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Robert Schumann: His Life and Music Essay (Biography)

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2022

Some people are simple born to create. This certainly seems to have been the case for Robert Schumann. Born in 1810 the son of a shoemaker and his humble wife, Schumann was encouraged in his artistic abilities by his father and pressured to pursue a more practical career by his mother (Moss, 2007). His interests were evenly divided between literature and poetry and music, particularly the piano. Although his father died when he was only 16 and his mother sent him to school to study law, Schumann was unable to resist the draw of his creative side and eventually wrote to his mother about his intention to study music, “I have arrived at the conviction that with work, patience and a good teacher, I would be able, within six years, to surpass any pianist. Besides … I have an imagination and perhaps a skill for the individual work of creation” (cited in Moss, 2007). Although he showed tremendous promise as a pianist and composer, a crippling of his right hand by November of 1832 and he gave up performing in favor of writing about music from a critical perspective and continued to compose. By founding a music journal in 1834 dedicated to critiquing music for the masses, Schumann managed to gain widespread attention for new composers and musicians. As a composer, he explored the art song, orchestral music, chamber music and choral music, often bringing to it his own style and concerns and almost always managing to include his sentiments toward his life-long love Clara in them. By 1844, though, he’d suffered his first mental breakdown and by 1854, he was hearing voices and horrific music (Moss, 2007). After a failed attempt at drowning himself in the Rhine, Schumann was voluntarily placed in a mental asylum where he spent the last two years of his life. In tracing through his works and his influence, it can be seen that Schumann’s music was heavily subjective and carried with it

Schumann wrote in the Romantic tradition, heavily influenced by the ideals of this artistic movement. A great element of this movement was a return of man to nature, which meant nothing too syncopated, too organized or too concise. This is the approach taken within Schumann’s orchestral pieces as the sound itself does not produce an impression of perfection or precision. Discussing recent recordings of Schumann’s symphonies, John Rockwell (1986) suggests that following the original score without any refinements or variations produces “neither clarity nor precision in the playing.” While this is completely in keeping with the idea of the Romantic, with its slight variations and imperfections, this approach also manages to pull at the emotions in ways that are significantly different from more traditional approaches. “This is music-making with unbridled spirit and energy. The buoyant propulsion of the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony’s first movement sounds like an anticipation of ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ from Wagner’s ‘Gotterdammerung,’ the profound slow movement of the Symphony No. 2 radiates with an intense beauty, and the Fourth heaves and signs with a roiling restlessness surpassed only by Furtwangler himself” (Rockwell, 1986). This subjective approach to Schumann’s musical score is considered to most closely represent the exuberant and highly personal yet natural approach Schumann took toward his music. “His symphonies remain the products of a pure, youthful Romantic sensibility, and … the later symphonies and revisions only make them more effective embodiments of the Romantic spirit” (Rockwell, 1986).

This conception of the subjective in Schumann’s symphonies is a carry-over from his earlier musical compositions and is carried forward into his later compositions. “There is no single Schumann. Instead there are characters – Eusebius, Florestan, Raro, and many others. This results in what one could call Schumann’s Protean characterlessness, his instability, divided into various persaonae” (Perry, :113). It becomes essential, then, to understand Schumann’s characterlessness and his consideration of it in order to understand how this subjectivity manages to reach out from the private realm to embrace the public. In a conversation with one of his alter egos, Schumann wrote, “Indeed there are more figures and speaking characters in your way of composing, arrangement and shape (form) are also different. Good heavens! I could reply, this seems to me the first thing inscribed into my style which leans toward the Romantic” (cited in Perrey, : 113).

