Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer

Overview


Robert Schumann (1810–56) is one of the most important and representative composers of the Romantic era. Born in Zwickau, Germany, Schumann began piano instruction at age seven and immediately developed a passion for music. When a permanent injury to his hand prevented him from pursuing a career as a touring concert pianist, he turned his energies and talents to composing, writing hundreds of works for piano and voice, as well as four symphonies and an opera. Here acclaimed biographer Martin Geck tells the ...
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Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer

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Overview


Robert Schumann (1810–56) is one of the most important and representative composers of the Romantic era. Born in Zwickau, Germany, Schumann began piano instruction at age seven and immediately developed a passion for music. When a permanent injury to his hand prevented him from pursuing a career as a touring concert pianist, he turned his energies and talents to composing, writing hundreds of works for piano and voice, as well as four symphonies and an opera. Here acclaimed biographer Martin Geck tells the fascinating story of this multifaceted genius, set in the context of the political and social revolutions of his time.
 
The image of Schumann the man and the artist that emerges in Geck’s book is complex. Geck shows Schumann to be not only a major composer and music critic—he cofounded and wrote articles for the controversial Neue Zeitschrift für Musik­­—but also a political activist, the father of eight children, and an addict of mind-altering drugs. Through hard work and determination bordering on the obsessive, Schumann was able to control his demons and channel the tensions that seethed within him into music that mixes the popular and esoteric, resulting in compositions that require the creative engagement of reader and listener.
 
The more we know about a composer, the more we hear his personality in his music, even if it is above all on the strength of his work that we love and admire him. Martin Geck’s book on Schumann is not just another rehashing of Schumann’s life and works, but an intelligent, personal interpretation of the composer as a musical, literary, and cultural personality.
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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal - Norman Lebrecht

“[A] fine biography. . . . [T]his is the most balanced account of Schumann’s life and work for more than a generation, one that makes us want to relisten to Schumann’s music, knowing better the man behind it.”
Booklist - Ray Olson

“The most romantic of Romantic composers, Schumann yet took J. S. Bach and Beethoven as his masters, and his music is full of references to both. Geck notes virtually all those illusions and inspirations as he hews closely to his demonstration of his subject’s originality. . . . [A] superb biography.”
Deutschlandradio

 “Geck tells the story in a masterfully focused way and with illuminating examination.”
ComON!

 “Martin Geck tells the fascinating life of this universal soul of the Romantic Period, describing while doing so the social and artistic revolutions of his time. He throws new light on the multifaceted work of this composer—and reveals the abysses of the man Robert Schumann.”
North German Broadcasting

 “In twelve chapters, Martin Geck vividly and knowledgably portrays the life of Schumann: his compositions, the forces that drove him, and the highly politicized era in which he lived.”
Mannheimer Morgen

 “Geck’s book helps us conceive of Schumann to be a much more modern figure in the realm of fine arts than we have thus far perceived him to be.”
Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung

 “A discerning and demonstrative biography.”
Literarische Welt

 “Geck has written an integrating portrayal of the life and work based on solid scholarship and with particular perspectives deepened by original and idiosyncratic excursions. Martin Geck possesses a valuable ability that is unfortunately not very common. It is one of the strengths of his book: to write intelligently and vividly about music without falling into concert guide metaphorics. If he inspires this or that reader to listen to Schumann’s music, then an important goal has been reached. His book is carried along by his own admiration for the outsider Robert Schumann.”
J�rgen Thym

 “Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer is a wonderful book. Martin Geck writes engagingly and with flair, addressing not only the specialist but also a broader audience without shortchanging the professional musician and musicologist. He sets new accents in Schumann biography and has lots of perceptive things to say about the music.”
Leon Botstein

“Few composers are as fascinating in terms of how their work and life intersect as Robert Schumann. Not surprisingly, his personality and aesthetic have invited fanciful speculation and remained objects of controversy. This English translation of Martin Geck’s elegant account of Schumann’s achievement as a composer offers a subtle account of the music, filtered through the lens of Schumann’s highly charged life. Geck’s scholarly refinement, his elegant insights into music, and his balanced assessment of Schumann’s psyche, marriage, and place among his contemporaries both in and out of the world of music make this a concise and compelling book, a major contribution to the understanding of nineteenth-century music and culture.”
J������rgen Thym

 “Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer is a wonderful book. Martin Geck writes engagingly and with flair, addressing not only the specialist but also a broader audience without shortchanging the professional musician and musicologist. He sets new accents in Schumann biography and has lots of perceptive things to say about the music.”

