musicians who founded the paper had formed themselves also into an alliance, which they called the Davidsbundlerschaft. The idea of this alliance, which was derived from David's war with the Philistines, seemed to exist only in the mind of Schumann himself. It gave him a chance to write under the name of different characters, chief of whom were Florestan and Eusebius, between whom stood Master Raro. In Florestan Schumann expressed the powerful, passionate side of his nature, and in Eusebius the mild and dreamy side.
He wrote to a friend : "Florestan and Eusebius are my double nature, which I would gladly—like Raro—melt down into one man." As time passed however, he made less and less use of these fanciful images until they finally seemed to fade out of his mind.
An important event of 1834, was Schumann's acquaintance with Ernestine von Fricken, who came to Leipsic from the little town of Asch, on the Bohemian border. She lived at the Wiecks', expecting to become a pianist under Papa Wieck's tuition. Schumann became greatly interested in Ernestine and for some time he had in mind an engagement with her. The noble "Etudes Symphoniques" were written this year. The theme was suggested by Ernestine's father. The "Carnival" was partly written in this year, but not completed till the following year. In this collection of charming short pieces he brings in the characters of his dreams,—Florestan, Eusebius, Chiarina (Clara), Estrella (Ernestine). There is the March against the Philistines, and the titles of many other of the little pieces are characteristic. It is a true Schumann composition, full of his traits. Here we have the sweet, graceful, elegant and the very humorous and comical finale.
The tone creations of 1835 consist of the two Sonatas, F sharp minor, Op. 11 and G minor, Op. 22, which are held by pianists to be among his most interesting and poetical works.
By the next year Schumann had suffered a deep sorrow in the loss of his mother, and also his love for Ernestine began to cool, until the partial bond was amicably dissolved. Meanwhile his affection for Clara Wieck, who was just budding into womanhood, began to ripen into devoted love. This, too, was the beginning of the long struggle for the possession of his beloved, since the father had opposed such a connection from beginning to end. Schumann wrote a friend in 1839: "Truly from the struggle Clara has cost me, much music has been caused and created; the Concerto, Sonatas, Davids bündler Dances, Kreisleriana and Novellettes are the result." Beyond the compositions just mentioned, he relieved his oppressed heart by a composition rich in meaning—nothing less than the great Fantaisie, Op. 17. He meant to con-tribute the profits from its sale to the fund for the erection of a monument to Beethoven. The titles to the three movements were "Ruins," "Triumphal Arch," "Starry Crown." He afterwards gave up the whole idea, and dedicated the work to Franz Liszt.
Schumann lived a quiet, busy life, and if he could have gained the consent of Clara's father for their union, he would have been supremely happy. He feared the principal reason of Wieck's refusal was that the young man should earn more money first, before thinking of settling down with a wife. Robert therefore reverted more seriously to a plan he had thought of, to go to Vienna, and move his paper to that city, hoping to better his fortunes. He felt, too, that he ought to travel, as he had remained in Leipsic for eight years without change.
Thus, by the end of September, 1838, Schumann started for Vienna with many high hopes. A friend invited him to remain at his house, which was of much advantage. He made many calls and visits, saw musicians and publishers, and really learned to know the city for itself. He found it would not be profitable for him to publish the Journal there, also that the Austrian capital was a no more propitious place to make one's fortune than the smaller town of Leipsic. However he was able to compose a number of works which have become among the best known and beloved of all, including the "Arabesque," "Faschingsschwank," or "Carnival Strains from Vienna," the "Night Pieces," Op. 24, and other short compositions.
When Robert discovered Vienna was not the city to prosper in, he thought of a return to Leipsic, to win his bride. He came back in April, and succeeded, with the help of legal proceedings, in securing Clara's hand in marriage. This was in 1840. ,From now on Schumann began to write songs. In this one year he composed as many as a hundred and thirty-eight songs, both large and small. He writes at this time: "The best way to cultivate a taste for melody, is to write a great deal for the voice and for independent chorus."
He now began to express himself not only in song but in orchestral music. His first effort was the beautiful B flat major Symphony, which, with the songs of that time seems to embody all the happiness he enjoyed in winning his Clara. She proved a most admirable helpmate, trying to shield him from interruptions and annoyance of every sort, so he should have his time undisturbed for his work. Thus many of his best compositions came into being in the early years of wedded happiness.
This retirement was interrupted in 1844, by a long concert tour planned by Clara. She was firmly decided to go and made Robert solemnly promise to ,accompany her to St. Petersburg. He was loath to leave the quiet he loved, but it had to be done. Clara had great success everywhere, as a pianist, giving many recitals during their travels from place to place. From Russia the artist pair went to Helsingfors, Stockholm and Copenhagen. They started on their tour in January and did not reach home till the first of June.
Schumann now seemed to lose interest in the Journal and expressed a wish to withdraw from it and live only for his creative art. An alarming state of health—both mind and body-seemed to make this retirement desirable. Perhaps owing to this condition of health he decided to leave Leipsic for good and make his home in Dresden. He and his wife took formal leave of Leipsic in a Matinée musical given on the eighth of December.