Nationalism was another important aspect of Schumann’s music. Music conveys nationalism through its ability to convey particular characteristics of the country in which it was composed. This was done, for example, through the inclusion of familiar elements of folk music and by turning to the nation’s history, legends and folk tales as sources of inspiration and foundational elements of the compositions created. Rather than being identified as a collective ‘European’ approach to music, this was an attempt by composers to celebrate the unique qualities of the country. Examples of nationalistic music produced in Germany would include music written with German lyrics and musical notation and focused upon German traditions, images and attributes. The success of this approach in conveying the important elements of the country’s identity is reinforced by the fact that nationalistic music has been used by country’s since its development as a means of propaganda and as a rallying point for new endeavors.

This is certainly in keeping with Schumann’s music as his early career is characterized by the lied, or the German art song, which focused upon the elements of Romanticism and included combinations of piano and voice. “Schumann’s songs were emotional revelations of amazing power and effect. Schumann also explored further the recesses of the romantic imagination – twilight and darkness, the pain of separation from the beloved or the homeland, terror in Germany’s dense primeval forests – and he helped make the realm of the mysterious into true romantic territory” (“Romanticism”, 2007). The natural world of his music was the German homeland which was reflected in the sounds and images the music calls forth.

This early approach to nationalism was continued into his symphonies, particularly as it can be traced through his third symphony, often referred to as The Rhenish. “The Rhenish was Schumann’s effervescent reaction to an 1851 trip down the Rhine River from Dusseldorf to Cologne. He and Clara reveled in the romantic Rhineland scenery, the magnificent and unfinished gothic cathedral in Cologne, and the idyllic pace of the Rhine – all of which find their way into the symphony” (Carousel Corner, 1999). It is particularly the cathedral that most critics seem to find resonance with within the piece. “The broad curving lines of the magnificent Theme with which it opens, are inescapably suggestive of the wide arches of a Gothic structure; and the majestic solemnity of the fourth Movement, the medieval pattern of its sonorous tones (as of an organ), its echoes, and the suggestion of the swinging censors, unmistakably reflect some impressive ceremony within the sacred, vaulted edifice” (Frigon, 2005). In its second movement, the symphony recalls the shorter elements of his earlier Art songs which were undeniably influenced and inspired by traditional German folk songs. “Of this Movement, with its warm-hearted, good-natured musical sentiment, Schumann said: ‘it seemed necessary to give prominence to popular (folk-song) elements, and I believe I succeeded in doing so’” (cited in Frigon, 2005). While these elements are alluded to in the third and fourth movements as well, it isn’t until the fifth movement that the concept of the Folk songs again takes prominence within the work. “The Finale, an Allegro, in which Schumann’s aim to emphasize the folk-idiom is clearly evident, is likewise irregular in structural design, but approximates the sonatine-allegro form” (Frigon, 2005).

Thus, subjectivity and nationalism are both seen to be strong characteristics of Schumann’s works. Nationalism is evident in his works through such recurring themes as traditional German folk songs and suggestions of particularly inspiring German landmarks and sights. However, subjectivity seems to play a much larger role in distinguishing Schumann from the rest of the composers who were working during this time period. Romanticism was sweeping the continent and composers in every country were breaking away from the traditional forms of composition to embrace the advancement of national identity. Schumann was no different in taking this approach from the other composers of his time, but his subjectivity enabled him to express it in unique ways. While “The Rhemish” was composed specifically with the intent to make it appeal to a wide audience, it remained Schumann’s deep connection with the natural environment and his own internal reverberations, his ability to retain the subjective even while incorporating the traditional, which marked his genius and established his influence over future composers. His abstract approach to art as he responded to the natural resonance of his own interior world helped usher in a new approach to music in general.


  1. Carousel Corner. (1999). . The Gale Group. Web.
  2. Frigon, Chris. (2005). Symphony Salon. Portland, OR. Web.
  3. Moss, Charles K. (2007). “Robert Schumann (1810-1856).” Carolina Classical.
  4. Perrey, Beate Julia. (2002). Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Early Romantic Poetics: Fragmentation of Desire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Rockwell, John. (1986). “.” The New York Times. Web.
  6. “Romanticism.” (2007). MSN Encarta.
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