June 8 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann, one of the more colorful (and perhaps tortured) of the major composers. It’s an excellent opportunity to reexamine his music, and perhaps rediscover some of it as well.
Schumann’s life was not easy. Although something of a piano virtuoso, he ruined his concert career early on by trying to stretch his hands with a mechanical apparatus (it damaged them instead). Schumann was in love with Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher. Overcoming the father’s objections (who thought Clara could do much better), they were married. Clara was an accomplished pianist (and composer) and championed her husband’s music at every turn.
Schumann obtained a promising post in Dusseldorf leading their orchestra, but proved to be an ineffectual conductor. Shortly after that, his mental state (never very robust), began to deteriorate. He heard voices, he suffered from tinnitus, hallucinated, and became suicidal. He spent his last two years in an insane asylum, dying at the age of 46.
But he also wrote great music. His intimate understanding of the instrument make his piano works a mainstay of the solo repertoire. His poetic sensibilities and melodic gift make his lieder mainstays of the solo vocal repertoire. Although his chamber music and symphonic works weren’t well-received at the time, they too have found a place in the repertoire.
Here’s a suggestion: if you only know Schumann’s piano works, listen to one of his symphonies. If you only know his symphonies, sample some lieder. If you’re really into lieder, give his solo piano works a try. In other words, move beyond what you know. It will be worth the effort, and a great way to mark Schumann’s bicentennial.
(And if you’re a Twitter user, you can share your Schumann exploration by using the hashtag #SchumannADay in your tweets)