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Timeline: Robert Schumann

U.S. Public Domain
A lithograph of Robert Schumann, dated 1839.

Robert Schumann is one of the central figures of the Romantic Era. Not only did he make important contributions to the piano, art song and orchestral repertoire, he was also a celebrated musical journalist whose prose and poetry influenced the music of a generation.

Robert was the youngest of five children born to August Schumann, a bookseller, author and publisher in Zwickau. A love for the written word wasn’t the only thing that Schumann had in common with his father. The year that Robert was born, his father began to suffer from a “nervous disorder” which would plague him for the rest of his life; an ominous foreshadowing of Robert’s own condition.

As a child, Schumann loved music.  When he was 10, he was writing new pieces to be played by his childhood friends. He was also a voracious reader and by the age of 13 his father was allowing him to contribute articles for some of his publications.

Two years after his father’s death, Schumann moved to Leipzig to attend law school at the request of his mother. However, according to one school friend, Robert never attended a single lecture, choosing instead to spend his time composing and improvising at the piano. He also began taking lessons with the sought after instructor Friedrich Wieck, which is how he first meet Wieck’s daughter, his future wife, Clara. She was only 9 years old at the time.

Schumann begged his mother to let him stop studying law and peruse his passion. She appealed to Friedrich who stated that Schumann had the raw talent to be a world renowned pianist if he would work hard and apply himself. To be honest though, Wieck doubted that Schumann had the character or drive to work that hard. Later, when Robert and Clara became lovers, Friedrich did everything within his power to keep them apart.

Schumann’s musical articles praised the work of Chopin, Mendelssohn, Berlioz and later Brahms. In his writings he began to employ two fictional characters used to voice different artistic perspectives; Florestan and Eusebis. They were like two sides of his personality. The impetuous Florestan was an embodiment of Schumann’s passion and extroversion, while the dreamy Eusebis gave voice to the quiet introverted side of Schumann’s psyche. These characters began to show up not just in his articles but in his personal letters and as composers of some of his musical works.

Credit US-PD
A photograph of Robert Schumann taken in 1850.

Robert Schumann’s mental health began to deteriorate. He started to hear music, voices and people that weren’t there. At one point he ran from the house and threw himself from the Rhine Bridge into the river. After this episode he was committed to a mental asylum near Bonn where he was separated from Clara for over two years. He died there on July 29, 1856, attended by Clara and Johannes Brahms.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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