The German Robert Schumann was one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. Pianists and singers are especially lucky: his piano music and his songs are a joy to play and sing.
Schumann studied the piano with a man called Friedrich Wieck. He might have become a concert pianist but he injured a finger and it never recovered. So he composed some brilliant sets of short piano pieces – each set fits together like a box of chocolates!
In 1835 he fell in love with Wieck’s 15-year-old daughter, Clara – a talented pianist. Wieck didn’t approve of Robert so they had to meet in secret. They finally managed to marry in 1840, and this was the year that Schumann produced some of his best Lieder (German songs). Clara was a great support to him. She also became one of Europe’s finest pianists, gave birth to several children, and composed her own music!
Schumann was a good writer, so he published his opinions on music. He and Wieck began a magazine called Die Neue Zeitschift für Musik (‘New Journal for Music’): Chopin and Berlioz were praised in it; Liszt and Wagner were criticised. Schumann respected great composers of the past (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert) and felt that some new music was written only to wow an audience. This upset him.
In general, though, Schumann was encouraging to other musicians. In 1853, Johannes Brahms, only 20 years old and a stranger to Robert and Clara, arrived on their doorstep. He ended up staying for weeks! They were impressed with his talents, and he became a close friend.
Sadly Schumann began to get ill. He was seeing things that weren’t real. One day he threw himself into the River Rhine. Some fishermen saved him, but he was so horrified by his condition that he asked to be moved to a mental hospital. The doctors wouldn’t allow his wife to go in: instead Brahms visited and reported back to Clara. After two years there he died aged 46, leaving behind some of the best Romantic music ever written, much of it radiating his love for Clara.
Select some Schumann below…
Arabesque in C major, Op. 18
An attractive piece that Schumann wrote when his disagreement with Clara’s father, who didn’t want him to marry his daughter, was reaching a climax. Schumann expressed his feelings in his music.
Performers: Bernd Glemser, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.550715
Myrthen, Op. 25: No. 24. Du Bist die eine Blume (‘You are like a flower’)
As with many of Schumann’s songs, this gentle, touching music – setting words by the poet Heinrich Heine (‘You are like a flower, / so gentle and beautiful and pure’) – may have been fuelled by his strong love for Clara.
Performers: Thomas E. Bauer, baritone; Uta Hielscher, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.557079
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61: II. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
This is the cheerful and positive Scherzo from the second of Schumann’s four symphonies. The music doesn’t show it, but Schumann was becoming ill as he wrote this music and suffered a ringing in his ears.
Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony; Antoni Wit
Taken from Naxos 8.550923
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● Robert Schumann’s wife was a great what?
● Which of these song-cycles is by Schumann?
● Schumann wrote ‘Hats off, Gentlemen! A genius!’ when he heard the music of which young composer?
● Schumann became very critical of which composer and his music?
● Schumann wrote only one opera. What was it called?
- Schumann was an excellent critic who had the gift of understanding straightaway the qualities of a composer.
- Schumann always had a bit of a split personality. He even gave his two natures names: Florestan, his passionate side, and Eusebius, his dreamy side.
- Schumann fell passionately in love with Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher. Clara’s father forbad the marriage but they married anyway.
- Clara was a fine composer herself and a great pianist. She managed to give concerts, earn good money, and have eight children.
- One of Schumann’s closest friends and admirers was Brahms. He provided great support to Clara when Robert was ill.
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Schumann’s wife Clara gave the first performance of Schumann’s only piano concerto in 1845. It is still one of the most popular piano concertos of all. Grieg was inspired by it to write his own, in the same key: equally popular, the two works are often found together on recordings. Some concertos have a long introduction from the orchestra before we hear the solo instrument – but not here. The piano is straight in at the start. Soon follows a slower, more thoughtful melody and the whole concerto seems to wrap the listener in a warm bath of notes, the orchestra and piano brilliantly matched.
Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; Budapest Symphony Orchestra; András Ligeti
Taken from Naxos 8.553268
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97, ‘Rhenish’
Schumann’s Third Symphony is a favourite in the concert hall. It was actually the last he composed, in 1850, even though there is another work called ‘No. 4’. He was inspired by a cruise he took with his wife down the River Rhine. Just as the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony (No. 6) describes the flowing water of a brook, the second movement of this symphony by Schumann describes the flowing water of the Rhine. The fourth movement contains the glory of Cologne Cathedral. There is a clear structure to the symphony – Schumann was quite traditional and believed composers should stick to certain formal rules. But that didn’t stop him writing expressively, with some soaring melodies.
Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz
Taken from Naxos 8.571213
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129
A solo concerto, especially in the Romantic era, could be quite showy. A spotlight is on one instrumentalist who in a performance is placed at the front of the stage and often has dazzling music that will impress an audience. But although Schumann’s concerto is challenging to play, it wasn’t Schumann’s main aim for the cellist to show-off. His goal was always to write good music, not give someone an excuse to show off! So he focuses on the sound of the cello. The work begins with a long melody for the instrument, which covers a wide range of notes – from low to high. Listen at 1.21 to the two fast scales right up to a high note at 1.29. When the cello comes back in at 2.11, it is on a really low note! The concerto was never played when Schumann was alive. Imagine all the work of writing a piece like this – it would have taken hours and hours… – and never hearing what it sounded like. It was first performed in 1860, four years after Schumann had died.
Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Ireland National Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Constantine
Taken from Naxos 8.550938
Album für die Jugend (‘Album for the Young’), Op. 68, I: Für Kleinere (‘For little ones’) (extracts)
Schumann wrote these pieces for his three daughters, so they are a simpler to play than a lot of piano music we find on recordings. Included here is some of part one, which contains the easiest pieces, written for younger children. You’ll find the music fits the titles well: even though it is straight-forward, it is still quite descriptive. For example, listen to the ‘Soldiers’ March’ (track 2): you can almost see them sticking out their arms and legs in strict time!
Performers: Rico Gulda, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.555711
Carnaval (‘Carnival’), Op. 9
Imaginative and full of fun, Carnaval is about a party with everyone wearing masks. Some of the pieces are dances at the party, and some describe specific people – including Schumann himself. For example, ‘Arlequin’ (track 3) is a comic, witty servant in a chequered costume: he is given jumpy, sparkly music – the pianist’s right-hand little finger has to leap to notes right up the keyboard! Eusebius is meant to be the calm side of Schumann’s own personality, and Florestan is his more fiery side. Even Chopin is at the party – the music (track 12) mimics Chopin’s. In addition to this, the whole work has four particular notes (A, E flat, C, B), buried in each piece like a kind of code or puzzle for listeners to work out. Schumann was enjoying himself!
Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.550784
Fantasiestücke (‘Fantasy Pieces’), Op. 12
Written in 1837, these pieces were dedicated not to Schumann’s beloved Clara but to an 18-year-old Scottish pianist. Clara’s father had forbidden Schumann to see Clara, and he was hurt and angry. Perhaps this affected the music he wrote? Certainly in places they are fiery. They are also attractive to listen to, and very satisfying for a pianist to play: as with most of Schumann’s piano music, the notes seem to sit comfortably underneath the hands on the keyboard.
Performers: Benjamin Frith, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.550493
Kinderszenen (‘Scenes of Childhood’), Op. 15
Unlike Carnaval, there are no puzzles or masks here: each piece is quite simple, proving how brilliant Schumann was in writing sets of piano pieces like this. Each one is short, and yet they are so varied and appealing. Again, the titles give an idea of what each one is about. They are supposed to suggest the kind of memories that an adult would have of childhood. As people get older, memories of the past can be quite powerful. Nos. 1 (‘Of Foreign Lands and Peoples’) and 7 (‘Dreaming’) are especially popular.
Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.550784
Frauenliebe und -leben (‘A Woman’s Love and Life’), Op. 42
It was summer 1840 and nothing was now to stand in the way of Clara and Robert’s relationship. So when the composer chose poems for his next set of songs, these – about a woman’s love for her husband – were an understandable choice. They are by the German poet Adelbert von Chamisso. The words talk about the woman ‘serving’ her husband, as if she’s less important – but this idea would not be unnatural as an expression of love in the 19th century. After the woman’s ‘love at first sight’, she marries and becomes a mother, but in the final song sadness has struck: the husband has died young. She mourns what she has lost, but the love is still in her heart. The piano does not just accompany the voice but has a strong part of its own: piano and voice are equally important.
Performers: Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Uta Hielscher, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.557078
Dichterliebe (‘A Poet’s Love’), Op. 48
This is Schumann’s most famous song-cycle (a set of songs to be sung in order, making up a complete work), setting texts by Heinrich Heine. Along with Frauenliebe und -leben it was written in 1840: in fact, he wrote over 130 songs that year! The texts are about an unhappy man – a poet – who is dealing with rejection. He desperately loves someone who isn’t there for him. At different points he dreams of love, expresses anger, and feels terribly sad. In the end, he accepts and forgives his loss.
Performers: Sebastian Bluth, baritone; Anita Keller, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.554219
Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44
Between 1841 and 1843 Schumann wrote some of his greatest chamber works. This quintet is possibly his greatest of all. He wrote it in just five days! It is half an hour long and brilliantly written for all five instruments (two violins, viola, cello, piano). The vitality of the music does somehow fit with a composer who was not struggling to express himself, but instead was totally inspired and couldn’t wait to get his thoughts down on paper. It flows. Its phrases pull you in, and tunes keep coming back so you can recognize them. Most of all, it is joyful.
Performers: Kodály Quartet; Jenő Jandó, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.550406
String Quartet No. 3 in A major, Op. 41 No. 3
After his ‘year of song’ (1840), when he wrote nearly 140 of his best Lieder, Schumann decided to write some bigger pieces. He composed three string quartets (for two violins, viola and cello) in 1842, and this is the third.
Performers: Fine Arts Quartet
Taken from Naxos 8.570151
Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47
This was written around the same time as the Piano Quintet, and is even in the same key: the two are sometimes judged to be a kind of ‘double whammy’ of achievement. Two pinnacles of chamber music! This is for violin, viola, cello and piano – so it has one violin instead of the Quintet’s two. It contains the same kind of irresistible energy. Sometimes the instruments play the same rhythm as each other (e.g. the beginning of track 2), sometimes the musical lines overlap (e.g. 0.53 in track 2), and sometimes instruments answer each other (e.g. beginning of track 4), but always the group seems knitted together. The third movement is a beautiful, tender, Romantic movement. It is the cello that introduces the main melody from beneath, beginning at 0.08, before the violin takes it over at 0.49, singing above everyone else. The whole work builds to a thrilling, pleasing finish.
Performers: Fine Arts Quartet; Xiayin Wang, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.572661