"The Poet Speaks" is a narrative biography of the composer Robert Schumann, written to be read aloud. Text-only version | Illustrated version

"The Poet Speaks"
Life of Robert Schumann

Childhood. Poetry and Prose.

Robert Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau, Saxony. It was in the large house in the main square with the sign that read: Schumann, Bookseller and Publisher. That was Schumann's father. It was in his father's bookshop that Robert found books to read,and music to play on the fine piano his father gave him. Schumann read the classics - and the moderns: Schiller, Goethe, Jean Paul Richter; and he played Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Schumann was later to give this advice to young musicians:

Rest from your musical studies by industriously reading the poets. Often take exercise out in the open.

It could have served him as a motto. But when Schumann was 16 his father died. And what he was to call "the struggle between poetry and prose" began.

Leipzig. Jean Paul Richter. J. S. Bach.

Leipzig and law. Music was after all "the breadless art", his mother had said. But Schumann a law student - in the midst of the German Romantic Movement? Anyway, before lectures began, there was time for a tour to Bavaria.

In Bayreuth, Schumann visited the widow of Jean Paul Richter; she gave him a portrait of the writer which Schumann carefully packed and sent home to Zwickau. Returning to Leipzig, there was a rather important meeting. Schumann met the music teacher Friedrich Wieck and his nine year old daughter, the pianist Clara. Schumann thought the girl played "amazingly well"; but that Clara's nose was to long, and her eyes - too large for her face.

Also of interest in Leipzig was the St. Thomas Church where Johann Sebastian Bach had been cantor. Schumann wrote:

One evening I went to the Leipzig Churchyard to look for a great man's grave: for hours I searched up and down - I found no J. S. Bach. And when I asked the gravedigger about this, he shook his head at the man's obscurity and said, "Bach's a common name."

Bach's music was, however, performed in the church. And there were concerts by Leipzig's Gewandhaus orchestra for Schumann to attend.

The death of Franz Schubert

But law school would begin - though Schumann soon wrote home that "its ice-cold definitions would crush the life out of" him. So he spent rather more time dreaming at the keyboard. He would play, especially the music of Franz Schubert. When Schubert died that year of 1828, Schumann was heard crying throughout the night.

"I never wanted to talk about Schubert, unless it was to the trees and the stars."

A close friend and fellow disciple of Jean Paul's was a law student at Heidelberg; Schumann would go there.

A Move to Heidelberg. Poetry wins the struggle.

But still at Heidelberg law did no more than sometimes touch Robert's mornings "with a biting frost". Schumann hadn't even gone there directly - ... There had been a visit to Goethe's birthplace in Frankfort, an English girl "with the lisp of an angel" to be enchanted by. There was northern Italy - ... And this couldn't go on forever. A decision had to be made: Or music or law. Schumann wrote: "My life has been for twenty years a struggle between poetry and prose, or, if you prefer, between music and law."

Of course music won. Schumann returned to Leipzig to study with Friedrich Wieck. Clara was now eleven years old.

Musical studies with Wieck. Friendship with Clara.

Clara was already an accomplished artist, soon to give concerts throughout the German-speaking world. But with Schumann - Robert told her ghost stories; they played blind-man's bluff with Clara's younger brother Alvin, and they took long walks together in the country-side. Schumann would look at the sky, with Clara tugging at his coat to keep him from stumbling over the stones. Sometimes Clara would pause and say to herself, "How happy I am!" Schumann wrote to his mother: "Now, who wouldn't like to hear that!"

There was always music in Wieck's house. It was there that Schumann first met Mendelssohn and Chopin. To try to speak of Mendelssohn Schumann wrote, would be "to try and analyze grace or weigh moonlight". Of Chopin, Schumann said simply, "Hats off, gentlemen - a genius!"

The Kaffeebaum. The New Musical Journal. The higher calling of music

Schumann had many musical friends in Leipzig. They would meet at coffee houses - especially at the Kaffeebaum. Schumann had always been drawn between literary and musical composition, and now in the Kaffeebaum the idea for his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik was born. In the pages of this "somewhat madcap" New Musical Journal, in bright, imaginative language, the higher and poetic calling of music would be championed over "lyrical commonplaces" and virtuosity for its own sake.

The Neue Zeitschrift. Florestan and Eusebius. The fight for Clara begins.

In the Neue Zeitschrift Schumann's character's Florestan and Eusebius appear. Taking the Romantic theme of character "doubles" - the spontaneous, fiery self as opposed to the quiet dreamer -, Schumann returns to Jean Paul Richter, from whom, Schumann wrote, he had learned more about counterpoint than from any of his music teachers. Florestan and Eusebius were, then, the contrasting voices - the Allegro and Adagio - of Schumann's musical personality. A further voice, Master Raro, served as "the mediator between them". Raro was decidedly not that "rare music master" Wieck, but it was early noticed that the name 'Raro' links the names Clara and Robert.

Clara was now a young woman of seventeen. And one evening, when Robert was leaving for the day and Clara was lighting his way down the back staircase, they quietly confessed their love for one another. Schumann's mother was overjoyed by the news. Wieck flew into a rage. He threatened to shoot Robert if he ever came near the girl again. Clara was put under strict watch, her mail was opened, and she was not allowed out of the house alone. Wieck carried it so far that legal action had to be taken. The outraged father had raised Clara to be an artist, not a housewife. In this way began the struggle for Clara that would last four long years.

Schumann was to write to Clara: "Love me; love me well. I ask for much because I give much."

Schumann's piano cycles

During these years Clara would continue to make concert tours, and Robert - Schumann wrote music. The piano cycles from these years were to establish his reputation as a composer.

