Today’s tonic is “A.” Which stands for Robert “A” Schumann. Born in Zwickau, then Saxony, now Germany to Johanna Christine and August Schumann, Robert was better than you, composing by the age of 7. He “possessed rare taste and talent for portraying feelings and characteristic traits in melody” meaning, he would spend his formative years writing many “portraits” of himself and his close friends, often portraying them through melodies so melancholic that they would regularly bring his mother to tears. Not to worry! As a teenager, Robert wrote an essay on aesthetics of music in a journal that was published by his father. Nepotism? Yes. He would also spend his spare time reading philosophy, and was wont to smoke cigars and drink champagne-- the 19th century equivalent to vaping in the bathroom and breaking into your mom’s liquor cabinet am I right? Nothing ever changes.
During this time, his father died and his oldest sister, Emilie, drowned herself.
Anyway, while Robert was shaping up to be the quintessential music major, I guess there was a different balance of power back then. Because by all accounts, Robert, the drunk depressed teenage pianist, was going to “settle” on going to law school according to his mother’s wishes. Robert-- 100% “that kid” -- who you could find today, in sandals, with a guitar on his back, no case, walking through the hallway at your local high school, was going to do what his mommy told him and “I guess” become a lawyer. That was until Easter of 1830. Schumann went to Leipzig and saw Niccolo Paganini -- you know, Easter-- the day you go to music festivals. Now, any violinist can tell you that listening to someone play Paganini makes you want to give up music all together because not only is it the most technically challenging music ever written, good ol’ Nic had the audacity to be prolific as fuck.
Not Robert though. Seeing Paganini wow the crowds inspired him to make the totally reasonable decision to quit law school and become a musician! Up there with other great choices like paying your ex a surprise visit or representing yourself in court. He begged his mother, like you do when you’re 20 years old, to send him to study piano-- so she sent him back to his old “master” Friedrich Weick. By ‘master’ I mean childhood piano teacher.
Can we go back to that? I teach a lot of voice lessons to children. I wouldn’t mind if we brought back “master”, I could use the confidence boost.
Friedrich Weick -- by all accounts was a dick, excuse me-- a “dieck.” And not a good teacher. After studying with him all through his childhood, Robert gave up performing completely and dedicated himself to composing-- who would do that? Now there two main theories as to why this happened and only one of them is true-- but we don’t know which one. Either A) Robert developed “an affliction of the whole hand”-- probably syphilis, which checks out if you know where this story is going, or B) that Robert injured his hand at the encouragement of Weick via a finger strengthening contraption called the Dactylion-- and when you hear “contraption” and “1830’s” and some crazy name like Dactylion-- you know that shit is horrifying. And it was-- look it up. So, age 22, Robert gives up playing piano. That means other people have to play his music.
Enter: Clara Wieck, Fredrich’s daughter. Nepotism? Yes. Was she also 13 years old? Yes. Are her and the 22 year old Robert going to hook up in this story not long enough from now to where it might be okay? You bet. And is everyone going to be okay with it because it’s 1832? No, actually. More on that in a minute At 23, there was a worldwide pandemic and Robert’s brother, Julius died. Weren’t the 1830’s just crazy? This brought on the first of the many depressive episodes that would plague him for the rest of his life.
At 24, Robert got engaged to some lady named Ernestine (she was 16). She was the daughter of some noble person and Robert, the law school drop out needed to marry rich so... Ernestine. But it turns out while Ernestine’s father was a rich noble guy, Ernestine’s father’s wife was not Ernestine’s mother. And if we know one thing that thank god has changed since the old times -- guys just love to wrap it up. Especially when they’re out there cheatin’. So no money for Ernestine. Upon this revelation, fearful that he might have to get a day job, Robert dumps her. All the while, though, he was still crushin’ on Clara -- who was now 15. Cool.
They declared their love for each other in December. He dumped Ernestine in August. Hot take: Robert Schumann was a fuckboy.
Fredrich, however, didn’t too much dig Robert dating his daughter. Like super didn’t dig it. Like there was so much not-digging going on that there was, and I quote “long and acrimonious legal battle” between Friedrich and Robert. Is it because she was a teenager and he was on the 30-side of his twenties? Of course not! It was because he had been engaged previously. And Clara was a woman. And this was the 1830’s. See, women needed their father’s consent to get married before the age of 21 in Germany at that time, and Clara was not 21. Surprise. And let’s face it-- if you weren’t married by 21 in those days -- you probably weren’t getting married. Spinsterrrr! Robert and Clara, after YEARS in court were finally married on September 12, 1840. Clara turned 21 on September 13, 1840. Fredrich, sufficiently dunked on, would not speak to Robert or his daughter again for more than a decade.
