Making an accurate summary of any composer’s musical life is a subject of controversy and debate. Schumann’s life was not an easy one and has become one of rumour and narrow speculation.
Often his tragic demise is a focal point for discussion rather than his major contribution to musical history. In this brief article, I am going to focus on the music that I feel encapsulates the extraordinary genius that was Robert Schumann.
The Best of Robert Schumann
1. Kinderszenen Op. 15 (Scenes from Childhood)
These charming piano miniatures are sometimes ignored by pianists as trivial pieces that are not deserving of their attention. In fact, they are poetic masterpieces written at a time when Schumann was enjoying one of the happiest times of his life.
Schumann was very much in love with Clara Wieck; (later to become Clara Schumann) and the world must have seemed potent with possibility. The piano pieces are Schumann’s reflections and reminiscences on childhood, brimming with innovation and imagination.
Through each of the thirteen pieces, Schumann takes us on a nostalgic journey that captures the joys and sorrows that accompany childhood. The second piece, “Blind Man’s Buff”, is a spirited game; whilst the tenderness of the seventh titled, “Träumerei (Dreams)”, is full of tenderness and delicate venerability. Even though these pieces are in many ways amongst the simplest to play, delivering the subtleties of each is not to be underestimated.
2. Piano Concerto in A Minor; Op. 54
This is the only piano concerto that Schumann composed. Schumann began composing the concerto in 1841 and it was not completed until 1845. His ambitions for the construction of the work were grand with his aim for the work be an amalgam of sonata and symphony. Even though Schumann struggled to find a pianist to take on the challenges of the work in its final version which developed out of a single movement Fantasia, it’s champion was his wife Clara. She premiered the concerto in 1846.
The concerto is in three movements (Allegro affettuoso – Andantino grazioso – Allegro vivace) and is a work that shines with delight and joy. It is impossible to overlook just how much Robert and Clara were in love. The original notion of fantasy works seamlessly with Schumann’s outpouring of love for his wife. Schumann even weaves Clara’s name into the principal theme of the opening movement. It as a highly skilful composition that demonstrates Schumann’s mastery of expression in one of the most challenging of musical forms.
3. Piano Quintet in E flat Major; Op. 44
In the early 1840’s Schumann devoted considerable effort and time into working on chamber music. The Piano Quintet, in my opinion, is one of the most important compositions of this period. It is composed in four movements modelled closely on the works of composers Schumann admired; including Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelsohn.
The opening movement has a lively character with dark majestic colours. The developmental aspects of this movement are worthy of the reference to Beethoven. A notably more melancholy tone is adopted for the slow second movement that moves into a lighter scherzo.
The Finale returns to the ideas of the opening movement, giving an archlike structure to the entire thirty-minute piece. Both the old and the new themes combine in the Finale in a double fugue that Bach would have been proud of. The Quintet attracted much praise and became a firm favourite of Richard Wagner.
4. Dichterliebe; Op. 48
This song cycle is perhaps the best-known of all Schumann’s compositions for piano and voice. It is the setting of sixteen poems by Heinrich Heine and was composed in 1840. The influence of Schubert is gently apparent in this song cycle but this does not detract from the vitality and ingenuity of Schumann’s work.
The set of songs are an expression of Schumann’s love for his wife Clara but also one of struggle. Their journey to marriage had not been an easy one with Clara’s Father doing all he could to divide the couple. This residue threads through the Dichterliebe. In this way, we hear the happiness in the first four of the songs followed by the onset of despair and disillusion in the next four songs.
Schumann reflects this polarity in the often unresolved tonality of the songs and the often unresolved gaps that remain between the beginning of one song and the start of the next. Towards the end of the cycle, Schumann moves us into a more dream-like state where feelings become less tangible and clear. The work concludes much in the same mood as it begun with the memories of more joyful times.
5. Symphonie No. 4 in D minor; Op. 120
More controversy has surrounded this pieces than almost all of Schumann’s other pieces. This may be because of the intricate, integrated structure that Schumann employs for this grand work. Schumann is quite clear in his instructions regarding the performance of the symphony, that the movements are to be performed without a pause in between. He had deliberately imagined the piece as a coherent whole which paved the way for other composers to view the symphonic form in a whole new light.
Schumann composed the fourth symphony in a way that was almost entirely untried. In every movement threads of the original theme accompany new ideas or a transformed to a more subservient level, but none the less remain present and important to the structure of the entire work.
To add to the controversy there are also two versions of the Fourth Symphony, one dated 1841, the other 1851. The work was completed and orchestrated by the composer in 1841 but later revised with a denser, heavier orchestration. Following Schumann’s death, Clara and Johannes Brahms argued passionately in favour of the different versions.
Brahms went ahead in spite of Clara’s protests and published the 1841 version whilst Clara insisted that the 1851 version was the definitive one. Arguments aside, the Fourth Symphony is a remarkable work of immense imagination from the mind of a man who never ceased to look to the future.