As the world celebrates composer Robert Schumann's 200th birth anniversary, it's time to recall the tragic tale of the musical genius.
The composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) whose 200th birth anniversary is being celebrated throughout the world, was the most complex of all the composers. He was a paranoiac, schizophrenic with a manic depressive temperament. This makes his music extremely disturbing and at times terribly beautiful. He inherited this personality from his father who was not only musical but had a strange mental condition. From him Schumann also inherited a love of books as his father was a librarian and possessed a book shop.
Schumann not only had a beautiful mind but also a very gentle nature. He would have been embarrassed to see his birthday being observed internationally. Schumann was very helpful to other composers, contemporaries like Chopin and Brahms and predecessors like Beethoven and Schubert. He wrote about them in his music magazine “The new music journal” of which he was the editor.
Indeed Schumann was the first music critic if not the greatest who ever took up a pen. A love of books particularly of Jean Paul guided his music — the four symphonies, the concertos for cello and piano, the songs, the chamber music and the wonderful array of solo piano music. Chopin was not so kind about Schumann, calling his “Carnaval” not music at all. Schumann on the other hand wrote about the polish composer “Hats off Gentlemen a genius”. These are facts but Schumann has to be understood and appreciated with feeling.
He was a quintessential romantic and along with Liszt formed a fascinating duo of creative spirits who best represent the romantic age. Schumann was one part of a highly emotional triangle which included his wife the pianist Clara Weick, later Schumann and Johannes Brahms the composer. Schumann first met his future wife when she was nine and a promising pianist. Her father Frederick Weick was Schumann's teacher. It was a time when Schumann was writing his great series of piano works. He always created with obsession; one musical form had to be exhausted and then he would move to another.
As a pianist Schumann tried out an experiment with the fourth finger of his right hand and lost it forever. That ended his hopes of a career as a pianist. But Weick was sympathetic and allowed Schumann to come to the house. Schumann promptly fell in love with Clara. Master Weick was against this idea and protested vehemently. Schumann, encouraged by responses from Clara, continued a protracted legal battle till Clara was 21, when they married and moved out of the Weick household. Schumann's intense love is seen in his “Spring” symphony. Clara gave him five children in seven years. Creatively this was the best period of Schumann's life.
The symphonies were followed by the song cycle “Woman's love and life” dedicated to Clara, the magnificent piano concerto and the introspective cello concerto. Clara continued to give recitals and tour. This Schumann did not enjoy as in one case he was asked by Clara fans if he was her husband and if he was also musical. Schumann didn't say anything but stored all these hurts in the mind. He continued to work on his chamber music and write. As a critic his name had spread, and a young composer called Johannes Brahms took his piano sonatas and walked miles to come see him.
It was going to be a fateful meeting. Brahms was welcomed warmly and once Schumann heard his music he went to call Clara from inside the house to come and listen to the new musical giant. Brahms was invited to stay and stayed on. The three would go for long walks and discuss music. Slowly Brahms fell in love with Clara, and Clara mothered him as she was to do for the rest of her life and his too.
Nobody cared about Schumann's reaction. At first he was enthusiastic, even crazy, about the young man. But later strange feelings crept into his mind. Remember this was a time when there was hardly any treatment for psychological illness. Freud and his school were still to come. When Clara went on tours with her piano Johannes looked after the children. On the surface everything was fine, for Schumann wore a mask. But deep inside he was restless.
The total breakdown came when one night he jumped into the river and tried to drown himself. He was rescued and by his own request put in a mental asylum. For two years he stayed there counting the leaves of the trees and writing down the names of the cities of the world. He never composed or wrote again. At first Clara, shocked and depressed, tried to see him, but every time she went his condition would deteriorate. Clara advised Johannes not to go. Two years after the drowning incident Schumann died.
Clara was the reason why he composed, for Schumann composed his best music after their marriage, leaving aside the piano works which were all — except the glorious Fantasy in C — composed before marriage. Clara is perhaps the only woman in the world of music who guided and edited the works of two great composers. After Schumann's death Clara's attitude to Brahms changed. Brahms perhaps hoped for a marriage but Clara became reclusive and made it clear to Johannes that they could be friends that's all. Brahms as he grew and matured showed all his creations to the older woman and only after she passed a work would it see the printing machine. Brahms never married, and after Clara's death died within a year. This poignantly touching love story has inspired many films and plays.
One hopes that in this bi-centenary year more psychological studies of Schumann will emerge. The relationship of the mind and his music is as important as Beethoven's relationship with deafness. Brahms briefly fell in love with Clara and Schumann's daughter, but Clara nipped it in the bud and got her daughter Julie married to another man. For sometime Brahms was heartbroken and composed the Alto Rhapsody for contralto and chorus. Very sad music, but he returned to Clara very shortly. Their friendship is a story in itself. Clara started to compose and Brahms returned the compliment by editing her works. Schumann's disease of the mind was too complex and subtle for that age. Schumann himself was Schumann's doctor and that is why the wearing of masks, the pain of being a loner and introvert terminated in disaster. In the stream of classical music, the case of Robert Schumann is totally unique.