In the meantime, Robert had been gaining popularity. As a prominent composer yes, but mostly as a shit-talker. He feuded with Franz Liszt, perhaps the greatest pianist who has ever lived, who said of Schumman’s “Fantasie in C” “it is a noble work, worthy of Beethoven, who’s career, by the way, it is supposed to represent.” He said, “By the way.” Burn. Schumann would respond by summarily bashing his private studio and his students. It’s prison logic, right? To gain respect, you pick a fight with the biggest guy. But it worked. Robert would spend the next four years writing largely successful works from art song to concertos. Clara would go on tour while he would stay home and write-- which I’m sure was great for their relationship. In 1844, he spent time on the road with Clara but as anyone with depression knows, being home is pretty cool. So after six months, he returned freshly depressed and feeling inferior to Clara as a musician-- which unfortunately for Robert, was categorically true.
Now, we’ve joked about Robert this whole time. But the man was suffering. His dad died, his brother died, his old master hates him, he can’t play piano, he probably has undiagnosed syphilis, and his wife, who he literally fought for in court, is always gone. Oh, but Bobby is going to make so much worse for himself. Quote, he was “seized with fits of shivering and an apprehension of death”, began experiencing an abhorrence of high places and all metal instruments” including the piano, and he began taking drugs. Most notably-- mercury. He also suffered from perpetually hearing a ringing in his ears -- specifically, as his diaries state, an A. -- today’s tonic.
It was around this time Robert would write his Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, now known as his Piano Concerto in A minor which was heralded as Beethoven-esque and a spiritual triumph. It is one of the most performed and beloved piano concertos to this day. Even Franz Liszt liked it. In 1846, Robert claimed to have started feeling better-- and I guess he did! Over the next 8 years, Robert and Clara would have EIGHT children, a few named for famous composers who the couple idolized -- but only one with a wikipedia page-- Eugenie. Who was a prominent piano teacher and an fairly open lesbian who lived all the way until 1936! Seriously, every single person was fascinating in the Romantic Era. Period.
By 1850, he had fallen back into a depression and as composers with depression do, he decided to do something he’d never done before-- write an opera -- I guess to try to capture lightning in a bottle. It was called Genoveva and it was not good. It was universally panned which was great for Robert’s mental state. He would never write an opera again. You’d be shocked at how hard it is to capture lightning in a bottle.
This was the beginning of a stretch of time where Robert would jump wildly from style to style, with compositions described nicely as “lucid experimentation.” In 1853, a young man showed up unannounced at the Schumann’s door. He would wow Clara and Robert with his compositions which were completely unknown at the time. This young man was Johannes Brahms and he would become a very close friend for the rest of both Clara and Robert’s lives.
In 1854, with his depressive episodes worsening, now suffering from demonic visions and in fear that he would hurt Clara, he jumped from a bridge into the Rhine in an attempt to drown himself as his older sister had nearly 30 years earlier. He would survive and asked to be placed in a sanatorium where he would spend the last two years of his life. He would be diagnosed with “psychotic melancholia”, now widely thought to be a combination of symptoms stemming from what we now know as bipolar disorder as well as late-stage syphilis and mercury poisoning. As part of his treatment and for her safety, Clara was not allowed to visit him. Brahms visited regularly though and after Robert’s death would be integral in preserving his legacy by promulgating his music and helping Clara care for their children -- the last of which, Felix, was born just before Robert’s suicide attempt in 1854. Clara was finally allowed to visit on July 27, 1856 where an incoherent Robert possibly didn’t recognize her. Robert would die two days later on July 29.
Clara would remain a concert pianist finding enough success to support her family which was unheard of at the time. Were it not for the patriarchal culture at the time, she might’ve been the more famous Schumann, as she had her own compositions, which despite being of equal quality to Robert’s, were largely over shadowed until many years after his death. Clara attempted to showcase Robert’s work in concert but it was often poorly received, many thinking his work was tainted by madness. When Clara became the editor of Robert’s work after his death, it is rumored that her and Brahms destroyed much of his work for this same reason. She would spend the vast majority of her career playing the work of established composers. The Romantic Era equivalent of a washed-up cover band. Clara would outlive Robert by almost 40 years. Though it is speculated that her and Brahms had an affair, Clara, in the memory of Robert, would wear black every day for the rest of her life. And it was the tenacity of their memory for Robert that was the kindling for his resurgence in popularity in the late-Romantic era which proved to be what ultimately saved Robert from obscurity and secured him among the most beloved composers of all time.