Robert Schumann (b. 8 June 1810): His Creative Life to 1840/41


Dr Robert Blackburn, former Principal Lecturer in Music, Bath Bath Spa University

20 July 2010

The birth of Fryderyk Chopin in Poland on 1 March 1810, and of Robert Schumann in Zwickau, Saxony on 8 June of the same year has inevitably prompted a flurry of bicentenary tributes during the first part of 2010. They were friends, at least for a time, and also friends and colleagues of Mendelssohn (born in 1809) and of Berlioz, born some years earlier in 1803. The following year saw the birth of Franz Liszt in Hungary, thus completing the group of composers of diverse origins and character who dominated the earlier European Romantic movement in music, particularly through their instrumental works. Verdi and Wagner were both born in 1813, but that is another story.

Had Schumann died in 1841, at the same age (31) as Schubert, one of his great musical heroes, he would be remembered as a German Romantic composer of great originality and promise, but as one almost exclusively preoccupied with piano music and songs. But Schumann lived till 29 July 1856, though latterly a s a patient in an asylum at Endenich, Bonn, a long way from his Saxon homeland. During his later years, from 1842, he had developed as a composer of larger forms, especially of symphonies  (four in all), several concertos (including a single, much-played and much-loved Piano Concerto), chamber music, choral music (including an oratorio, Paradise and the Peri) and a single opera, Genoveva). He continued to write songs, but few of these ever became as well known as those composed in 1840, and apart from the Album for the Young, Waldscenen and a few other short pieces, he virtually turned his back on the pianoforte as a solo instrument. Schumann’s marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840, against severe opposition and hostility from her father Friedrich Wieck, the composer’s longstanding piano teacher, was a central event in his life. Though the marriage brought him much genuine happiness, for long periods his life was clouded by mental instability and nervous collapses, brought about by his bipolarity. A loving father to his six children, he never saw them again after his decision to go into care in 1854, following an attempt to drown himself in the Rhine.  After going to Endenich, he only saw Clara once again, at the very end of his life, as she was kept away from him by the authorities in Bonn.

Schumann’s other professional life was as a pioneering musical journalist in Germany, founder of the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, in which this forward-looking, brilliant composer could discuss, and often praise all the new music of his day --- unfortunately excepting his own. Famously, he saluted Chopin and the young Brahms (who became a disciple, and revered him forever after 1856) as well as writing a long study of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique which won him a doctorate at Jena University. Schumann had studied law in Leipzig and Heidelberg, to please his mother, but always sensed that his life would be devoted either to literature or to music. Just before his 20th birthday, in the spring or early summer of 1830, in Heidelberg, still nominally a law student, Schumann wrote the following self-evaluation in the third person:

I would not reckon him among ordinary men………His temperament is melancholy, more sentimental than contemplative, more subjective than objective…… A powerful imagination…….needing external stimulus…..discernment, wit, reflective thought - not strong.  More emotional than intellectual - leaning towards the artistic rather than the speculative. Distinguished in music and literature. Not a musical genius. His talent as a musician and poet are on an equal level.

Schumann’s boyhood teacher, J.G. Kuntsch, also writing in 1830 (to a friend) of his pupil’s ‘lively imagination’ and ‘earnestness, zeal and tenacity’ predicted  (rightly) that he would become a great artist, achieving fame, honour and immortality. Even Wieck, who turned fiercely against Schumann later on, wrote to Frau Christine Schumann in 1830 that

I pledge within three years, by means of his talent and imagination, to make your son Robert into one of the greatest pianists now living---with more warmth and spirit than Moscheles, and more nobility than Hummel.

The fact that Schumann ruined his great promise as a virtuoso pianist by strapping up hi middle right-hand finger—to give it more flexibility, but actually making it more rigid—was a typically rash unfortunate act by a man whose high intelligence should have warned him of the dangers of such extremes. The split personality, already in evidence by his late teens, was something of which Schumann himself was acutely aware. He codified it, and built it into his piano music, giving the name Florestan to his vital, energetic side, and Eusebius to his darker, quieter, more introspective side. Florestan was the hero of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, an active rebel, who spends all his time in the opera incarcerated in a dungeon, until his release near the end. Eusebius, Schumann’s subjective, more withdrawn self could refer to any of several early churchmen, but is almost certainly a reference to St Eusebius the Confessor (Pope for a year from 309 to 310) who was exiled by the Emperor Maxentius because of his attitude to apostasy. Schumann made the most creatively of this emotional polar division, and the characters of Florestan and Eusebius (F. and E.) permeate his early piano compositions, explicitly or otherwise-though they quickly disappear from his music after his marriage.

