Robert Schumann

Composer Robert Schumann

Early standard-bearer for German musical Romanticism in mid-19th century, and a powerful influence on Romantic musicians.

Vital Statistics
June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Saxony (Germany)
July 29, 1856, in Endenich, near Bonn
Performed As:
During Lifetime:
German literary giant Goethe completed "Faust," Part Two in 1832.
Biographical Outline
  • Early studies, 1820s: Schumann’s father, a successful translator and book dealer, introduces his son to fine literature. Robert is attracted to both music and literature, and tries his hand at both. He always focuses on the “poetic” qualities of music.
  • College boy, 1828-31: Obedient to the terms of his father’s will, Schumann goes to study law in Leipzig, but discovers instead the novels of the Romantic writer Jean Paul and the music of Franz Schubert. He takes piano lessons from Friedrich Wieck and meets the 9-year-old Clara Wieck. Soon he decides to abandon law for music, and studies theory with a local composer, Heinrich Dorn.
  • Losses: By 1832, weakness in his right hand forces Schumann to give up his plan to become a concert pianist. In 1833, following two deaths in his family, he becomes severely depressed, the first episode in his lifelong battle with the illness. He publishes Papillons, his Op. 1.
  • Journalist, 1833-34: Founds the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New journal for music), which is still published to this day. Schumann edits and writes much of it until 1844, becoming a famous critic and advocate for new music.
  • Artist and lover, 1834-39: Composes piano music almost exclusively, including the famous cycles of “character pieces” Carnaval (1835) and Kinderszenen (1838). He has an intense affair in 1834, and is briefly engaged. A year later, Clara and Robert declare their love for each other. Her father, however, forbids them to have contact with each other. They correspond secretly anyway.
  • Lawsuits and the song year, 1839-40: Schumann initiates a lawsuit against Friedrich Wieck to allow his marriage to Clara. After a year of delays, including Wieck’s slanderous charges of drunkenness, the court finds in the couple’s favor, and they are married in September 1840. Schumann turns to lieder (songs) in this year, writing 140 of them, including the famous cycle Dichterliebe (A poet’s love).
  • Settling Down, 1841-44: Schumann consolidates his reputation in Leipzig as a composer with several large-scale public works, and has a major success with his oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (Paradise and the Peri) in 1843. In 1844 he accompanies Clara on her concert tour of Russia. But a second bout of severe depression causes Schumann to sell the Neue Zeitschrift in June. He and his wife, by now a famous concert artist, resettle in Dresden.
  • Creative summer, 1845-54: Schumann’s creativity surges with a piano concerto for his wife, another symphony (No. 2, in C Major), the Scenes From Goethe’s “Faust,” and his opera, Genoveva, among other works. In 1850, he is named “municipal music director” in Düsseldorf. But his health declines and, in 1854, he attempts suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. He is then institutionalized in Endenich, a suburb of Bonn.
  • Decline and death, 1854-56: Robert is probably suffering from tertiary syphilis. His dementia increases while his wife is discouraged from visiting him. She manages to see him two days before he dies of pneumonia. He is buried in Bonn.
Fun Facts
  • Just “Robert”: Schumann has no middle name on his birth or death certificate.
  • Shady science: The composer likely worsened his injured middle finger with a chiroplast, a dubious mechanism meant to strengthen the finger.
  • David and Goliath: In his famous music criticism, Schumann created a fictional “League of David” to battle against artistic “Philistines.”
  • Florestan and Eusebius: These are two characters Schumann invented who appear in his criticism and in the titles to some of his character pieces. Florestan (named after the hero in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio) represents the impulsive, fiery, quick-witted side of Schumann’s personality, while Eusebius, named after a fourth-century abbot and saint, represents his dreamy, reflective side. Schumann’s criticism is often conceived, inventively, as a conversation between these two and a few other characters.
  • Name dropping: Felix Mendelssohn was a good friend and colleague.
  • Vienna finds: On a trip to Vienna in 1838, Schumann, always aware of his music history, made a visit to Schubert/s brother, Ferdinand, where he discovered a cache of unpublished works — “operas, four grand Masses, four or five symphonies, and much else.” The big find, for Schumann, was the “Great” C-Major Symphony (No. 9). He arranged for its publication and the first performance (in Leipzig, directed by Mendelssohn), and wrote a famous review praising its “heavenly length.”
  • Dresden follies: In Saxony’s capital, the Schumanns met Richard Wagner, whom they found personally disagreeable — “a man who never ceases to talk about himself, is very arrogant, and laughs continually in a whining tone,” wrote Clara. When the Dresden Uprising came, in 1849, the Schumanns panicked and escaped out the back of their house, leaving three of their children in the care of a maid. Clara came back under cover of darkness, and bundled the three children away with her.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music

Schumann is most famous for solo piano music, lieder (German songs), his four symphonies, and a few chamber works. In addition to a genuine melodic gift, Schumann was a fearless experimenter with form — in his piano concerto, for example, the themes for all the movements are derived from a basic theme.  

  • Broadening out: Schumann methodically expanded his composing activity in the early 1840s, focusing on orchestral works, including two symphonies in 1841; chamber music, including the beloved Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major, in 1842; and the marvelous oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri in 1843. He also studied counterpoint seriously in 1845, writing a series of fugues and studies, and making changes to his compositional routine that lead to a denser, richer, “late style.”
  • Literary muse: Many of Schumann’s most original ideas came from his desire to mix his musical and literary inspirations. Famous examples can be found in the song cycle Dichterliebe (which has a long piano postlude that elaborates the meaning of the last song), in the dramatic works, and even in the character pieces for piano.
Recommended Websites
  • Piano Music:
    • Many of Schumann’s piano works are character pieces, or short musical “sketches,” which evoke a mood, place, event, personality, and so on. Some are grouped into cycles, like the three below:     
      • Papillons (Butterflies)
      • Carnaval (Carnival)
      • Kinderszenen (Scenes from childhood)
  • Lieder
    • Dichterliebe (The poet’s love): a cycle of 16 songs, to poems by Heinrich Heine, that tell a story of love lost
    • Liederkreis, Op. 39
    • Goethe Lieder (music of Schumann, Schubert, Wolf): Dawn Upshaw/Richard Goode (Nonesuch, 1994)
  • Symphonic Music:
    • First Symphony (“Spring”)
    • Second Symphony
    • Third Symphony (“Rhenish”)
    • Fourth Symphony
  • Cello Concerto
  • Piano Concerto
  • Chamber Music:
    • Piano Quintet, Op. 44
    • Piano Quartet, Op. 47