But life in Dresden became even more strenuous and more racking than it had been in Leipsic. He threw himself into the labor of composing the epilogue of Goethe's "Faust" with such ardor that he fell into an intensely nervous state where work was impossible. However, with special medical treatment he so far recovered that he was able to resume the work, but still was not himself. We can divine from brief remarks he let drop from time to time, that he lived in constant fear—fear of death, insanity or disaster of some kind. He could not bear the sight of Sonnenstein, an insane asylum near Dresden. Mendelssohn's sudden death in November, 1847, was a great shock and preyed on his mind.
Schumann had intervals of reprieve from these morbid dreams, and he again began to compose with renewed—almost abnormal—vigor and productiveness.
The artist pair took a trip to Vienna where Clara gave several concerts. They spent some weeks there and before returning to Dresden, gave two splendid concerts in Prague, where Schumann received a perfect ovation for his piano quintette and some songs. A little later the two artists made a trip north. In Berlin Robert conducted a performance of "Paradise and the Peri" at the Singakademie, while Clara gave two recitals.
This year of 1847 was a very active one out-side of the musical journeys. The master composed several piano trios, much choral music, and began the opera "Genevieve," which was not completed however, until the middle of 1848. All the compositions of the previous year were perfectly lucid and sane. The opera unfortunately had a text from which all the beauty and romance had been left out.
The music, however, revealed a rare quality of creative power, combined with deep and noble feeling. Schumann's nature was more lyric than dramatic; he was not born to write for the stage. The lyric portions of his opera are much the best. He did not realize that he failed on the dramatic side in his work, indeed seemed quite unconscious of the fact.
"Genevieve" was given in Leipsic in June 1850, directed by the composer. Two more performances were given and then the work was laid away.
In 1848, Schumann, who loved children dearly and often stopped his more serious work to write for them, composed the "Album for the Young," Op. 68, a set of forty-two pieces. The title originally was : "Christmas Album for Children who like to play the Piano." How many children, from that day to this have loved those little pieces, the "Happy Farmer," "Wild Rider," "First Loss," "Reaper's Song," and all the rest. Even the great pianists of our time are not above performing these little classics in public. They are a gift, unique in musical literature, often imitated, but never equaled by other writers. Schumann wrote of them: "The first thing in the Album I wrote for my oldest child's birthday.
It seems as if I were beginning my life as a composer anew, and there are traces of the old human here and there. They are decidedly different from `Scenes from Childhood' which are retrospective glances by a parent, and for elders, while 'Album for the Young' contains hopes, presentments and peeps into futurity for the young."
After the children's Album came the music to Byron's "Manfred." This consists of an overture and fifteen numbers. The whole work, with one exception, is deep in thought and masterly in conception. The overture especially is one of his finest productions, surpassing other orchestral works in intellectual grandeur.
A choral club of sixty-seven members, of which Schumann was the director, inspired him to compose considerable choral music, and his compositions of this time, 1848-9, were numerous.
The intense creative activity of 1849 was followed by a period of rest when the artist pair made two trips from Dresden, early in 1850. Leipsic, Bremen, and Hamburg were visited. Most of the time in Hamburg was spent with Jenny Lind, who sang at his last two concerts.
The late summer of 1850 brought Schumann an appointment of director of music in Dusseldorf, left vacant by the departure of Ferdinand Hiller for Cologne. Schumann and his wife went to Düsseldorf the first week of September and were received with open arms. A banquet and concert were arranged, at which some of the composer's important works were performed. His duties in the new post were conducting the subscription concerts, weekly rehearsals of the Choral Club and other musical performances. He seemed well content with the situation and it did not require too much of his physical strength.
Outside of his official duties his passion for work again gained the ascendent. From November 2, to December 9, he sketched and completed the Symphony in E flat in five parts, a great work, equal to any of the other works in this form.
From this time on, one important composition followed another, until increasing illness forshadowed the sad catastrophe of the early part of 1854. He wrote in June 1851, "we are all tolerably well, except that I am the victim of occasional nervous attacks; a few days ago I fainted after hearing Radecke play the organ." These nervous attacks increased in 1852. He could not think music in rapid tempo and wished everything slow. He heard special tones to the exclusion of all others.
The close of 1853, brought two joyful events to Schumann. In October he met Johann Brahms, whom he had introduced to the world, through his Journal, as the "Messiah of Art." In November he and his wife took a trip through Holland, which was a triumphal procession. He found his music almost as well known in Holland as at home. In Rotterdam and Utrecht his third symphony was. performed ; in The Hague the second was given, also "The Pilgrimage of the Rose." Clara also played at many concerts.
Just before Christmas the artist pair returned to Düsseldorf.
The hallucinations which had before obsessed him now returned with alarming force. He could no longer sleep—he seemed to be lost in mental darkness.
One day in Febuary 1854, his physician made a noon call upon him. They sat chatting when suddenly Schumann left the room without a word. The doctor and his friends supposed he would return. His wife went in search of him. It seems he had left the house in dressing-gown, gone to the Rhine bridge and thrown himself into the river. Some sailors rescued him.
He now received constant care, and it was found best to place him in a private hospital near Bonn. Here he remained till the end of July, 1856, when the end came.
In his death the world of music lost one of the most highly gifted spirits. His life was important and instructive for its moral and intellectual grandeur, its struggles for the noblest, loftiest subjects as well as for its truly great results.