BBC Music Magazine - Jessica Duchen

“Schumann’s aesthetics are Geck’s primary and most satisfying focus: life and work emerge as indivisible, for that was how Schumann himself saw it. . . . A rewarding read.”
Jörgen Thym
 “Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer is a wonderful book. Martin Geck writes engagingly and with flair, addressing not only the specialist but also a broader audience without shortchanging the professional musician and musicologist. He sets new accents in Schumann biography and has lots of perceptive things to say about the music.”
Weekly Standard - George B. Stauffer

“A masterfully written account that shows just how lively and controversial the works and writings of this remarkable musician-poet remain, even at a distance of two centuries.”
Gramophone - David Threasher

“Geck vividly portrays the life of the composer in all its happiness and vicissitudes. . . . [He] is especially good on relating Schumann’s music to the web of literary allusions he wove through it.”
J rgen Thym

 “Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer is a wonderful book. Martin Geck writes engagingly and with flair, addressing not only the specialist but also a broader audience without shortchanging the professional musician and musicologist. He sets new accents in Schumann biography and has lots of perceptive things to say about the music.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226284699
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/5/2012
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 968,578
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Martin Geck is professor of musicology at the Technical University of Dortmund. He is the author of more than two dozen books, including Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work. Stewart Spencer is an independent scholar and the translator of more than three dozen books.

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Read an Excerpt

ROBERT SCHUMANN

The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer
By Martin Geck

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-28469-9


Chapter One

Early Years (1810–28)

It isn't yet clear to me what I really am: I don't think that I'm lacking in imagination, at least no one claims that I am: but I'm not a deep thinker: I can never follow the thread of an argument to its logical conclusion, however well I may have started out. Only posterity can decide if I am a poet — for this is something that no one can become, unless they already are one.

The seventeen-year-old Schumann's diary entry in Days of Youth

If Beethoven's international reputation may be said to have reached its first high plateau between 1809 and 1813, then this was also the period when he produced three important heirs, albeit unbeknownst to him: Mendelssohn was born in 1809, Schumann in 1810, and Wagner in 1813. It was a powerful triumvirate, with Schumann in the middle. Unlike Wagner, Schumann did not see himself as the reincarnation of Beethoven, but unlike Mendelssohn, he wanted to do more than merely honor Beethoven's legacy. Schumann saw in Beethoven's music a harbinger of that "new poetic age" that he himself wanted to shape through his own active contribution.

If this has a ring of optimism to it, then that is how it was meant. And yet it is not the optimism of a man like Beethoven, who saw himself as Napoleon's equal and was convinced that Napoleon had ushered in a whole new era in world history. Like Hegel, Hölderlin, and Goethe, the "heroic" Beethoven saw the French emperor as the Prometheus of his age — conveniently overlooking Napoleon's acts of usurpation. And the hopes that were placed in Napoleon as a ruler were not unlike those that Beethoven held as an artist: "In the world of art, as in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main aims."

Of course, this remark suggests nothing so much as an act of defiance on the part of a composer fighting a rearguard action, for it dates from July 1819, by which time the real-life Napoleon had been living the life of an exile on Saint Helena for four years; few of Beethoven's contemporaries still thought of the erstwhile emperor as a Promethean figure. Political reality was very different, for a new era had begun that later historians have tried to sum up with terms such as "the Restoration," "the persecution of demagogues," and juste milieu, the last of these an expression of contempt used to dismiss the rule of Louis-Philippe established in the wake of the July revolution of 1830 and geared to the concept of compromise and muddling through. In Germany, the period between 1815 and the March revolution of 1848 is usually referred to as the Vormärz. This was a period that Schumann later looked back on with rather more positive feelings: "This whole time had the most stimulating effect on me. I was never more active, never happier in my art."

