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Music / Robert Schumann

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Robert Schumann (8 June 1810 – 29 July 1856) was a German composer and music critic of the Romantic era.

Having to give up his dream to be a pianist due to an injury, he concentrated on composing and writing commentaries on music. He was married to Clara Wieck, one of the most famous pianists of his time, after a long battle against the opposition of her father (who was his piano teacher). Besides his music, Schumann was known to be an enthusiastic promoter of Fryderyk Chopin in Germany and it was he who pronounced Johannes Brahms a genius.

Unfortunately, Schumann suffered from what today would be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. He tried to kill himself in 1854 by jumping into the Rhine river, but was saved by a passing fishing boat. Thereafter, he had himself committed to an insane asylum and never emerged.

He wrote mostly for piano. Many people will know "Träumerei" (Dreaming) from Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) and Carnaval. He also wrote numerous song cycles, including his famous Dichterliebe (Poet's Love) and Frauen-Liebe und Leben (A Woman's Love and Life), five symphonies (four of them numbered), and a beautiful piano concerto.

Schumann's music and life provide examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Schumann was a heavy drinker, believing alcohol heightened his musical creativity. He sometimes supplemented the high with caffeine and strong cigars.
  • Ambiguously Gay: It's unclear if Schumann had homosexual dalliances prior to his marriage. His diaries reference homosexuality on several occasions, and he expressed feelings of love for some of his male friends such as Ludwig Schuncke. During the 19th century, however, it was not unusual for men to profess love for each other while remaining platonic friends — so that may have applied in this case.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Schumann's dream of becoming a virtuoso pianist ended because of a hand injury, though there seem to be significant questions about its exact nature. A commonly-held notion is that this involved the middle or ring finger of the right hand, caused by using a device meant to immobilize certain fingers while exercising others. Accounts by contemporary doctors as well as Clara Schumann disagree about whether one finger or the whole hand were affected, which finger was injured, whether weakness or paralysis were involved, and the exact symptoms. This forced Schumann to focus solely on composing, much to his advantage.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Applies to Schumann's wife Clara. Her father (Schumann's piano teacher) did everything he possibly could to end his daughter's relationship, including taking legal action to prevent the couple from marrying.
  • Determinator: Schumann went through periods of extraordinary creative capacity. He wrote the piano work Kreisleriana in four days and remarkably duplicated the feat with his Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major (though he spent three additional weeks orchestrating the latter). During 1840 (referred to by biographers as "The Year of Song"), Schumann incredibly wrote 150 songs over a four-month period, a rate better than one song per day.
  • Eccentric Artist: And then some, in part because of his mental illness. Has a great argument for being the Trope Codifier among composers.
  • Hearing Voices: As Schumann's mental illness worsened, he went through periods where he heard imaginary voices and strange music.
  • Loon with a Heart of Gold: Despite his mental illness, he was a generous champion of composers whose music he liked, mainly via his role as an influential music critic.
  • Mentor Archetype:
    • Schumann used his music critic's post as a bully pulpit for composers whose music he liked. Most notable beneficiaries included Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Carl Maria Von Weber, Hector Berlioz, and Fryderyk Chopin, about the last of whom he famously wrote, "Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!". He came out of retirement to jump-start the career of a young Johannes Brahms. Schumann was also very supportive of his wife's performing career and encouraged her to go out on tour.
    • Schumann's composing career benefited greatly from his wife's efforts, both as an active performer of his piano music and as muse. Her prodding to write chamber music, orchestral pieces, and Lieder resulted in some of Schumann's best works for these media.
  • Mood-Swinger: The composer exhibited such behavior and may have suffered from manic-depressive disorder. The creation of his fictional music critic alter egos, Florestan (the achiever) and Eusebius (the dreamer), personified his dual nature.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: When Robert and Clara Schumann decided to get married, Clara's father disapproved vigorously — going so far as to try and prevent this via legal action. He was unsuccessful.
  • Romanticism: Schumann's music is considered an archetypal example of this style. His piano music, for instance, often consists of character piece collections and frequently contains programmatic elements (think Carnaval and Papillons). He was well-steeped in Romantic literature, with Jean Paul a particular favorite, and this heavily influenced both his composing and critical writing.
  • The Wonka: Schumann had a successful self-employed career as a composer and music critic despite suffering from mental illness.