Robert Schumann ca. 1850

Schumann was not self-taught as an executant musician, but he was largely self-taught as a composer. His literary skills came from his father and the family bookshop. This dreamy, self-absorbed boy was surrounded by books from the outset, and was able to discover authors who matched his taste and temperament, supremely Jean Paul Richter (1763-1825) and E.T.A. Hoffmann (1774-1822) two different products of early literary romanticism in Germany. At one stage (1833) Schumann hankered after composition lessons from J.N. Hummel in Weimar.  Hummel was a leading pianist-composer of the day, but we may be thankful that nothing came of this, since Hummel would undoubtedly have cramped the young Schumann’s style. A passion for order and symmetry came naturally to Schumann, as did a love of counterpoint, which he derived in large measure from the music of J.S. Bach. This was a passion he shared with virtually all his musical contemporaries, at least in northern Europe.  In a letter of January 1840, Schumann wrote:

The profound combinatorial power, the poetry and humour of modern music have their origin mainly in Bach. Mendelssohn, William Sterndale Bennett, Chopin, Heller, the whole of the so-called Romantic school (of course I have the Germans in mind) are much closer than Mozart was to the music of Bach.  Indeed they all know his work thoroughly. I too make my daily confession to the lofty one, and strive to purify and strengthen myself through him.

The writer Schumann could say sincerely tat ‘everything that happens in the world affects me—politics, literature, people; I think it all over in my own way, and then it has to find a way out through music.’  He felt an identity across the arts which was increasingly characteristic of his time, the ‘Biedermeierzeit’, observing that ‘the aesthetics of one art is that of the others too. Only the materials differ.’ In his daily life, as Eric Sams has commented, he organised everything into books---a day-book, a project-book, a song-book, a correspondence book, a notebook, a marriage book, and a cash-book.’ His songs, especially the 140 he composed in the astonishingly prolific year of his marriage, 1840, were a natural extension of his piano music, born of improvisation and a supreme melodic gift. However indiscriminate Schumann’s selection of poems may have been, there is truth in the statement which has often been made, that if all the voice parts of the songs were lost, it would be possible to deduce from the piano part and the words what the vocal line would be. Schumann believed firmly in the supremacy of music over poetry, and said that ‘ the poem must be crushed and have its juices expressed like an orange. It must wear music like a wreath, or yield to it like a bride.’

Surrounded as he was in Germany by much indifference to ‘high art’, Schumann devised the notion of a League of David, or ‘Davidsbund’ against the Philistines. The final movement of Carnaval (Op. 9, 1834) bears this very title, while his opus 6 (1837) is a set of eighteen dances with the title Davidsbündlertänze. He sent this in its original version to the young Clara in a special presentation copy. However, this work, like all his early piano works, was revised in 1849-52. Either Schumann was having some second thoughts about his achievement as  a composer for the piano in the 1830s, or he was disappointed by the reputation for eccentricity his compositions had acquired, and wanted to do something about it, to give them more popularity. There is no doubt that many amateur and even professional players were wary of these works for a long time. Even works like Carnaval and Kreisleriana, now canonic and central to the repertoire, baffled some, while others simply felt that much of Schumann’s music was technically too difficult.  Schumann’s own revised versions are still the ones usually played to this day, though critical opinion (e.g. Charles Rosen in The Romantic Age) supports a return to the original versions, with their many internal titles, later deleted.