This political and social background needs to be borne in mind by any writer who sets out to present an unblinkered view of Schumann's early years — exactly the same is true of contemporary writers such as E. T. A. Hoffmann and Heinrich Heine. Schumann's phrase about "a new poetic age" is, of course, ambiguous, directed, as it is, in part against the unbending and arid representatives of the juste milieu, whom he described in a clearly political context as "philistines." At the same time, however, Schumann himself did not wage this war with the aim of bringing about political, revolutionary upheaval. Rather, it was as an artist that he wanted to assert himself in the face of the oppression perpetrated by the spirit of the age.

However contradictory it may sound, the young Schumann was a man who, unlike Mendelssohn but like Wagner, bore within him the potential for political resistance but who, initially at least, exercised that potential only within the framework of his own artistic beliefs. What this meant in practical terms emerges from a passage in a composite review that he published under the title "Shorter and Rhapsodic Works for the Pianoforte" in his own Neue Zeitschrift für Musik:

Musical upheavals, like their political counterpart, affect our lives in every last detail. In music one notices the new influence even in that area where it is wedded to life in the coarsest and most physical way: in dance. With the gradual disappearance of the hegemony of counterpoint, miniatures such as the saraband, gavotte, and so on vanished from the scene, hoop skirts and beauty spots went out of fashion, and wigs became much shorter. The minuets of Mozart and Haydn rustled past with long trains on their dresses as listeners stood by, silent and well-behaved in a middle-class kind of way, bowing a good deal and finally withdrawing; one still saw the occasional solemn wig, but bodies that had previously been stiffly corseted now moved far more freely and gracefully. Soon the young Beethoven arrived, breathless, embarrassed, and distraught, his hair long and unkempt, his brow and breast as open as Hamlet's, an eccentric who caused much bewilderment; he found the ballroom too confining and too tedious, preferring to rush outside into the dark, snorting at fashion and ceremonial, yet at the same time avoiding the flowers in his path in order not to trample them underfoot.

When Schumann wrote this, he was twenty-five, but he was able to express himself in this way because the education he had received in his childhood and adolescence had been not only grounded in the traditional humanities but also politically abreast of the times. Indeed, the driving force throughout this period in general was the acquisition of such an education. The fact that Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert could never have written such a text is due in part to their lack of Schumann's literary talent. But above all they had not enjoyed even a tenth of the education Schumann had. Born within fifteen months of each other, Mendelssohn and Schumann were the first musicians to receive a proper formal education, which no doubt helps to explain why they understood each other as well as they did during the time they both spent in Leipzig. No less striking, however, is the differing use to which they both put that education. But let us start at the beginning: with Schumann and his parental home.

Schumann was born in Zwickau in Saxony, some fifty miles to the south of Leipzig. His parents' house stood on the town's neat and tidy main square on the corner of Münzstraße. By 1955–56, the building was no longer considered safe and was torn down and replaced by what is now the Robert Schumann Museum, its façade reconstructed on the basis of the original structure. It now houses the world's largest collection of Schumann manuscripts and also contains a museum, a recital room, and a research center. Schumann was only fourteen or fifteen when he drafted his first curriculum vitae, an account of his life that is already astonishingly mature:

My biography, or the main events of my life. I was born in Zwikau [sic] on 8 June 1810. I have only the vaguest recollection of my childhood years; until my third year, I was a child like any other: but my mother then went down with a nervous fever and because it was feared that I too would be infected, I was sent to stay with Frau Ruppius, the wife of the present mayor, initially for a period of six weeks. — These weeks slipped by very quickly, for it must be said to her credit that she was good at raising children: I loved her and she became a second mother to me. In short, I remained under her truly maternal supervision for two & a half years: each day, however, I would call on my parents, but otherwise I did not trouble myself with them any further. [...] I was a God-fearing child, innocent and physically attractive, I worked hard & at the age of 6 1/2 I enrolled at the private school run by Herr Döhner, who is now the official preacher in Freiberg but who was then the archdeacon, a highly cultured and well-respected man: I was seven when I started to learn Latin, eight when I began French and Greek, and 9 1/2 when I joined the fourth class at our Lyceum.

