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Classical Composers A-Z: Robert Schumann

Peter Wintersgill presents a word portrait of the troubled composer Robert Schumann.

Born 8th June, 1810, at Zwickau, Saxony, the youngest of five children.

August, a bookseller and of neurotic temperament.

Joanna, a surgeon's daughter.

Like Elgar 100 years later, he spent much time browsing in his father's bookshop. He read not only music books, but a variety of literature of different kinds and ages. He started at a private schooi at six and began piano lessons at seven from the local organist. He could soon sight read well, took part in school concerts and chamber music at friends' houses. At the age of eight he was taken to Leipzig by his father to see The Magic Flute.

When he was 16, his sister Emilie, aged 19, who suffered from depression, drowned herself. This was a great shock to her neurotic and unstable father, who died later the same year. Schmann went to Leipzig University to study law, aged 18. A year later he transferred to Heidelburg. Another year later he returned to Leipzig to study music.

He went to Frederick Wieck for music lessons. Wieck's daughter, aged nine, was already an accomplished pianist. Schumann started composing in the ABEGC Variations (1830). He loved cryptograms, ie: tunes based on names or a series of letters eg: A B E G G.

Early Adult Life
In 1832 he injured his hand by using a mechanical device for strengthening the fingers. This put an end to any ambition he might have had of becoming a concert pianist. Always subject to mood swings, he became greatly depressed at this time and, fearing he was going insane, almost committed suicide. However, he fortunately resisted the impulse.

After this he became founder editor of the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, a journal of music criticism. He admired both Mendelssohn and Chopin, both of whom he praised in his journal; he later praised young Brahms. He had piano lessons from Wieck and composition from Weinligg, Cantor at St. Thomas, where Bach once was.

He met a girl called Ernestine von Fricken, another pupil of Wieck's from a little town called Asch. Robert was soon in love with her, in fact they became secretly engaged. He wrote a tune based on the letters A S C H, (A Eb C B), incorporating it into his piano suite Carnaval in 1835. However the affair was soon over.

His mother died the following year in 1836. In 1837 he got engaged to Clara Wieck, but her father was violently opposed to the match, not so much on personal grounds, though he did consider Robert rather unstable and liable to drink too much, but because he had devoted his life to bringing up Clara to be a concert pianist and opposed anything that threatened that end.

However, Robert was determined and started a five-year struggle that ended in a law suit, which he finally won in 1839. They married the next year when she was 21 and he was 30.

Married Life
The couple settled in Leipzig and were very happy. Clara was now an accomplished pianist and often played the solo part in his works and helped to popularise them. He now turned to songs, of which he wrote 130, including Dichterliebe (love of poetry). In 1841 he wrote two symphonies (Nos 1 and 4), the premier of No 1 being conducted by Mendelssohn, as was that of Schubert's great Symphony in C, which Robert had discovered.

During 1843 he felt very tired and depressed and had hallucinations, thought to be due to syphilis. In 1845 they moved to Dresden, where Clara met Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale", who sang at some of their concerts. That year he finished his piano concerto, the solo part being played by Clara.

Later Life
In 1846 he wrote the 2nd symphony and in 1847 the opera Genoveva. In 1850 they moved to Dusseldorf. The next year he wrote a sonata for violin and piano. From then on his mental state got worse, with recurring depression, delusions and hallucinations. In 1854 he suddenly rushed out of the house and threw himself into the Rhine. When he was rescued he was admitted, at his own request, to an asylum near Bonn.
While in the asylum Clara was not allowed to visit him, so Brahms used to do so and report back to Clara.

During his two-year stay there Clara did a concert tour in England, arriving back just in time to hold him in her arms before he died on Thursday, 29th July, 1856, aged 46. It is now thought likely that he died of cerebral syphilis, which would account for both his physical symptoms, such as convulsions and his mental state. This is known as G.P.I. - general paralysis of the insane. The funeral, two days later, was attended by Clara, Brahms and a few close friends.

Clara continued her piano playing for another 20 years, before dying on 20th May, 1896, aged 77.


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