Robert Schumann was one of the first to have a very informed perspective on music of the past. In 1830,aged only 20, he produced a short Chronological History of Music based on a new work by Wilhelm C. Muller, dividing music history over 300 years into ten periods. Influenced by Friedrich Schlegel, a key figure in German literary Romanticism, Schumann (through Eusebius) spoke in 1834 of the musical interval of a third as symbolising the present, mediating the past and the future. He saw a triadic relationship between revered ‘classical’ texts, a critique of contemporary conditions, and a ‘redemptive’ phase of the future. In an editorial of the Neue Zeitschrift for 2 January 1835, these thoughts were still running in his mind. We need, he said:

To acknowledge the past and its creations, and to draw attention to the fact that now be strengthened by such a pure source; next, to oppose the recent past as an inartistic period, which has only increase in mechanical dexterity to show for itself ; and finally to prepare for….the advent of a fresh, poetic future.

In the 1960s Eric Sams (1926-2004), a professional civil servant who was also a brilliant musicologist—and had worked as a code-breaker for British Intelligence in 1944-47--- developed a theory of song-motifs, as applied to the song output of Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf. His study of Schumann’s songs was published in1969, but in 1965-6, Sams had aired his views on Schumann ciphers (long known to exist) in three articles in the Musical Times. Here he pointed to Johannes Klüber’s Kryptographik  (1809) in which a three-line series of alphabetical letters attached to a musical scale produced a range of word, name and phrase combinations. Sams speculated that this admittedly obscure book would most likely have been in August Schumann’s bookshop-library, and that the boy Robert Schumann, a compulsive browser, would have used it for his own musical purposes. Certainly, the names of Clara and Wieck emerge very persuasively from Sams’ investigations, as do many other combinations. All this is separate from the already familiar connections between the notes ABEGG and the (Countess von) Abegg Variations, Op. 1, or the association of Ernestine von Fricken’s native village of Asch and the ASCH pervading musical idea in Carnaval. It all fits the composer’s particular cast of mind. Eric Frederick Jensen, in his 2002 book on Schumann does not even refer to Sams by name, and does not include the articles in his bibliography, which is a great pity.

Clara Schumann née Wieck

We know, or think we know, the abstract, analytic cast of Schumann’s mind, which would be of little account without his outstanding lyric, melodic and harmonic gift as a composer. This is the central point. There is an obvious tendency to cipher, allusion and quotation in his music, on a personal level, of a kind we do not find in the music of Berlioz, Mendelssohn or Chopin, for example. But on the matter of the ciphered content of his earlier works discussed above, he never revealed anything to posterity. All that actually matters is the use he made of such a method in the creation of his original works, which have stood the test of time. We can see in his use of obsessive rhythms (often to excess), his frequent melodic angularities and random (so it seems) use of accents a composer with arguably a slight tendency to imbalance. It has always been noticed that Schumann’s music has a special aura of inwardness and mystery diffused throughout it.  Also very noticeable is the theme of tragic isolation, of lost love and disappointment, which haunts the song cycles. And, despite some recent revisionism, it has been felt that his later works, in general, represent a falling-off from the freshness, vividness and originality of his masterpieces composed up to 1842-3. The reasons for that could be many, but are most likely to lie in Schumann’s tendency to chronic overwork, leading to exhaustion and long periods of fatigue, loss of primal inspiration, and reliance on pure technique alone, and the tragic consequences of his bipolarity and mental instability about which we now understand far more than he or his contemporaries ever did.


A detailed biographical chronology, covering the years 1810 to 1844/5 was circulated to everyone present. Also circulated was an A3 manuscript copy of extracts from Schumann’s early works, especially the piano works and some songs. Some of these related to the discoveries (and speculations) of the late Eric Sams concerning Schumann’s ciphers. Other music examples concerned Schumann’s use of musical quotations, most famously from an opera by Marschner in the Études Symphoniques Op.13, the Marseilleise in the Carnival Jest from Vienna, Op. 26, and the reference to a theme from Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte in the great C major Fantasy, Op. 17.


Illustrations at the piano were as follows:

1.    The Abegg Variations, Op1 (ABEGG theme)

2.    Papillons Op.2 Opening theme

3.    Kinderscenen Op. 15 First and last pieces from thirteen. (I) From foreign lands and people (II) The poet speaks

4.    Pieces 1 and 3 from Bunte Blätter (Many-coloured Leaves) Op 99

(i) in A major, marked Not too fast, and with inwardness. A gentle, flowing piece.