Schumann then goes on to note:

I was eight when — would you believe it? — I learned all about Cupid's arts: my love for Superintendent Lorenz's daughter Emilie was truly innocent, & I shall never forget the occasion when, just as we were leaving a French lesson, I handed her a desperate, but still unfinished love letter in which I had wrapped a penny (presumably so that she could buy a dress for herself ). O, such sweet simplicity!

Even as an eight-year-old, Schumann claims to have been fond of going for long walks "completely on my own" and of pouring out his heart to nature.

Also, I & my brother & a number of our school friends had a very attractive theater where we were well known and even notorious in Zwikau [sic] because we sometimes took in 2–3 thalers, performing everything completely extempore, making terrible jokes & taking nothing seriously. It was at around this time that I fell in love with Ida Stölzel, & although I was only 9 1/2 I wrote several poems to her. [...] We loved each other dearly for two years, a childlike love that we never abused in any way: we were always kissing: I bought her sweets with the four groschen that I was given every Sunday — in short, I was hap[py].

The next two pages of the manuscript are missing, but the seventh includes a poem with which the then twelve-year-old youth bade farewell to his childhood sweetheart, claiming that he was now "weary" of her "moods":

    Einst war die Zeit der süßen Gegenliebe,
    Die sie mir, lang' u. lang' geschenkt,
    Doch Nattern nähr'n jetzt andre Triebe,
    Und anders hat's ein Geist gelenkt:
    Sie war, die Zeit: dahin ist sie geflohen,
    In Trauerflor ist sie gehüllt:
    Doch nun mein Geist, dank ihm, dort oben,
    Daß er den Wunsch dir nie erfüllt.

[Those were the days of sweetest love's delights, / A love she granted me so long ago, / But now a serpent's venom blasts and blights / That love, which ghosts have dealt a fatal blow. / That time is past, all mem'ry of our love / Is swathed in widow's weeds. But now, O fires / Of this my spirit, thank the Lord above / For never having granted your desires.]

Before the manuscript breaks off after ten pages, Schumann also refers to his mother, the daughter of a surgeon from Zeitz:

I almost forgot to describe the few brief trips that I made. In 1818 — in other words, more than seven years ago now — I visited Carlsbad with my mother, where she wanted to take the waters, while I myself was there to cheer her up and entertain her: we remained there for five weeks, but it seemed more like a week, for me especially. I got up at half past seven, sometimes even between 4 and 5, in order to walk along the promenade. I then went out for a walk with my mother until half past ten & wrote or read until noon, we then ate, I went for a stroll on my own until around 3, either in the town or out into the countryside — in short, it was a wonderful life that we led & without doubt the best time of my life. I did not have a care in the world, there was nothing to cause my brow to furrow — ah! with what sweet and wistful sadness I sometimes recall the hours I spent there and especially my favorite place — this was a rock on which a crucifix stands, not far from Marianensruh. [ ... ] I saw very many famous people there, including Napoleon's brother, Jérôme, the former king of Westphalia, and his sister Elise, who was married to a Prince Bachchochi [recte Bacciocchi] & who was very similar to Napoleon, also Prince Blücher, with whom my mother spoke: he was an extremely kind man who spoke to everyone.

In the course of his life, Schumann constituted and constructed his own image of himself through a whole range of autobiographical accounts, including notes, diary entries, housekeeping books, and correspondence books, to say nothing of his numerous letters. For an artist who tended to be reserved in his personal dealings with others, the written word was an indispensable form of self-reassurance. The German proverb "Wer schreibt, der bleibt" (he who writes leaves a lasting impression) is mostly used in an ironic sense, but for Schumann it acquired a positively existential dimension that applied not only to his literary activities but also to everyday events in general. In his diaries Schumann kept a close record of all that happened to him, often going into minutely meticulous detail. The result is of inestimable value not only from a biographical point of view but also as a source of contemporary cultural history.

