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has not nature been more kind to him? Why has not one so deserving been
spared the saddest of all fates? Perhaps it was to make his memory still
dearer to us, to increase our veneration for him so that even weaknesses
or errors in his life or works elicit from us an honest sympathy, which
increases whenever we read his many published letters or the story of his
life as told by able and sympathetic writers like Wasielewski, Spitta,
Reissmann, and others.

Robert Schumann was born on the 8th of June, 1810, in the town of Zwickau,
Saxony. Neither his birthplace, nor his ancestry, were such as to favor
an early development of his musical talent. His father, August Schumann,
son of a minister, had, after a long struggle between business and poetry,
finally entered into partnership with a brother as a bookseller, and
became widely known as a publisher of valuable books and magazines, and
besides as an author. He had a particular fondness for English poets,
such as Milton, Scott, and Byron, whose "Beppo" and "Childe Harold" he
translated into German. He was a self-made man, who owed all his success
to his own untiring energy. His wife, Johanna Christiana Schnabel, whom
he won only after a severe struggle, was the daughter of the town-surgeon
in Zeitz; she is described as an agreeable lady, of kind disposition,
deep feeling and a certain romantic sentimentality, which was also a
conspicuous feature of Robert's nature. Her loving care and motherly
anxiety for her son is well known to all readers of young Schumann's

Robert was the youngest of five children. His older brothers entered upon
a business career, and his only sister died in her twentieth year in a
state of incurable melancholy. The handsome little boy was petted by
everybody and much surrounded by women. He received his education first
in a popular private school, later in the public schools, receiving piano
instruction from a school teacher, Baccalaureus Kuntzsch, when only six
years old. Kuntzsch, who was not a professional musician, at least taught
him the most indispensable elements and was held in highest esteem by
Schumann till his death. Little Robert early showed a disposition to lead
his playmates. One particular friend was chosen to assist in four-hand
pieces and a small boys' orchestra was even formed, which Robert directed
and for which he made his first efforts as a composer, without having
had any theoretical instruction. There were overtures, even operatic
sketches, and especially a setting of the 150th psalm for chorus and
orchestra, written in Schumann's twelfth year. He also showed a rare
skill in improvising on the pianoforte, trying to portray certain persons
or dispositions. In public he played the accompaniment of Schneider's
oratorio "The Day of Judgment." He was very fond of poetry and private
theatricals, but his love of music, which was rapidly increasing,
surpassed everything else. This was particularly noticeable after the
summer of 1819, when he attended a concert given by Moscheles in Carlsbad.
The father had now become convinced that Providence intended Robert for
a musician, and notwithstanding all the violent objections on the part
of his wife, who foresaw nothing but a career full of deprivations, he
applied to Carl Maria von Weber, in Dresden, as a teacher for his son.
Weber consented to accept Robert as a pupil, but for unknown reasons the
excellent plan was abandoned and the boy's golden opportunity was lost.
In spite of this neglect of early and well directed training (which may
explain why his first compositions were so original in character and
style), Schumann instinctively kept steadily on in the right path, a fact
that greatly increases our admiration for him. Thus he pursued his musical
studies at home, besides reading as much as possible, and helping his
father in his compilations and translations. But already then he began to
grow more and more reserved and reflective, loving to be alone, in a world
of imagination and dreams. That great romanticist and humorist Jean Paul
Friedrich Richter had completely enchanted him; he knew his novels almost
by heart and never ceased to adore him as the richest source for his own

In 1826 Schumann met with a severe loss in the death of his father,
who left the responsibility of the lad's future in the hands of his
mother and his guardian, the merchant Rudel. They wished him to learn
some profession that would promise a safe position early in life, and
obediently submitting, he was inscribed as a law student at the university
of Leipsic. Before this he had graduated brilliantly from the Zwickau
Academy and had made a trip to Southern Germany with a friend, visiting,
among other places, Bayreuth, where he stopped at Jean Paul's home, and
Munich, where he met Heinrich Heine.


From an engraving by A. Krausse, in Leipsic.]

