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Robert Alexander Schumann (1810 - 1856)

 B i o g r a p h y

There is a good case to be made that Robert Alexander Schumann(Born: June 8, 1810 in Zwickau, Germany - Died: July 29, 1856 in Bonn, Germany) is the purest embodiment of early romanticism in music. Born in 1810, the son of a bookseller, Schumann found his earliest musical inspirations in the German Romantic literature of Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffman. And in love. The first ten years of his compositions are a veritable diary of his courtship of Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher, who was nine years his junior.

Robert dutifully tried law school per his mother's wishes, but could not resist hours of improvising at the piano. He was really somewhat of a late bloomer to be a serious musician but was intent on becoming a piano virtuoso. In his desire to make up for lost time, he built a mechanical device to strengthen his 4th finger. The subsequent injury this caused changed his career path to composition.

One can sympathize a bit with Clara's strict and imperious father, who considered Robert both too impetuous and certainly too old for his daughter, who he was successfully grooming to be one of the century's great pianists. Hers was a strict classical training, and in later years she convinced Schumann that if he aspired to the loftiest goals, he must compose grand sonatas and symphonies in addition to the suites of fantastic dances, miniatures and poetic rhapsodies that were his natural metier.

Schumann's early piano music is profoundly original. The Papillons, Opus 2, takes a Schubertian cycle of dances as its point of departure, but with Schumann these suites of character pieces become embodiments of his own dual nature, represented by the outgoing Florestan and the dreamy Eusebius.

Schumann was an idealistic champion for the purity and poetry of the new romantic spirit, and an enemy of the idle virtuousity and note spinning that were competing for the attention of the rising middle class audience. All this is evident in pieces such as the Davisbundlertanze, 0pus 6, and the Carnival, Opus 9, where the movements depict Schumann's imaginary band of David against the philistines. Here we have Florestan's energetic dotted rhythms contrasting with the introspective musings of Eusebius, and movements entitled Chopin and Paganini.

In addition to composing, Schumann became the editor for the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik for ten years, during which time he was one of the most generous and perspicacious of critics. His first review introduced Chopin to the world and his last, Brahms.

Meanwhile, there was not a sonata to be seen at this point. Yet for all Schumann's caprice and fantasy, he was one of the purist musicians with innate sense of classical balance and proportion. His strength was in the juxtaposition of exquisite miniatures to form a convincing and cumulative mosaic, rather than the kind of ongoing developmental musical argument needed for sonata writing.

The travails of the romance between Robert and Clara is one of the great love stories (with soundtrack) of the century. Much of time they were forbidden to see one another and Schumann communicated in one piano masterpiece after another. Opuses 1 through 28 are all for piano, and in addition to the pieces already named, include Kreisleriana, Fantasiestucke, the glorious C major Fantasy and the often overlooked Humoreske.

If Brahms had the autumnal character of an old man even in his youth, Schumann was in many way always the ardent boy. His sympathy with the world of children produced the adult reminiscences of childhood in the Kinderszenen, Opus 15. The beauty of the music almost keeps us from realizing how much organically grows out of a single turn of phrase that appears in piece after piece, and that Schumann was also one of the great musical theorists. Later in his life, he wrote directly for his own children in the Album for the Young that has nurtured countless young pianists since.

In 1840, Robert and Clara finally married. This became the year of the song. Schumann tended to obsessively concentrate on one genre at a time before exhausting himself and moving on to the next. Thus this year produced his great song cycles including the Dichterliebe, Opus 48. In this setting of Heine poetry, Schumann again takes his point of departure from Schubert, with piano preludes and postludes that offer deep insights and comments on the poetry. The Beautiful Month of May that begins the cycle starts with an ambiguity of key and emotion that immediately immerses us in the wistful and ironic world of the poetry.

In 1841, Schumann began his concentration on the Symphony, of which he went on to write four. All four are inspired and the old criticisms about the thickness of the orchestration has been challenged by recent recordings including some on original intruments. 1842 was the year of chamber music including the A major Piano Quintet-the first of its type, and 1843 was the year of choral music

After going on a Russian tour with Clara in 1844, Schumann had a severe attack of depression. The polarities of his inner world eventually would lead to Schumann's increasing emotional instability. A growing family brought its own pressures along with the difficulty of balancing two careers. The Schumanns moved a number of times unsuccessfully searching for a calming environment. After throwing himself into the Rhine in 1854, Robert's condition necessitated his being institutionalized. His alternating periods of intense creativity (the Spring Symphony was sketched inside a week) with depression have certainly led to speculations of bi-polar disorder. In any event Robert's slide into some sort of madness in his last two years until his death in 1856 is heartbreaking. Schumann composed almost until the end and there are important works throughout his life that are still performed surprisingly infrequently.

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 A l b u m s

Klavierkonzert a-moll / Waldszenen / Toccata / Introduction & Allegro Appassionato (Deutsche Grammophone, 1957)
Kinderszenen / Faschingsschwank aus Wien / Carnaval (Deutsche Grammophone, 1991)
Carnaval / Papillons / Faschingsschwank aus Wien (EMI Classics, 1998)

Brahms & Schumann:
Piano Concerto No. 2 / Piano Sonata No.2 (EMI Classics, 1993)

Felix Mendelssohn & Robert Schumann:
Symphony Nr. 4 "Italian"  & Symphony Nr. 1 "Spring" (Deutsche Grammophone, 1973)