Composer ROBERT SCHUMANN
As a composer and music critic, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) considered himself the heir to the boldly original creative tradition of Beethoven and Schubert. Despite his seemingly endless profusion of inspired melodies, Schumann's harmonies,
chromaticism, and rhythmic and tonal ambiguity left early audiences puzzled. Even his gifted wife Clara Wieck Schumann found some of his works bewildering. During the late 19th century and for much of the 20th century, Schumann's orchestral writing was considered undistinguished, gray, and colorless. In fact Schumann sought to reinvent instrumental music. He considered much of the compositional output of his contemporaries to be blatant, empty virtuoso display pieces that were devoid of any unique creative spark or musical depth. The very elements of Schumann's music that critics and audiences in his lifetime found so troubling were his greatest strength. While he was a child of the romantic era, Schumann was a creative artist with a uniquely personal and original voice.
Robert Alexander Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau. His father was a bookseller who wanted his son to pursue a career in law. In 1821 the young Schumann went to Leipzig ostensibly to study law but he spent most of his time in Leipzig's burgeoning musical and literary circles. At that time he took some piano lessons from Friedrich Wieck and wrote some of his first piano compositions. He eventually convinced his family that he should put aside law in favor of a performing career. In 1830 Schumann went to live with Wieck in Leipzig. He soon developed a problem with his hands, effectively ending his dreams of a pianistic career. He continued to compose and produced several keyboard scores in the early 1830's.
In 1834 Schumann founded the music journal Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik. For a decade, he edited and wrote music criticism for this publication. He championed the work of numerous young composers. His writings embodied the most progressive artistic aesthetics of the time. In his journal Schumann often wrote under two pseudonyms - Eusebius (his sensitive, lyrical side) and Florestan (his fiery, stormy side). These characters were members of Schumann's fictitious "Band of David" (along with Mozart, Chopin, Paganini, and Berlioz among others) - an artistic brotherhood sworn to battle against the Philistines, the purveyors of all that was antiquated, mediocre, and shallow in contemporary music and culture.
During this period Schumann composed primarily for the piano. Among these piano compositions were the "Abegg Variations," Opus 1(1830); "Davidsbundlertanze" ("Dances of the Band of David"), Opus 6 (1837); "Carnaval," Opus 9 (1835) - a portrait of a masked ball attended by his allies and his beloved Clara; "Phantasiestucke," Opus 12 (1837) - a series of mood pieces; "Kreisleriana," Opus 16 (1838) - a fantasy on the mad Kapellmeister Kreisler from a short story by E.T.A. Hoffman; and "Kinderszenen," Opus 15 (1838) - a poetic series of evocations of a child's world. (The uncompromisingly lofty and elaborate pianistic demands of these works and their widely varied range of dynamic nuances and densely textured web of primary and secondary voices confounded audiences at their initial performances.) Many of these scores were inspired by the composer's love for Clara Wieck, the gifted daughter of Schumann's teacher Friedrich Wieck. Wieck opposed their marriage. Clara also had doubts. In 1833 she wrote in her diary "I have seriously considered my future and I have to tell you…that I cannot be yours until circumstances have entirely altered…can you offer me a life free from all worries?...and must I bury my art now?" On August 14, 1837 Robert and Clara pledged to marry but Wieck's steadfast opposition resulted in their being apart. Schumann went through deep periods of depression. In 1839 they took legal action to make Wieck's consent unnecessary and won a court settlement in 1840. They were married one day before Clara turned 21, the legal age of consent at the time.
The period after their marriage was the most prolific in Schumann's lifetime. The composer turned to lieder - his year of song. He wrote over 100 songs and many of the piano accompaniments were written for Clara to perform.. Many of these lieder are true masterpieces including the cycles "Frauenliebe und Leben" ("A Woman's Love and Life") and "Dichterliebe" ("A Poet's Love"). In these works, Schumann made the piano a major voice. Often the piano was given the most emotional, passionate music after the vocal part had finished.
In 1841 Schumann turned to writing orchestral music. Over the next decade he composed 4 symphonies, the great "Piano Concerto in A Minor," Opus 54, the "Overture, Scherzo, and Finale," Opus 52 (a mini symphony), and the florid "Konzertstuck in F Major for Four Horns and Orchestra," Opus 86. For many years these works were widely misunderstood. The pianist and scholar Charles Rosen commented that Schumann "brought a new complexity and a new uneasiness to the art of music, and they are still with us." The unwillingness of many conductors and critics to face that complexity and originality in Schumann's orchestral music resulted in the myth that Schumann was an amateur who could neither orchestrate nor bring the poetry of his piano and vocal works into large scale orchestral forms. Gustav Mahler and Felix Weingartner reorchestrated the symphonies. Their editions added wind and brass sections of near Wagnerian proportions and altered the harmonic and instrumental textures. This new scoring destroyed much of the composer's originality and presented the music in a conventional 19th century romantic orchestral mold. Yet Schumann claimed new powers for music that would speak in both a poetic and intellectual discourse. He felt that, after Beethoven's death, he and his generation were "obligated to create the Ideal of a modern Symphony according to a new standard." Schumann regarded most of the symphonic works of his contemporaries to be "pale imitations (of Beethoven)." (Only in Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" did Schumann find elements of "a genuine preservation or mastery of the grand form, where ideas alternate in rapid succession and yet are linked by an inner spiritual bond.")
In the early 1960's a series of historic performances of the Schumann symphonies in the composer's original instrumentation by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein resulted in an important critical revaluation of Schumann's creative genius. By careful balancing of the orchestral choirs, Bernstein revealed the symphonies to be seminal contributions to the orchestral repertoire. More recently, period instrument ensemble performances under John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norington have uncovered many instrumental subtleties that stamp Schumann as a brilliantly intuitive and imaginative composer for the orchestra of his day.
In 1843, while Clara was away on a concert tour, Schumann turned to chamber music. He produced three string quartets and three concerted works with piano. The "Piano Quintet" has remained enduringly popular for the beauty and romantic warmth of its thematic material. In 1843 choral music became a major focus of his creative energies. He wrote a secular oratorio and "Scenes from Goethe's Faust." Schumann also commenced a teaching position at the new conservatory in Leipzig, where Mendelssohn was director. He was not an effective teacher or conductor. He and Clara moved to Dresden in 1844. There he went into a serious depression and was unable to compose. It was not until 1847-48 that he was productive again. Those years produced chamber music, songs, and his opera "Genoveva" - a moderate success in Leipzig in 1850. This major score awaits a serious, high profile modern revival.
In 1850 Schumann became town music director in Dusseldorf. This new position seemed to raise his spirits and he wrote the beautiful, highly intense "Cello Concerto" and his "Rhenish Symphony," inspired by his impressions of the grandeur of the Cologne Cathedral. Due to his erratic conducting, the Dusseldorf post did not work out well for Schumann. When his health and spirits deteriorated in 1852-53, he resigned the post. In 1854 he attempted suicide when he began to suffer hallucinations. He had always feared the possibility of madness and entered an asylum, where he died in 1856. At the end he was cared for by Clara and the young Johannes Brahms. To the end of her long career, Clara would continue to champion Schumann's music.
Schumann's major works continue to astound by their ambition and instrumental complexity. In the hands of a great artist, the extraordinary originality of these scores is revealed anew. Schumann helped to both define the Romantic era and reinvent it. His music was blessed by genius. In the last half century, his stature has continued to grow through enlightened musicology and idiomatic performances. Schumann's music has achieved the immortality that it has long deserved. Robert Schumann was a great creative artist!
Program Notes by Lawrence Budmen