The young law student had not been long in Leipsic, when he began to
thoroughly dislike the chosen profession as well as the noisy student
life. To the enthusiastic admirer of Beethoven, Schubert, Jean Paul and
Shakespeare the law seemed utterly dry and uninteresting. However he
promised his guardian that he would pursue his legal studies, although
strong signs of a melancholy disposition had begun to make their
appearance. He joined some students' societies, but preferred the company
of a few friends who were also much given to musical and poetic dreamings.
In the house of Professor Carus, whose wife was a clever singer, his
musical penchant found all desired satisfaction; here he met Marschner
and Friedrich Wieck, the eminent piano teacher, father of that wonderful
little Clara who, then nine years old, had already become famous as a
piano-player of rare ability. With his mother's consent Schumann became
Wieck's pupil, enjoying at last a rational method of technical education,
though still neglecting and even despising all theoretical studies. In
February, 1829, Wieck's instruction ended, Schumann gaining more time
for ensemble playing. Beethoven's and Prince Louis Ferdinand's chamber
compositions were frequently rendered, but especially the works of Franz
Schubert, whose early death in the preceding year had impressed Schumann
very deeply. Bach's "Well-tempered Clavichord" never left his piano. Happy
in extemporizing all kinds of new melodies and harmonies, controlled only
by his musical instinct, he wrote a number of songs and piano pieces,
and even a pianoforte quartet, none of which have ever been published.
The law lectures he neglected, but was much interested in those on the
great German philosophers Kant, Fichte and Schelling. The next year he
spent in Heidelberg, that romantic old town so beautifully situated in
the neighborhood of Switzerland and Italy. Here Schumann met the eminent
pandectist Thibaut; but even this great professor was unable to overcome
the student's aversion for the legal profession. Again music became the
centre of his existence. Life was charming, the time being much occupied
by social events and trips which were made to the neighboring towns and
valleys. On these occasions Schumann used to practice on a dumb piano
even when riding in a carriage. In the fall he enjoyed a delightful trip
to Switzerland and upper Italy, and the spirit in which he describes his
impressions, changing from wit or rapture into melancholy, from admiration
into home-sickness, is very characteristic of his peculiar nature. The
stay in Heidleberg was prolonged for another term, which, however, was
again mainly devoted to piano study and composition, it being here that
he composed his first piano pieces. His skill being widely known, he was
often invited to parties, appearing also in a public concert, where he
played variations by Moscheles. The struggle between filial obedience and
loyalty to his genius had now reached its climax. At a concert given by
Paganini in Frankfort, he was deeply impressed, and resolved to live no
longer in uncertainty. Accordingly in July, 1830, he sent his mother that
famous letter in which he pleads that his future must be devoted to art,
and offers to submit unreservedly to the decision of Wieck. To his immense
delight the latter's advice was favorable and removed all doubts and
objections. Thus Schumann returned to Leipsic as an enthusiastic student
of his beloved art.

[Illustration: From a portrait taken in 1831, Schumann being then in his
twenty-first year. During this year he wrote his opus 2 - "Papillons."]

Of the four ways in which a musician may shape his practical career,
teaching, conducting, playing and composing, Schumann chose the last
two as being most congenial to him, aiming particularly at the greatest
possible virtuosity. He devoted himself to mechanical exercises with an
almost sacred energy, even inventing devices to promote his abilities in
shorter time than a natural development would allow. At the same time
he continued composing, and though having no thorough instruction, he
found by his wonderful instinct an adequate form for the expression of
his feelings and ideas, a form which could not be called unmusical or
amateurish. Indeed in looking to-day at these earlier compositions, we
forget that they were written by a man who was only half educated in
music, and we admire the genius which guided him in finding the truest
language for his rich musical nature. But this was not all. His highly
cultivated mind, his desire to promote art by every possible means,
compelled him to become also a leading literary champion of its interests.
Leipsic was at that time a great musical centre, although the famous
epoch only began in 1835, when Mendelssohn was appointed conductor of the
Gewandhaus Orchestra.

[Illustration: CLARA SCHUMANN.

From an engraving by Weger after a photograph.]