Between 1840 and 1844, these diaries were largely replaced by the "marriage diaries," in which Schumann and his wife wrote alternate entries, often reacting directly to each other's contributions. As a result this dialogue between husband and wife can be used — at least tentatively — to reconstruct a kind of Scenes from Married Life. Here the differing temperaments of the two diarists often clash with striking force. And however much the two writers may have attempted to gloss things over and invest their lives with a certain stylistic elegance, there is no doubt that these three marriage diaries are rather more honest than the diaries Cosima Wagner wrote as a conscious legacy for her children in an attempt to present her husband to posterity, if not as an idealized figure then at least in a transfiguring light.

Starting in 1837, the Schumanns' housekeeping books provide us with a continuous and impressively detailed account of his income and expenditure. Or at least this is the impression that they give, for it is impossible, of course, to know if certain transactions have been omitted on purpose or simply overlooked. But the housekeeping books, which were kept, in part, in parallel with the Schumanns' diaries, also include other notes, turning them, too, into miniature diaries that further document the composer's constant attempt to impose a sense of permanence on the transience of life and in that way to create a prop with which to support himself. From April 1846, Schumann also included intimate details of his marital life: a kind of F-sign, first found on April 13, 1846, seems to indicate sexual intercourse and appears four more times between then and the end of the month.

Let us return, however, to Schumann's earlier period and to the text that he wrote in 1824. It is one that deserves to be taken seriously from an autobiographical point of view, for even if later writers may have been able to correct a handful of details, they cannot establish a more authentic picture than the one that Schumann paints of himself here. Above all, however, this early account of his life affords important evidence of the way he saw himself: he was an attractive child (this is confirmed by early portraits) who felt drawn to the opposite sex from an early age and to whom women were attracted in turn. He was happy to be educated in the humanities, an education on which he set out from an early age in keeping with contemporary practice among members of the educated middle class. And he saw himself as an aspiring artist who wrote poetry, a youth who precociously and with wisdom beyond his years reflected on his own life and who enjoyed acting, which he saw as more than just a source of harmless fun. In keeping with his age and background he lived in an emotionally charged world in which a certain eccentricity was interpreted as an early sign of genius — who knows what current titles on this subject he took down from the groaning shelves of his father's library and read from cover to cover.

Schumann's father, August, sold and published books, in which capacity he was highly successful. His own father had been a pastor in Thuringia, but he and his brother Friedrich had opened a publishing house in Zwickau that brought out German translations of works by Byron and Walter Scott, some of them translated by August himself. The firm also published the Vollständiges Staats- Post- und Zeitungs-Lexikon von Sachsen (Complete state, post, and newspaper lexicon for Saxony), a standard reference work in eighteen volumes. Moreover, August Schumann was one of the first German publishers to issue cheap editions of the classics, making him the inventor of the modern paperback. He wrote numerous literary and scientific texts and in 1813, in his Erinnerungsblätter für gebildete Leser aus allen Ständen (Memoranda for educated readers from all social classes), he wrote: "What binds the Germans together as a nation is their literature. As long as this remains for them, they need not fear the tempests that threaten the fate of all other nations."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from ROBERT SCHUMANN by Martin Geck Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Prologue

Chapter 1. Early Years (1810–28)
Intermezzo I. An Awkward Age

Chapter 2. Student Years (1828–34)
Intermezzo II. Figments of the Imagination

Chapter 3. The Neue Zeitschrift für Musik

Chapter 4. The Early Piano Pieces
Intermezzo III. “No, What I Hear Are Blows”

Chapter 5. Probationary Years in Leipzig (1835–40)

Chapter 6. The “Year of Song” (1840)
Intermezzo IV. Twilight

Chapter 7. Married Life in Leipzig—Visit to Russia (1840–44)
Intermezzo V. The Magic of Allusions

Chapter 8. Schumann as a Public Figure in the Years before the March Revolution of 1848
Intermezzo VI. In modo d’una marcia

Chapter 9. The Dresden Years (1845–50)
Intermezzo VII. Genoveva Is Not Lohengrin

Chapter 10. Director of Music in Düsseldorf (1850–54)
Intermezzo VIII. The Road to Freedom

Chapter 11. The Late Works
Intermezzo IX. A “Sugary Saxon”?

Chapter 12. Endenich (1854–56)

Epilogue
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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