Robert Schumann was born 200 years ago in Saxony on 8 June 1810. His father was a writer and publisher and encouraged his son's enthusiasm for the Romantic authors of the time. His interest in music was nurtured by performances given locally, but was discouraged by his mother. After his father died when he was 16, it was decided that he should go to Leipzig University to study law. He did not take studies seriously, preferring to indulge in the excesses of student life and, of course, music. He attended concerts at the Gewandhaus, took piano lessons with the fiercely idealistic Friedrich Wieck, and, during further "study" in Heidelberg, began to perform and compose. He gave up law and returned to Leipzig for further lessons with Wieck, but ruined any chance of a career as a pianist by dislocating a finger with a stretching machine he had invented.
In 1833 Schumann became ill with a depressive disorder that would recur for the rest of his life. He composed almost entirely during happier periods of intense creativity that alternated with these bouts of illness. Schumann also devoted his energy to music criticism through his journal Die Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (New-Musical Journal), which he founded in 1834 and edited for ten years. Its aim was to sift out genius from mere talent and thus combat mediocrity in German music. He proved to be a discerning critic, recognizing the burgeoning mastery in very early works by Chopin and Brahms, enthusing over Mendelssohn, and generously acknowledging Berlioz, Wagner, and Liszt, although they did not conform to his own ideal — '"Liszt's world is not mine."
Schumann's work diversified in the 1840s. An initial creative period resulted in the Dichterliebe (Poet's Love) song cycle of 1840, the first two symphonies of 1841, the Piano quintet and the Piano quartet of 1842. But in 1843 he suffered an attack of nervous exhaustion, and depression struck again the following year. The Schumanns moved to Dresden and Robert gradually emerged from his morbid state in 1845 for another highly creative phase of six years. He completed his Piano concerto and as a result of a preoccupation with Goethe's Faust composed Scenes from Faust in 1848 which also saw the composition of his outstanding overture to Byron's Manfred. The Rhenish symphony (1850), his third, was his most successful and, although it suffers from overly dense orchestration, it demonstrates a true grasp of symphonic form for the first (and only) time.
In 1850 Schumann was appointed conductor of the choir and orchestra in Dusseldorf, which should have provided performance opportunities and inspiration for new works.
When he fell ill yet again in 1852, the authorities suggested that he retire on grounds of health. Schumann's mental condition deteriorated soon afterwards and, following an attempt to drown himself, he spent the last two years of his life in an asylum.
All coins in this series:
- Felix Mendelssohn
- Frédéric Chopin
- Robert Schumann
- Gustav Mahler
- Franz Liszt