(ii) in E major, marked Frisch, or freshly. A fast piece in 6/8 time

5.    Romance in B flat minor, Op. 28 No.1 (1839), marked Sehr markiert (very marked)

6.    Dichterliebe, Op.48 (1840) accompaniment, first two songs, both in G major

(i) Im wunderschönen Monat Mai

(ii) Aus meinem Tränen spriessen (followed by a brief recording of these songs by Christian Gerhaher (baritone) accompanied by Gerold Huber

7.    The CLARA motif from the song Die Lotosblume

8.    The Trio theme from the Minuet of Beethoven’s Sonata in E flat, OP. 31 No 3,and its derived echo in Schumann’s Carnival Jest from Vienna, Op. 26

9.    The yearning CLARA idea at the opening of the Fantasy in C, Op 17, with its surging ‘dominant seventh ‘ left-hand accompaniment.

10. The WIECK idea in Carnaval, Op. 9, and its reappearance in other works, such as the Fantasiestücke Op. 12 and Kreisleriana, Op. 16


The following images were shown:

1.    Schumann’s birthplace in Zwickau, Saxony

2.    August Schumann, the composer’s father

3.    Johann Gottfried Kuntsch, Schumann’s boyhood piano teacher

4.    Jean Paul Richter, author (1763-1825)

5.    Friedrich Wieck, Schumann’s teacher and eventually enemy during the 1830s, though he became the composer’s father-in-law

6.    Title page of Papillons, Op 2 (1831)

7.    Ernestine von Fricken, to whom Schumann was briefly engaged

8.    Clara Wieck, daughter of Friedrich Wieck, aged 19 (in 1838)

9.    Title page of the original edition of Davidsbündlertänze, Op.6 (1837)

10. Title page of the Piano Sonata in F sharp minor, Op. 11

11. Lithograph of Schumann in 1839 by Josef Kriehuber

12. Schumann’s study in Zwickau

13. Engraving of a relief of Robert and Clara Schumann, by Ernst Rietschel, 1846

14. Schumann in 1847, soon after completing Symphony No 2in C, Op. 61

15. Schumann’s portrait by Auguste Hussener, Berlin

16. Daguerrotype of Schumann, Hamburg, 1850

17. Title page of the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik

18. Autograph score of the Piano Quintet in E flat, Op.44, first page

19. Robert (standing) and Clara (seated) in Hamburg, 1850. Daguerrotype

20. The Schumann children, minus Julie, 1855

21. Clara Schumann (1819-1896), painting by Sohn, 1853

22. Robert Schumann: lithograph from a drawing by A. Menzel

23. Silhouette of Schumann (anon.)


A short bibliography

  • Joan Chissell: Schumann - Dent / Master Musicians 1954
  • E.F.Jensen: Schumann - Oxford / Master Musicians 2002
  • R. Larry Todd (ed.) Schumann and his World - Princeton, 1994 (Essays, Letters and Memoirs, Criticism)
  • John Daverio: Robert Schumann - Oxford 1997
  • Eric Sams: The Songs of Robert Schumann - Methuen 1969
  • Gerald Moore: The Poet’s Love: The Songs and Cycles of Schumann - Hamish Hamilton 1981
  • Marcel Brion: Schumann and the Romantic Age - Collins   1956
  • Eric Sams: The Schumann ciphers; articles in the Musical Times, August 1965, May 1966 and December 1966
  • Nicholas Marston: Schumann’s Fantasy in C, op.17 - Cambridge, 1992
  • Peter F. Ostwald: Schumann: Music and Madness - Gollancz 1985
  • Robert Schumann: On Music and Musicians (selected writings of Schumann, translated by Paul Rosenfeld) - Dennis Dobson 1947
  • Robert Schumann: Complete Songs, 3 vols - Peters Edition
  • Robert Schumann: Piano Works - Urtext  4 vols - Henle Verlag
  • Wilfrid Mellers: The composer as wounded bird - TLS 27 January 1995
  • Edward Lippmann: Theory and Practice in Schumann’s Aesthetics - Journal of the American Musicological Society (JAMS) Vol XVII (1964)                               
  • Charles Rosen: The Romantic Generation Chapter 12 Schumann: Triumph and Failure of the Romantic Ideal - Harper Collins 1996


Dr Robert Blackburn