Before this, however, Schumann had to experience a sad disappointment. A
gradually increasing lameness of the middle finger of the right hand (a
consequence of his mechanical contrivances) spoiled every hope of his
becoming a virtuoso. In spite of this new obstacle he devoted himself
only the more to composition, and feeling sadly the lack of the necessary
theoretical instruction, applied to Dorn, conductor of the opera, for
lessons. During the winter 1832-33 he stayed with his family in Zwickau,
where, in a concert given by Clara Wieck, he conducted the first movement
of an unpublished symphony in G minor.

Schumann was fortunate in being so well situated pecuniarily that he was
not obliged to earn his living during the years of the development of his
genius. After his return to Leipsic he studied in private, surrounding
himself with a few talented friends. Not content with their own mutual
instruction in the spirit and beauty of old masterworks, and the
enthusiastic appreciation of the productions of younger composers; firmly
believing in the possibility of a new and brilliant epoch of musical art,
these young men desired to do all in their power to realize their hopes.
In pursuance of this idea they started a magazine, "Die neue Zeitschrift
für Musik," which for many years was destined to exercise a wide influence
in Germany. Its principal mission was to plead for a more poetic
conception of music, and this cause was presented in an entirely new
poetic language. Poetry and prose, reality and fiction were combined in a
very ingenious manner. A society of Davidites was founded, more in fiction
than reality, not confined to a circle of enthusiasts, but comprising all
the old masters as well as those then living, Mozart and Bach as well as
Berlioz, Chopin and Mendelssohn. All writers of meaningless trivialities
or dry, unpoetic formalities were attacked as "Philistines." In a similar
way Schumann combined fiction and reality in this literary occupation by
substituting for his own individuality three different characters, to
personify the different sides of his nature, Florestan representing all
that was passionate, manly, energetic; Eusebius embracing all that was
sweet, tender or imaginative; with the more objective, experienced and
reconciling figure of old Raro, acting as moderator of both. Some years
before this paper was started, Schumann had made his literary debut by
contributions to other magazines, his first work, when he was twenty-one
years old, being that glorious article on Chopin's opus 2, giving a most
poetic record of the feeling which the music of the rising genius had
awakened within him. His own paper made its first appearance in April,
1834, and Schumann, who soon became its sole editor and proprietor, kept
this position until 1844, when he took up his residence in Dresden. That
small portion of his time which was unoccupied with journalistic work, was
devoted to composing, the fruits being a number of piano works of striking
originality and of a great variety of moods and forms.

[Illustration: In German A flat is As, B natural is H, and E flat is Es.]

Although Schumann's musical and literary occupations laid strong claim to
his time and attention, yet much of his interest was absorbed by affairs
of a private nature. For years he had watched closely the development of
Clara Wieck; but warm as his feelings were for her, there was another
young woman who for a while took possession of his heart, Ernestine von
Fricken, daughter of a Bohemian baron from Asch, a name made famous
through Schumann's "Carnival scenes," which are mostly based on the four
notes corresponding with the letters of that town (also the only musical
letters in his own name). This engagement was, however, broken in 1835,
and the following years, so rich in musical and literary productions, were
also marked by a continuous struggle for that wonderful artist, Clara
Wieck, whose name was to become inseparably united with his own. Not only
from his letters, but also from many compositions, we learn the extent of
Schumann's sufferings from Wieck's obstinate refusal to give his daughter
to one who had not yet gained a safe position and who was so far known
more as a critic than as a composer. Schumann tried everything to improve
his position, publishing his paper for a while in Vienna but without
finding the desired success, and, after his return to Leipsic, procuring
from the university of Jena the honorary degree of doctor of philosophy,
on the ground of his writings and efforts in the interest of art. His
stay in Vienna was not without influence on his future development as
a composer, and it had, besides this, the great result of bringing to
light some of Schubert's finest compositions, especially the symphony
in C, which Schumann not only sent at once to Mendelssohn for its first
glorious performance, but presented to the world in all its beauty through
a wonderful article published in his magazine. His doctor diploma, dated
Feb. 24, 1840, speaks in the highest terms of his merits as a composer and


From an engraving after a daguerreotype.]

