Robert Schumann was a fascinating person. We think of him as a composer first, but he also was quite a talented writer, penning articles, poetry, and reviews. His father was an author and a publisher, and Robert grew up around literature. He was a voracious reader, and at the ago of thirteen, wrote short articles for one of his father’s publications. In his passion for both literary matters and music, Robert Schumann embodies the quintessence of the Romantic spirit.
Schumann was devoted to his own self expression, but also wrote about and reviewed the music of other composers. In earlier publications and in the Neue Zeitcschrift für Musik, a music magazine founded by Robert Schumann and Friedrich Wieck (who would become his father-in-law), Robert wrote articles—more than three hundred in total—about up and coming composers, new compositions, and the state of affairs for music in the nineteenth century. In these writings, he introduced a secret society called the League of David (Davidsbündler), a group of artists whose main purpose was to slay the Philistines. In this context, the Philistines were the makers and consumers of music that was banal and pedestrian. Schumann’s society had members like Eusebius, Florestan, and Raro, three imaginary men who represented aspects of Schumann’s own personality. He used these characters to advocate for other artists, and to debate and discuss the music of the day. As a champion of new music, Schumann supported the work of Chopin, Brahms, Berlioz, and others.
He lived for literature, art, and music. And in keeping with his stature as the model of a “Romantic,” we must of course mention the epic love story of Robert and Clara Wieck. What could be more romantic than a tale of forbidden love? When Robert was 21 years old, he began studying piano with Friedrich Wieck. Wieck not only taught piano, but had a prodigy for a daughter. Clara’s skill at the piano was well-known from her very first public appearance.
Robert moved in with the Wieck family, and eventually fell in love with Clara, much to Mr. Wieck’s consternation. Schumann kept very detailed journals, so we know that Robert and Clara kissed for the first time on November 25, 1835 when Robert was 25 and Clara was 16. Friedrich did everything he could to discourage this relationship, taking Clara away on tours that lasted months at a time, and forbidding their correspondence. Schumann, prone to depression, suffered a great deal from their separation. The young lovers went so far as to take up a court case, asking for legal permission to marry without Friedrich’s consent. This caused a rift between Clara and her father, and in the long battle that followed, Schumann’s depression worsened. Eventually, however, their case prevailed, and the two were married.
The Schumanns had eight children, and endeavored to find balance in their lives. Robert needed time and quiet to compose, Clara needed a place to practice so she could continue playing concerts. They faced the same challenges of any working couple with a large family. Sometimes the difficulty was in trying to find someone to care for the children, and sometimes it was simply finding the time and space to create. Sometimes there was tension because of Clara’s more public success as a performer (Schumann gave up performing years earlier because of an issue with his right hand). They experienced the loss of one of their children at the age of one. And then there were Robert’s severe bouts of depression.
Next weekend, LACO presents Schumann’s Second Symphony. Composed in a time of mental turmoil, this work represents a triumph of creativity over adversity. In the 1840s, Robert suffered from both depression and auditory hallucinations. Tinnitus was probably the cause of the constant ringing in his ears. He also experienced acute anxiety and worried about being poisoned by metal objects. By the 1850s, Schumann began to hear voices, heavenly choirs in his head, and sometimes he had demonic visions that frightened him. In fear that he might harm the members of his family, Schumann attempted suicide in 1854. He was rescued, but asked to be put in an asylum, where he remained for the last two years of his life.
The love story doesn’t end with Robert Schumann’s death, however. Clara remained devoted to her husband’s work and his memory. Clara spent the rest of her career playing Robert’s music, popularizing it. She was also named the editor of Robert’s complete works for the publisher Breitkopf and Härtel. She outlived her husband by 40 years, but remained unmarried for all that time. Robert paid tribute to this love and devotion while he was alive, and you can hear one such tribute in the Second Symphony. In the final movement of the Symphony, there is a reference to the last song in Beethoven’s song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte.”
In addition to love notes from Robert Schumann to Clara, LACO’s upcoming concert also features Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major and the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s commission for Sound Investment, Evidence. It’s going to be a wonderful evening that celebrates the quintessential Romantic in Robert Schumann, the perfect Classicist in Mozart, and something entirely new that’s never before been heard by the public. Schumann would have approved heartily of the Sound Investment commission, because it encourages composers to write new music. No doubt composer Matthew Aucoin (who will appear also as guest conductor) would have found a great champion in Robert Schumann.