Laurels & Lost Opportunities

Celebrating 200 years of Robert Schumann, one of the most gifted composers of all time.

Akrita Reyar

The awful thing about the greatest talents born is usually the terrible tragedy attached to them. Robert Schumann, one of the most gifted composers of all time, is no exception.
Throughout his life, he was never overwhelmingly feted. His compositions today considered as one of most significant of the Romantic era, were only received with lukewarm fervour in his age. It is only 20th Century onwards, did interest really rekindle in his works and his compositions got their due recognition.

This year, as a part of his bicentenary celebrations, European Broadcasting Union is observing the Schumann Day with performances, concerts and special programmes across the continent.

Born on June 08, 1810 in Zwickau, Saxony in Germany, Robert was a child prodigy who started composing music at the age of seven. The literary culture at his home helped him develop an early love for poetry and literature. His father, who was a publisher and a book seller, encouraged Schumann to also take up music. With his father’s demise, his mother pressed him to pick law instead.

Sooner rather than later, Schumann found his calling and decided to become a virtuoso pianist. His tutor Friedrich Wieck immediately acknowledged his outstanding ability and foresaw a great future for him. But a serious and permanent injury to Robert’s right hand shattered his dreams and he had to give up plans of taking up playing the instrument as a career option. It was while living with his master that he observed his tutor’s daughter bloom.
Clara Wieck was no ordinary girl. A child prodigy, much like Schumann, she was a formidable pianist of her times. At 11, she was already lauded at concerts. It is felt that her musical ability attracted Schumann the most, and by the time she turned 15, he had proposed to her. Schumann was 24.

The clandestine love affair turned Schumann from her father’s favourite student to a sworn foe. Wieck refused to give consent to their marriage and as his approval was necessary (Clara being underage), this required the case to be taken to court.

As the trial turned tortuous and ugly, Friedrich Wieck not only did everything to keep them from seeing each other, he got all their letters burnt and launched a malicious attack on Schumann, accusing him of being a brothel frequenter, unstable, a drug addict and an alcoholic. While Robert was known to be handsome with deep penetrating eyes and a pleasing personality, he also had a delicate nervous system.

The case jangled his nerves completely and he could just about hold himself together through the two-year ordeal. The acute aggravation may have caused permanent damage on his mental system and there was a time when the judge asked him to spend 12 days in confinement just to gain composure again.

There were these shades of dualistic personality that one can discern in Schumann throughout his life. Sometimes one can sense a quiet and introvert person caught in dense thoughts and moods, while at other moments there is a burst of energy in him when he is playing tricks with the children.

Schumann’s compositions follow a similar cycle. He would sometimes write music industriously and at other times become totally latent. In his initial days, for example, he wrote pieces mainly for the piano. But then in 1839-40, he got very inspired by German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine and began rapidly setting his songs to music. Schumann wrote a whopping 150 pieces just ahead of his marriage, comparing the bounties of nature with the gentleness and beauty of his lover. There were times when he would compose 40 pieces at one go, in a matter of just a few days, and then fall into depths of morbidity and cease to write at all. So there was music, trailed by pronounced pauses of silence, and then a gush of music again.

Following his eventual marriage to Clara in 1940, Schumann immersed himself in composing music. His brimming vault of creativity and huge capacity to work hard led to a very prolific period. The German composer was known to be ambitious and firebrand. He was as engaging with words, as he was with music. Sensing a need for a new turn in journalism, Robert, with some of the other best minds of the time, started a journal to promote music. This way he could both compose music and get it published.

Then one fine day, a young, blonde and strapping yet unknown Johannes Brahms appeared at their doorstep with an introductory letter. The couple recognized his exceptional aptitude for music immediately and declared him a genius much before the world did. Soon enough, Brahms started living with the Schumanns in their home and became a permanent fixture in their household.

In his personal life, for Schumann there was no other woman after Clara. The two had eight children, though many died in their lifetime. She was indispensable to his life not just because of love, but because she was also a much greater success than him in his lifetime and the breadwinner of the family.

Clara, on her part, was a woman and pianist par excellence. She is probably the only woman in the world to have been a defining influence and an inspiration to two of the most coveted composers of the world - Schumann and Brahms.

Clara created conditions in her home which provided both discipline and inspiration for the colossal amount of work Schumann and Brahms produced. She was in a sense a very real a partner in their compositions, constantly giving ideas and running her eyes over the sheets they would write. She would then play for them their pieces, so that they could reflect on the nuances of their work and fine tune them if required.