With all his efforts and his growing popularity, Schumann could not
gain favor in the eyes of father Wieck; only after a long term of legal
proceedings were the happy pair united in marriage, their wedding being
celebrated in a church near Leipsic in Sept., 1840. It was a union of
greatest importance not only to themselves but to music. Both were true
companions in an ideal struggle, true Davidites and priests of art, Clara
Schumann not only continuing her career as a splendid interpreter of
the classics of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann, but at the
same time tenderly watching over her husband's health and temper, which
was marked by a growing irritability. Honor though it was to be Robert
Schumann's wife, it required a great character and supreme devotion.
Looking at his happy family life, reading his expressions of gratitude,
esteem and love for his wife; hearing those who have seen him play with
his children, once more we say that it is not only the artist, but the man
Schumann for whom we feel a deep sympathy and esteem. Yet his disposition
was not wholly free from features of a less agreeable nature. His
sensitiveness and taciturnity often made him appear in an unsympathetic
light, or offend those who meant well with him. But this was only a sign
of the deep-rooted disease, which developed so steadily and which so early
wrecked his mind and body.

The culmination of Schumann's happiness being attained, his creative
powers increased wonderfully. Now he felt compelled to confide the music
of his soul to the human voice and suddenly appeared as a great master
in a new field, by producing a wealth of songs, perfectly original in
style, form and spirit. Love, of course, plays a prominent but not
exclusive part in them. Yet his genius was seeking for still higher fields
and larger forms. The following year was devoted to the composition of
great orchestral works, three symphonies (two of which were published
much later in different shape) and the first movement of the pianoforte
concerto. In this higher sphere Schumann again proved himself a master,
the first symphony in B-flat, given most successfully under Mendelssohn's
direction, showing his genius at once in the most brilliant light. This
fever for composing did not in the least abate in 1842, the year devoted
to chamber music, when he wrote the three string quartets, the quintet
and quartet for pianoforte and strings, which were unsurpassed by any
later efforts. Far from being exhausted, in 1843 he completed besides
the famous variations for two pianofortes, the great cantata "Paradise
and the Peri." It was received most enthusiastically, and its success
stimulated him to write a similar work of still higher order, the musical
setting of the most difficult and mysterious scenes from the second part
of Goethe's "Faust." Meanwhile he had continued the work for his musical
journal, accompanied his wife to concerts in Hamburg and Russia, where
he was highly honored as a composer, and had also filled a position as
professor for pianoforte and composition at the new Conservatory opened
in April, 1843, with Mendelssohn as director. Of this latter work of
Schumann little has become known, and from his uncommunicative nature one
has inferred that he lacked the talent of a true teacher. In 1844 he
severed his connection with the Conservatory and with his journal also,
and took up his residence in Dresden. Overwork and the exerting musical
life in Leipsic had greatly increased his nervousness and he expected a
speedy recovery in the royal capital, with its lovely surroundings and
quiet life. However it took years to fully restore him. Yet in these very
years Schumann wrote his glorious symphony in C, and devoted much time
to strict contrapuntal studies, composing several works in this style.
He finally took a more active part in Dresden's social life, keeping
a friendly intercourse with other musicians, poets and artists, and a
sincere interest in the opera, then directed by young Wagner. At that time
the reform of the musical drama was in Dresden the centre of all musical
interests, and Schumann felt a deep desire to solve the great problem in
his own way.

We shall speak below more extensively about his only opera "Genoveva."
Although it was completed in Dresden, in 1848, it had its first
performance in the summer of 1850, in Leipsic, under his own direction. It
was repeated there a few times, but was undeniably a great disappointment
in spite of all its musical beauties. Schumann was deeply affected,
disagreeing entirely with the critics as to the dramatic character of
his work. Much more successful were the first performances of his music
to "Faust," presented at the centenary of Goethe's birthday in Dresden,
Leipsic and Weimar. Several years later Schumann added more numbers, but
the entire work was given in its present shape only after his death.

