Robert Alexander Schumann was born on the 8th June 1810 in Zwickau in Germany. He was a pianist, composer of the Romantic period and music critic, who was incredibly influential in his time.
He was the 5th child born into his family and began composing before he was 7 years old. He enjoyed books and reading as much as he did music, his father being a novelist, publisher and bookseller. When he was 7, a teacher at the local secondary school started giving him music and piano lessons. Thus began his love of music. He spent 4 years at a private school then in 1820 started at Zwickau Gymnasium (secondary school). Here he stayed for 8 years.
When he was 14 years old, he wrote an essay about musical aesthetics. He wrote for ‘Portraits of Famous Men’ which his father edited. Schumann was very well read, reading Greek tragedies and works by philosophers. He went to watch a performance of Ignaz Moscheles one evening and this started his love of music. He became interested in composers such as Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Schubert. His father had always encouraged Schumann’s love of music, but he sadly died when Schumann was only 16. His sister took her own life in the same year. Unfortunately, his mother and guardian were not so encouraging of Schumann’s musical interest.
He left school in 1828 and left to go to the University of Leipzig, to study law. He did this so he could receive his father’s inheritance. However, he focussed most of his attention on writing novels and composing songs. He also became more serious in his study of piano. In 1829, he moved to Heidelberg, but continued studying law. At the age of 20, he took piano lessons from his old schoolmaster Wieck. Wieck encouraged Schumann to strive to be a concert pianist. However, he struggled with an affliction that affected his hand. So, he abandoned his ambition and focussed on composing and began studying music theory.
Schumann combined his love of literary with music to create program music. When he was 22, in 1832, he went to Zwickau to visit relatives and performed his Symphony in G minor. Tragedy befell the Schumann family the year after when his brother and his wife died of cholera. Schumann was deeply affected by their deaths. By 1834, he was able to return to composing. Also, this year in Liepzig, he co-founded with Friedrich Wieck, the music magazine entitled Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. The first issue was published on the 3rd April. This allowed him to voice his opinions about music and for notices. Carnaval was also written this year. He wrote the story for this as well as the music.
Later that year he proposed to his love Ernestine von Fricken, who was then only 16 years old. However, in August 1835 he found out that she was born illegitimate, so wouldn’t have a dowry. Schumann worried that this would mean that he would have to work as a ‘day-labourer,’ which he didn’t want to do, so he broke off their engagement later that year. He began to feel an attraction to Clara Wieck, who was 15. The feeling was mutual and they declare their love for each other. His father vehemently disapproved of their relationship and forbade it. He ordered them to burn their letters to each other.
1837 saw him publish his Symphonic Studies. This was very well received. Many more pieces followed, including Kreisleriana in 1838. This is often said to be one of his greatest compositions. Between 1832 and 1839, he wrote pieces mostly for piano, but he decided to branch out and write songs, writing over 138 in 1840 alone!
Schumann’s personal life was looking up as well at this time. Schumann married Clara Wieck, who was 20, on the 12th September 1840 after a long legal battle with her father. Clara herself, was an accomplished musician and already quite well-known. She was extremely supportive of Schumann and bore him 8 children between 1841 and 1854.
1844 saw Schumann go on a Russian tour with Clara. However, he started to feel inferior and his depression grew. He returned to Germany, where he grew worse. His state of mind is reflected in his Symphony in C. He felt more recovered by 1846 and he visited Vienna, Berlin and Prague, where he was favourably received. He felt pleased at this and continued his compositions.
In 1848, he composed Album for the Young Op.68 for his daughters. It contains 43 short pieces that can be played by inexperienced musicians. Included within this is Fremder Mann which in 2021 was arranged for brass band by Ruud Vermeij. Between 1850 and 1854, Schumann composed many pieces for a wider range of genres, although critics have doubted their quality. He became the musical director at Düsseldorf, but he was not popular because his conducting skills were not good. This led to him being sacked from this role.
Ill health started to plague Schumann, when he developed what might have been tinnitus and imagined hearing voices and music in his ears. By early 1854, he was experiencing demonic visions. On the 27th February, he threw himself off a bridge into the River Rhine, but was fortunately rescued. Following this episode, he was admitted to the sanatorium in Bonn. Clara visited him but he could only say a few words to her. Robert Schumann died there at the age of 46 on the 29th July 1856. Suggestions for his cause of death have ranged from syphilis, mercury poisoning, pneumonia or a brain tumour.