Robert Schumann 1810-1856
"Schumann’s genius was so little appreciated that when he entered the store of Breitkopf and Hartel with a new manuscript under his arm, the clerks would nudge one another and laugh. One of them told me that they regarded him as a crank and a failure because his pieces remained on the shelf and were in the way."
American Pianist (1829-1908)
Both now and in Schumann’s time, critics tend to whittle him down, far more than others in the pantheon of master composers. We read how his later music is inferior to the works of his youth, attributed not only to his increasing mental instability, but to him manically producing too much music too quickly. We also read and believe that his efforts for larger scale projects—symphonies, opera, even chamber music—produced music of less stature than his piano music and songs. All manner of critics are quick to point out failures and weaknesses of various pieces. His legacy is eternally nibbled and bleeding. Two hundred years after his birth, Schumann remains human for us, a non-deity in the composer pantheon. Where Brahms did his best to erase all his bootstraps and destroy all traces of struggle and imperfection, Schumann recorded all his efforts, struggles, successes, and failures in his diary. He is an easy mark for criticism. Just as we are fascinated by the daily trainwrecks of contemporary celebrities, we are drawn irresistibly to the gossip of Schumann’s love affair with Clara, his nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts, his manic, flowery, and brilliant musical criticism, his failure as conductor, and all the intrigues in his rocky career. Busts of Schumann don’t sit on people’s pianos like those of Bach and Beethoven. Schumann’s foibles and honesty put him in our grasp still. And for that reason, too, his music lends a special fascination and a personal emotional power all its own. The songs of Dichterliebe and its tortuous struggle with unrequited love strike deep down and touch our own personal experience. We may never have or desire the reverence for Schumann that we do for Beethoven, but he secretly speaks for us in a way that is more familiar. Once his music seeps into our inner ears, we don’t want to let it go.
The quintessential Romantic composer, Schumann especially excelled in lyricism, miniatures, songs, piano music, extra-musical associations, and harmonic invention. There is a secretiveness to his music, a personal coding to his themes that lend especially his piano music the quality of a diary. When we listen to Schumann’s music, we intuit that we are entering a special private world. The coding is sometimes literal, as the ciphers he employed to code people’s names in musical themes. Often a particular theme or harmonic progression embodied strong personal feelings or memories for him. He also used subtle quotations, such as the short stunning phrase of Schubert’s Ave Maria that concludes his song Widmung dedicating his devotion to his bride-to-be Clara. Though preoccupied with counterpoint and musical structure, Schumann was clearly an improviser. His music has the freshness but containment of initial imagination, much more than the multilayer working-out and evolution of an idea that is so evident in Beethoven or Brahms. Schumann’s mastery was of the miniature, and his best work attains the highest perfection, with the tiny jewels from Dichterliebe, Carnaval, and Kinderszenen coming immediately to the ear.