It was during a visit to Maxen Castle in 1846 that Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) had his head examined. He lived in fear of the streak of manic depression that had claimed the life of his elder sister through suicide. However this was no ordinary examination. It was performed by Robert Noel, the famous English phrenologist, a practitioner of that popular branch of Viennese pseudoscience which claimed that a person’s character could be divined from external features of the skull. Schumann later recorded Noel’s assessment in his diary:
“The organs associated with precaution are admirably well developed, anxiety that is even said to stand in the way of my happiness, – music, – the power of poetry – noble striving – great artistic but noble ambition – great love of the truth – great honesty – great benevolence – “emotional through and through” – sense of form – modesty – strength of purpose.”
One suspects that Noel had done his homework for it was a surprisingly accurate, if flattering assessment of the great man. While phrenology has long since been dismissed as a farrago of arrant nonsense, it is tempting to gauge the character of Schumann from a “phrenological” analysis of his music, if only because Schumann himself regarded his music as an outlet for his internal reflections. Much of his music is plainly autobiographical and, with his love of word play and cryptograms, there are hidden references scattered throughout his music.
Schumann was undoubtedly a child of the Romantic period. As a well-read adolescent, he lapped up the Romantic writers of the time, especially the writer Jean Paul who inspired his love of hidden meaning. In an unfinished novel, Schumann developed the alter-egos of Florestan (passionate) and Eusebius (thoughtful), personages that would crop up in his music, his diaries, in his writings as a distinguished music critic and even in the naming of his children.
His first published work, the Abegg variations (1830) was written for the birthday of Meta Abegg, an accomplished pianist. His friend later said that Schumann was mostly attracted to Meta Abegg owing to the musical possibilities of her name (A, B-flat, E, G, G). This seems a little far-fetched as she was a renowned beauty and Schumann was himself no blushing violet but the resulting music brought him acclaim.
More elaborate musical cryptograms form the basis for his celebrated Carnaval which was completed in 1835. He was engaged at the time to Ernestine von Fricken and was fascinated to discover that she was born in the town of Asch (now Aš in the Czech Republic). Carnaval is essentially a set of variations on three possible musical translations of the four letters ASCH. This contrivance might seem a little pretentious (or just a bit nerdy) but here, as elsewhere, the cipher is used to fire-up his musical imagination with dazzling results.
In 1835 his music took a more overtly autobiographical turn when he became infatuated with Clara Wiecke (1819 – 1896), the precociously talented daughter of his music teacher Friedrich Wiecke. The infatuation was mutual. They had known each other for several years and she had a glittering career ahead of her as a concert pianist but her father was aghast. Schumann was nine years her elder and a temperamental and wayward character; in Wiecke’s eyes it was a potentially disastrous match and he refused to consent to the marriage on any terms and did everything in his power confound them. The couple nevertheless continued to see other furtively and became engaged in 1837. When court proceedings filed by her father against Schumann for drunkenness failed in 1840, the couple quickly married, one day short of Clara’s 21st birthday.
During the unhappy months of separation, Schumann wrote to Clara that all his music was written out of his love for her. In one letter he says “I have found that nothing sharpens one’s imagination so much as to be expecting and longing for something … I have been waiting for your letter and consequently have composed bookfuls of things … Whether it was an echo of what you said to me once ‘that sometimes I seemed to you like a child’, anyhow I suddenly got an inspiration and knocked off about thirty quaint little things, from which I have selected twelve [sic], and called them Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”). You will enjoy them, though you will need to forget that you are a virtuoso when you play them”.
The short pieces that comprise Kinderszenen are utterly beguiling and are masterpieces of the form. Much here is familiar from Schumann’s other cyclical works: from recitative and chorale, to dance, folksong and lullaby. However, the pieces are deceptively easy to play and, like Mozart’s piano sonatas, they fall into a category of music which is “too easy for amateurs and too difficult for professionals”. Even the famous Träumerei, (a favourite encore piece) is easy to make a hash of. Schumann once wrote “Everything beautiful is difficult, the short the most difficult”. This is particularly true of Kinderszenen.
Schumann reacted furiously when the eminent critic Ludwig Rellstab described the pieces as “snapshots of child life”. “Anything more inept and narrow minded I have never come across than what Rellstab has written about my Kinderszenen”, he thundered, “He really thinks that I place a crying child before me and then search for tones accordingly”. As with Schumann’s other music, the titles are suggestive: they are reminiscences of childhood – not depictions – and are full of tenderness and yearning for lost innocence. Scholars have been kept busy searching for clues and motifs in the music and some have suggested that the work is an elaborate set of variations. While there are clearly thematic relations in the work (such as pieces 1 and 4), it seems he originally had in mind a much larger project with several pieces in Kinderszenen forming an introduction (or Anfang) to the more technically demanding Novelletten.
The year of their marriage was an extraordinary one; until then Schumann had composed almost exclusively for the piano but in 1840 he turned his attention to composing Lieder. In that year alone he wrote over 100 songs including the cycles Myrthen, Dichterliebe and the two Liederkreis, all inspired by his love for Clara. Some of these songs even contain a motif based on a falling musical interval – a musical interpretation of ehe, the German word for marriage. These works are rightly regarded as the finest song cycles since those of Franz Schubert and are perhaps the greatest love letters ever penned in music.
In the end it was a happy marriage. They kept a joint diary of their busy musical activities and, in keeping with his love of allusion, he marked each day they made love with the letter “F” (in retrospect, Schumann’s least subtle cipher – it refers, of course, to Florestan). Unsurprisingly they had a large family – eight children – and he liked to play with them, delighting them with fantastical ghost stories. Somehow Clara managed to be the breadwinner for the ever-growing family but her fame as a soloist often eclipsed Schumann’s own as a composer. Once in St. Petersburg, they met up with an old friend, the now unjustly neglected composer Adolf von Henselt; at a musical soirée, a Russian nobleman turned to Robert Schumann and inquired “Are you musical too?”
But Clara, herself a composer of no small talent, was a source of constant support to Schumann and she encouraged him to write chamber music (in which he excelled), symphonies (to this day accorded a somewhat grudging respect), concertos (“hats off” as even he might have said) and opera (his least successful foray).
For the sensitive and increasingly fractious Schumann, the decline when it happened was rapid. His failure as a music director in Düsseldorf seemed to push him over the edge; he became withdrawn and was constantly troubled by musical voices in his head which he attributed to angels. In despair, he attempted to drown himself in the Rhine but he later committed himself to an asylum for the last two years of his life, separated from his beloved Clara. His decline was hastened by the debilitating mercury treatment he received, a widely used but ineffective panacea for all manner of illnesses for the time.
One of Schumann’s last published works, the curiously titled Gesänge der Frühe for piano, was written during his decline. The opening chorale is one of his most enigmatic and haunting compositions, its strange tonal meanderings seem to prefigure those of Debussy – proof (if any were needed) that his astonishing creative powers remained undimmed to the end.