With these piano cycles, Schumann invented a new musical form. Short pieces followed one another without transitions; they were linked only by "open-ended phrases that could serve both as beginnings and endings". One of these cycles was Opus 16, Kreisleriana. Its title comes from a creation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's.

Yet though the music was named after Hoffmann's Kapellmeister Kreisler, Schumann's heart was elsewhere. He secretly wrote to Clara that each composition was a portrait of her.

"The titles of my pieces were added afterwards, as hints to how the music should be conceived and played."

Their letters were some consolation while Clara was away. But when she returned to Leipzig, it was harder for them. "The very fact of being together in the same city without any possibility of speaking to each other, the unavoidable and painful thought that at any moment they might meet in a third place and yet out of consideration for each other would be obliged - or thought they would be obliged - to behave like strangers - [all this] served to give them in reality a sense of separation, disillusionment and despair." In their letters they decided, then, that Robert should go to Vienna.

Visit to Vienna. Discovery of Schubert's 9th Symphony.

But Schumann found that circumstances in the Austrian capital would not allow him to establish himself there musically; his music was no more welcomed by Vienna than Franz Schubert's had been before him.

However, he did visit the graves of Beethoven and Schubert; and it was while in Vienna that Schumann discovered Schubert's C major Symphony (the 9th Symphony). He sent the symphony to Mendelssohn and it was performed that same season.

The fight for Clara ends

When Schumann returned to Saxony, the long legal struggle was over. Clara was his own. They were married in a small village church at Schönefeld, near Leipzig, the day before Clara's 21st birthday. Schumann was thirty years old. What he had called "all these nights of anguish, sleepless with the thought of you, and all this tearless grief", was at an end.

Marriage and family life

"Few events, much happiness." With these words begins the diary Robert and Clara Schumann began when they set up house in Leipzig. But they studied music together, and they gave concerts. Clara played; Schumann composed. In the years that followed he turned from piano cycles to vocal and orchestral music.

Leipzig. Dresden. Years of wandering.

These were years - as always with Schumann - of complete self-abandonment to promoting the cause of music. So when Mendelssohn withdrew from the conductorship of the Gewandhaus orchestra, Schumann was deeply hurt that the position was not offered to him. To drive away this dark mood, he could take a "cure by counterpoint", studying Bach's fugues. But Schumann was now disillusioned with Leipzig.

So in 1844 he took his family to live in Dresden. But Clara was soon to doubt whether anyone there had blood in their (blue) veins - there seemed to be no heartfelt love for music. Indeed, the Saxon capital was a "musical desert", and the Schumanns could not be happy there.

Schumann as conductor. Music for young people. Rhenish Symphony.

Schumann was, nonetheless, now a father of four children, and for them - and out of the sympathy he had always had with children - he composed first a piano, and then a song album for young musicians.

Leaving Dresden, Schumann was appointed music director at Düsseldorf. But things did not go well for him there either. Robert's conducting had never gone well. "If only you could persuade your dear husband to scold a little and to insist on greater attention", Clara was told. She herself was perplexed: "Robert takes it with an indifference which I cannot understand", she wrote. But as Clara's biographer Litzmann was to say: Schumann "listened to the music in his own mind rather than to the actual performance".

As a distraction from troubles with the orchestra in Düsseldorf, a journey on the Rhine south to Cologne was planned. In the joy of the Rhineland countryside, the 3rd Symphony - the "Rhenish" - began to be born.

The effects of composition. The beginning of madness.

Schumann's enthusiasm for composition was boundless; Clara wrote: "At present he is music pure and simple, so that there is nothing to be done with him." But the excitement of musical composition - and the exhaustion and depression which followed it - undermined Schumann's health. He began to be tormented by auditory delusions; he would hear "great symphonic pieces played right through, with the last note held until another piece come to his imagination". He would never recover from this.

Brahms and "New Paths"

However there remained for the Schumanns a final great happiness. In 1853 Johannes Brahms came to visit them; Joachim had written him an introduction. Schumann told the young man of twenty to play the piano for him; but after only a few bars of music, Schumann stopped him and called to Clara that she must come and listen too. Schumann had not written for the Neue Zeitschrift for ten years. Now he wrote an article, "New Paths", announcing Brahms to the musical world. The young man was to hear the footsteps of Beethoven just behind him for many years to come.

Schumann's illness and death

Schumann's health continued to worsen. He heard the voices of angels and wrote down their music. But soon the angels had turned to devils. It was the end. The next night during a rainstorm Schumann told Clara that he no longer had control over his own mind - that he was afraid he might hurt her or their children. He left the room for what Clara thought would only be a moment. But Schumann had run from the house and thrown himself from the bridge over the Rhine. He was pulled out of the water by some boatmen.

Next day he was taken to the asylum at Endenich. He would remain there two years.

Schumann was not locked up. He was free to wander the grounds of Dr. Richarz's asylum. And he often made visits to the Beethoven memorial close by in Bonn. There was a piano in his room. But the accounts of his mental sufferings are truly saddening.

Brahms was allowed to visit Schumann at Endenich; Clara was not. So it was that in Düsseldorf Brahms comforted Clara; they played music and read the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann together. And Clara - Clara once again inspired love that found expression in music. Brahms dedicated the Adagio of his Dm Piano Concerto to her.

The last goodbye

When Clara was finally allowed to visit Schumann, he was by this time very weak. She helped him to take some wine, and some of it spilt onto her fingers. Schumann licked the wine from Clara's hand. It was the last time they were to see one another. Schumann died the next day.

© 1985 Written by Robert Wesley Angelo based on Text Sources.

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