A Musical Couple
When the great pianist Clara Schumann was touring Russia, a concertgoer asked her husband, Robert, if he, too, was also a musician. Though no harm was meant, the question deeply hurt the sensitive young German. He had hoped to be a concert pianist, but an accident to his hand had made him focus on composition. And recognition for him was slow to come. Today, the Schumanns’ two reputations are still unfairly uneven, but the balance has tipped. Clara, like other virtuosos from the days before recordings, is not well known. Yet Robert is rightly seen as one of the finest composers of the Romantic period—a master of achingly beautiful melodies, vocal songs, orchestral and chamber music. Above all, he was a genius in short works for piano. Schumann could evoke a specific mood or abstract idea, even in songs that lasts just a minute or two. One of his most famous such pieces is simply called “Träumerei” (dreaming).
Born in Saxony—now part of Germany—Schumann began piano at age six. But when his father died, his mother thought a music career was too impractical for Robert. Though he attended law school, he later talked his mother into giving his music a trial period, during which he studied under the well-known pianist Friedrich Weick. Two events then shaped his life: He injured his right-hand fingers, and he fell in love with Weick’s daughter, Clara. With a performance future ruled out, Schumann launched into composition with furious creativity and focus. At first, he wrote exclusively piano works. Then came a year when he composed 150 vocal and piano songs. Among these is “The Two Grenadiers,” inspired by Heinrich Heine’s poem about a wounded, patriotic soldier of Emperor Napoleon. With Clara’s encouragement, Schumann turned next to orchestral writing, such as symphonies and concertos. Then came a focus on chamber music, followed by choral works. All along his music broke from the structure and harmony of the earlier Classical period.
Schumann found special inspiration in words or literature. He scattered his music with clues to these beginnings, such as melodies whose notes spell out the name of friend or place. Many compositions refer to two characters he invented to describe sides of his own personality: a fiery, heroic person named “Florestan” and the dreamy, thoughtful “Eusebius.” Schumann also published a music periodical of enormous influence. In it, he showed a brilliance for recognizing great composers, whether past masters like Mozart, whose work had fallen from favor, or unknown newcomers. Chief among these was young Johannes Brahms, whom he praised with his typical generosity. Schumann was far less confident of his own worth, and long periods of depression interrupted his work. He died at just age 46, after being hospitalized several years for mental illness. Afterwords, Clara Schumann and Brahms strived to promote his hugely original music, just as he had once heralded the work of others.