Today is the bicentenary of the birth of Robert Schumann, a great German composer in the Romantic tradition, but one who led a much troubled life. As a young man, he seemed torn between literature and music, and then between playing and composing; and, as he grew older, he was often troubled by mental problems. Also, his life was inextricably bound up with that of Clara Wieck, a young concert pianist, whose father bitterly opposed their union. Schumann left behind many journals, but only those he wrote with Clara in the first years of their marriage have been translated into English.
Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony, two hundred years ago today on 8 June 1810. His father, a bookseller and writer, encouraged him to pursue both music and literary interests, but he died when his son was only 16. Schumann moved to Leipzig, and then Heidleberg to study law. However, by the end of 1830 he had returned to music and was training under the renowned teacher Friedrich Wieck to become a concert pianist. Before long, though, a weakness in the fingers of one hand led him towards composing, and to studying music theory with Heinrich Dorn.
Many of Schumann’s most famous works - considered alongside the best of German Romantic music - were composed in the mid-late 1830s. They are noted for their originality and daring, as much as for their links to literature. Carnaval, one of his most genial and characteristic piano works, contains various musical cryptograms; Kinderszenen depicts the innocence and playfulness of childhood; and Kreisleriana, one of Schumann’s best works, is a dramatic piece for solo piano composed to represent a famous character from the German fiction of E T A Hoffmann.
Schumann was also a working journalist who founded Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and influential music magazine, in 1835, and remained its editor until 1844. In 1840, he married Clara Wieck despite a bitter struggle with her father who tried to block the marriage. Schumann had known Clara since when as a young girl she had performed many of his early compositions. Their affair almost certainly began when she was still in her teens. They had eight children, although one of them died in infancy. Clara would go on to outlive Schumann by four decades, and her own career as a concert pianist would straddle six decades.
Having written mostly for the piano hitherto, Schumann widened his repertoire in the 1940s with song cycles, symphonies, one opera, and settings of Goethe’s Faust. He was well acquainted with other composers of the age - Mendelssohn, Liszt, Wagner, and the younger Brahms (with whom Clara would become romantically involved later). He also travelled often, including a long tour of Russia with Clara in 1844, but his health was unreliable and declining. In 1950, he was appointed municipal director of music in Düsseldorf, but resigned in 1853. The following year, he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine, and was then confined to an asylum where he remained until his death in 1856. Classical Net and Wikipedia have more biographical information.
Schumann kept journals for much of his life, though most of them have not been translated into English. According to Peter Ostwald, a Schumann biographer, this is because of their incredible bulk, the overabundance of routine facts, and Schumann’s use of a telegraphic style without any explanatory narrative. However, Ostwald considers there are two ‘remarkable exceptions’ to this pattern: the diaries of Schumann’s youth when he was thinking of himself as a literary writer, and the marriage diaries written with his wife Clara. These latter were first edited by Gerd Nauhaus and published in German in 1987. The book was then translated by Ostwald and published in English by Robson Books in 1994 - The Marriage Diaries of Robert & Clara Schumann.
The author Janice Galloway who has fictionalised Clara’s life in her book, (cleverly!) titled, Clara, wrote about it in The Guardian, and, in doing so, referred to these marriage diaries: ‘Famously, she also kept a diary of her relationship in tandem with her husband for the first four years of their marriage. Lots of ink, lots of detail - and not really very much at all. Even reading her written words, the silences are unavoidable, the white, unspoken space between the lines seeming to grow wider with each passing year, each hellish domestic crisis. Discover Robert’s ‘corrections’ to her entries scribbled like teachers’ comments in their shared diary, discover her ruthless cheerfulness in praising his work when he is at his least healthy, his least confident, discover her relief when a suspected fresh pregnancy proves false, and it’s not hard to see why.’
Here are some extracts from The Marriage Diaries of Robert & Clara Schumann:
‘This month seems to want to be a beautiful one as well; only one day, the 1st, allowed the sun to be pushed aside, but now it asserts its full privilege.
Robert is composing constantly, has already finished 3 movements and I hope he will be ready in time for his birthday. In my opinion, he can look back on the past year and himself with joy! - so often they say it might kill the spirit, rob it of youthful freshness! but my Robert certainly demonstrates the clearest evidence to the contrary!
On the 2nd the singer Schmidt visited me with the music director Seydelmann from Breslau. He is a dried-up, insignificant man, Schmidt the same, although he thinks of himself as a great genius and displays this often enough, with the greatest arrogance.
My piano playing again falls completely by the wayside, as is always the case when Robert composes. Not a single little hour can be found for me the entire day! if only I don’t regress too much! The score reading has also stopped again for now, but I hope not for too long!
The composing doesn’t want to go at all right now - sometimes I want to beat myself over the stupid head!-’
‘On the 3rd Mendelssohn visited us. He is reluctant to leave here, and it is really to be hoped that he will return, since he spoke much about the establishment of a music conservatory here, which seems a good idea to me.
This week I sat down a lot to compose, and finally succeeded with four poems by Rückert for my dear Robert. May they satisfy him just a little, then my wish will be fulfilled.
It has been over 3 weeks that I have been waiting for news from my mother, and I suspect that she was not satisfied with our birthday presents - who knows! perhaps she counted on a significant sum of money. But I believe she cannot expect more than we have done - it was beyond our means. As soon as one is married it is a different story in terms of giving money, then one has himself to worry about, and there are so many things that burden a poor father of the family, which soon is what my Robert will ultimately end up being!!!!-’
‘The weather was horrible on June 8, but our souls lived in the most magnificent sunshine, and thus all went well. Oh, we were very blissful that day, and I devoutly thank God for letting us live so happily through this first June 8 of our marriage, and above all that he created such a dear, excellent human being for me and the world. Don’t laugh at me, dear Robert - that would mean pouring cold water on my heart filled with love! - There was little I could give my Robert, but he always kept smiling so amicably because he knew so well how affectionately they were given. Four lieder by Rückert gave him much pleasure, and he also treated them so tolerantly that he will even publish them together with several of his own, which makes me very happy.’
‘Our little one gives us indescribable pleasure; she grows daily and shows a good-natured personality with great vitality. Now the first tooth is in place. Clara’s happiness about this and about the whole child is mine as well. The entire June was a kind month except for some days and nights of revelry.
Yet I was also industrious, in a new sort of way, and have almost completely finished making and also writing down two quartets for violins, etc. in A minor and F major. Also working a great deal on my journal.
Clara is playing little, except from quartets by Haydn and Mozart that we took up consecutively at the piano, and has also composed two lieder for my birthday, the most successful she has ever written up to now. On this day, the 8th of June, she gave me as always a large number of beautiful things, and above all [gave] the little one a wreath. But I was melancholy and unwell on that day. In the evening, we cheered ourselves up; several acquaintances were there, and much wine flowed into grateful throats. Yet the best thing after that was music, which Clara gave us as yet.’