It is widely believed that while the opus actually belonged to Schumann and Brahms, a lot of what was composed in that period would actually not have been written had it not been for her presence.

Clara was instrumental in turning their home into a hub of creativity where gifted musicians frequented, composed together, played melodies and wrote for newsletters and journals.

But Clara would have to travel constantly and while Schumann hated her being away, he could not possible stop her as her performances across Europe were their main source of money.

It is often believed that the German composer may have been jealous of the adulation that his wife drew. For example, Goethe gifted Clara a medal with his portrait saying, "For the gifted artist Clara Wieck”. Benedict Randhartinger, a friend of Franz Schubert, gave her an autographed copy of Schubert`s Erlkönig, with the inscription, "To the celebrated artist, Clara Wieck" and Frédéric Chopin described her playing to Franz Liszt, who later lauded her in a letter. Austria’s leading dramatic poet, Franz Grillparzer, wrote a poem entitled "Clara Wieck and Beethoven". Later, Clara was bestowed with Austria’s highest musical honour by being named the ‘Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso’.

Besides the possible competitive streak, Schumann would also miss Clara sorely while she was away. He would turn apoplectic and then yell and scream and write to her to come back soon. For all pride must suffer pain, his condition was quite helpless. His dark moods would come over him often and his depressive swings became more frequent.

Brahms predilection for Clara, who was 14 years his senior, was well known; and she too turned to him more and more for help in dealing with her husband’s illness and to look after the children while she was on tour. Not only was his constant presence an attraction, but his sympathy for her condition may have drawn her to him. It is not established whether they had a physical relationship or just a platonic one, but their closeness may have impacted Schumann to some extent.

Despite being published widely, Schumann was disappointed in not getting top notch posts in the music world. This may have been partly for the fact that he was not a good manager of affairs or the kind who could use his network of influential friends for personal gains.

Slowly, there was a certain transformation in Schumann’s personality when vibrancy is lost. It is not known what led him to taking to the bottle or the reason for the deterioration in his psychological state, but he started suffering from intense bouts of insomnia. He would wake up panicked in the middle of the night or constantly hear voices of demons in his head.

One night, in February, 1854, he jumped into River Rhine in an attempt to commit suicide. This was the turning point. Though he survived the bid to kill himself, his mental state was even more disturbed and he got admitted into a mental asylum at his own request. He spent over two years there, sometimes just counting leaves on trees.

Clara was, unfortunately, not allowed to meet Robert in the asylum, as doctors feared it may worsen the condition of the patient. This may have had, in all possibility, a contrary effect, as Schumann remained deeply attached to her till the end. Clara only met him once in the last days of his life. She recorded the moving encounter:

“I saw him between 6 and 7 in the evening. He smiled, he put his arms around me with great effort for he could no longer control his limbs. I shall never forget it. Not all the treasures in the world could equal this embrace.

My Robert. It was thus that we had to see each other again. How painfully I had to trace out your beloved features. What a sorrowful sight it was. Two and half years ago you were torn from without any farewell. How your heart must have been full. And now I lay silent at your feet. Hardly daring to breathe. Only now and then I would receive a clouded look; as if it were the unspeakably gentle.”

A few days later, on July 29, 1856 Schumann died. He was only 46.

Schumann may have had a presage, when he had once written in his diary as a little boy, that he would become famous one day. He wasn’t sure whether it would be in the world of literature or music, but that his name and fame would live on much after him. Schumann did live long enough to see the organization of the first music festival named after him in 1847, which he and Clara attended. But true laurels followed mostly after he was gone. A museum named after him was inaugurated in 1910 and regular competitions of his music started being held after 1956.

Ironically enough, Clara’s relation with Brahms subdued after Schumann’s death and they separated ways. It is possible that Brahms may have proposed to Clara who may have refused. While there is no evidence indicating to the same, it does seem rather abrupt that Brahms would suddenly take a train away from the woman whom he supported through her highs and lows, and who remained to him his dearest till the very end.

Clara, after her husband’s death, completely devoted herself to interpreting and promoting her husband’s work. She and Brahms repaired ties later in life and exchanged notes on music constantly. Clara wrote to her children telling them not to believe any of the gossip surrounding her relationship with Brahms, for he was “her truest friend”.

It is thought that Clara was too principled a woman not to remain faithful to her husband’s memory and accept another’s hand. She remained a widow for 40 years after Schumann’s death. Brahms, who touched the pinnacle of success in music, never married ever.

(Robert Schumann’s bicentenary celebrations are being held on June 8, 2010)

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