In the winter of 1846-47, Robert and Clara Schumann made a trip to Vienna,
where the latter played her husband's concerto (completed in 1845), and he
conducted his first symphony. The Viennese admired her playing but showed
far less appreciation for his music than the North Germans or even the
Russians. In 1847, Schumann succeeded Hiller as director of the Dresden
"Liedertafel," and in 1848 he started a mixed chorus, which afforded him
more genuine pleasure than the male chorus. With them he gave the Faust
music, and "Paradise and the Peri," studied Beethoven's great Mass in D,
and began to believe in his abilities as a conductor to such a degree,
that when, in 1849, it was rumored that Rietz, Mendelssohn's successor
in Leipsic, was going to Berlin, Schumann eagerly applied for the high
position. Rietz, however, remained. During these last years in Dresden,
Schumann had finished a large number of chamber works, songs, duets, male,
female and mixed choruses with or without accompaniment, piano pieces, and
the music to Byron's "Manfred."


Modelled by the sculptor Dondorf.]

In 1850, Hiller again recommended Schumann to become his successor as
director of the orchestral and choral concerts in Düsseldorf, and a
call being extended, it was readily accepted by the composer. For such
a work he had neither the natural gifts nor the necessary preparation,
his conducting being hesitating, his way of rehearsing not in the least
instructive. Fluent as was his style in writing, he lacked the gift of
easily imparting his ideas. However, he was received with high honors and
for three seasons performed his new duties, also several times taking
part in the great vocal festivals. All his works were listened to with
delight; nevertheless it constantly became more evident that he was unfit
for the position, and in 1853 his engagement was not renewed, the decision
affecting him deeply. A visit to Leipsic made by the artists in 1852 for
the performance of several novelties, was also rather disappointing, while
the triumphant tour through Holland, at the end of 1853, forms the last
sunny period of Schumann's life.

In these years he had composed feverishly, some of the results being
such great and famous productions as the Rhenish symphony, the cantata,
"the Pilgrimage of the Rose," several overtures, ballads for soli,
chorus and orchestra, a mass, a requiem, several chamber works, songs,
melodramas and pianoforte pieces. He also planned writing another opera
on Schiller's "Bride of Messina" or Gœthe's "Hermann and Dorothea," or a
great popular oratorio on "Luther," but was forced to abandon the scheme.
He was happiest amongst his children and was as talkative with them
as reticent with others. Yet his old interest in new talents remained
unabated and the way in which he encouraged young musicians, such as
Reinecke, Meinardus, Dietrich, Joachim and especially Brahms, shows him in
a most amiable light. But all this time that mysterious influence which
had so early affected his mind, was daily gaining in strength. He was
troubled so much by nervousness, a feeling of permanent anxiety, and even
by hallucinations, that he became desirous of a medical treatment in a
hospital. One night he rushed from his bed to write down a theme just sent
to him by the spirits of Schubert and Mendelssohn. Nor was he free from
superstitions, for instance passionately taking part in the practice of
table moving. On February 22, 1854, soon after dinner, without any warning
he left his house and the society of a few friends, to seek his final rest
in the floods of the Rhine. Saved by sailors, he recovered full possession
of his faculties only for a few days, in which he wrote one variation on
the theme of that strange night. During the two last years of his life he
was confined in a private hospital near Bonn. There a few friends such as
Joachim and young Brahms were admitted to see the beloved master, so sadly
afflicted both physically and mentally. His darkened mind became clear
only at rare intervals, when he would sit at the piano, once more seeking
a musical expression for the strange world of thoughts within him. But
soon all visits from friends were forbidden, and the wife of the great
composer saw him only to close his eyes and bid him a last farewell. He
died July 2, 1856, only forty-six years old. In Bonn, where he is buried,
a beautiful monument by Donndorf is erected in his memory.

In appearance Schumann was rather tall and stately, calm and slow in his
movements, the face, with deep, melancholy eyes and rich dark hair, being
quite expressive, but seldom betraying the emotions of his soul, the

Online LibraryVariousFamous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 → online text (page 26 of 32)