He was born on the 8th of June 1810 in Zwickau in Saxony. His father was a publisher, and it was in the cultivation of literature quite as much as in that of music that his boyhood was spent. He himself tells us that he began to compose before his seventh year.
At fourteen he wrote an essay on the aesthetics of music and also contributed to a volume edited by his father and entitled Portraits of Famous Men. While still at school in Zwickau he read, besides Schiller and Goethe, Byron (whose Beppo and Childe Harold had been translated by his father) and the Greek tragedians. But the most powerful as well as the most permanent of the literary influences exercised upon him, however, was undoubtedly that of Jean Paul Richter. This influence may clearly be seen in his youthful novels Juniusabende and Selene, of which the first only was completed (1826).
In 1828 he left school, and after a tour, during which he met Heine at Munich, he went to Leipzig to study law. His interest in music had been stimulated when he was a child by hearing Moscheles play at Carlsbad, and in 1827 his enthusiasm had been further excited by the works of Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. But his father, who had encouraged the boy's musical aspirations, had died in 1826, and neither his mother nor his guardian approved of a musical career for him.
The question seemed to be set at rest by Schumann's expressed intention to study law, but both at Leipzig and at Heidelberg, whither he went in 1829, he neglected the law for the philosophers, and though—to use his own words—"but Nature's pupil pure and simple" began composing songs.
The restless spirit by which he was pursued is disclosed in his letters of the period. At Easter 1830 he heard Paganini at Frankfurt. In July in this year he wrote to his mother, "My whole life has been a struggle between Poetry and Prose, or call it Music and Law," and by Christmas he was once more in Leipzig, taking piano lessons with his old master, Friedrich Wieck.
In his anxiety to accelerate the process by which he could acquire a perfect execution he permanently injured his right hand. His ambitions as a pianist being suddenly ruined, he determined to devote himself entirely to composition, and began a course of theory under Heinrich Dorn, conductor of the Leipzig opera. About this time he contemplated an opera on the subject of Hamlet.
The fusion of the literary idea with its musical illustration, which may be said to have first taken shape in Papillons (op. 2), is foreshadowed to some extent in the first criticism by Schumann, an essay on Chopin's variations on a theme from Don Juan, which appeared in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1831. Here the work is discussed by the imaginary characters Florestan and Eusebius (the counterparts of Vult and Walt in Jean Paul's novel Flegeljahre), and Meister Raro (representing either the composer himself or Wieck) is called upon for his opinion.
By the time, however, that Schumann had written Papillons (1831) he had gone a step farther. The scenes and characters of his favourite novelist had now passed definitely and consciously into the written music, and in a letter from Leipzig (April 1832) he bids his brothers "read the last scene in Jean Paul's Flegeljahre as soon as possible, because the Papillons are intended as a musical representation of that masquerade."
In the winter of 1832 Schumann visited his relations at Zwickau and Schneeburg, in both of which places was performed the first movement of his symphony in G minor, which remains unpublished. In Zwickau the music was played at a concert given by Wieck's daughter Clara, who was then only thirteen. The death of his brother Julius as well as that of his sister-in-law Rosalie in 1833 seems to have affected Schumann with a profound melancholy.
By the spring of 1834, however, he had sufficiently recovered to be able to start Die neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the paper in which appeared the greater part of his critical writings. The first number was published on the 3rd of April 1834. It effected a revolution in the taste of the time, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber were being neglected for the shallow works of men whose names are now forgotten. To bestow praise on Frederic Chopin and Hector Berlioz in those days was to court the charge of eccentricity in taste, yet the genius of both these masters was appreciated and openly proclaimed in the new journal.
Schumann's editorial duties, which kept him closely occupied during the summer of 1834, were interrupted by his relations with Ernestine von Fricken, a girl of sixteen, to whom he became engaged. She was the adopted daughter of a rich Bohemian, from whose variations on a theme Schumann constructed his own Etudes symphoniques. The engagement was broken off by Schumann, for reasons which have remained obscure.
In the Carnaval (op. 9, 1834), one of his most genial and most characteristic pianoforte works, Schumann commenced nearly all the sections of which it is composed with the musical notes signified in German by the letters that spell Asch (A, E-flat, C, and B, or alternatively A-flat, C, and B), the town in which Ernestine was born, which also are the musical letters in Schumann's own name. By the sub-title "Estrella" to one of the sections in the Carnaval, Ernestine is meant, and by the sub-title "Chiarina" Clara Wieck. Eusebius and Florestan, the imaginary figures appearing so often in his critical writings, also occur, besides brilliant imitations of Chopin and Paganini, and the work comes to a close with a march of the Davidsbündler-- the league of the men of David against the Philistines in which may be beard the clear accents of truth in contest with the dull clamour of falsehood. In the Carnaval Schumann went farther than in Papillons, for in it he himself conceived the story of which it was the musical illustration.
On the 3rd of October 1835 Schumann met Mendelssohn at Wieck's house in Leipzig, and his appreciation of his great contemporary was shown with the same generous freedom that distinguished him in all his relations to other musicians, and which later enabled him to recognize the genius of Brahms when he was still obscure.
In 1836 Schumann's acquaintance with Clara Wieck, already famous as a pianist, ripened into love, and a year later he asked her father's consent to their marriage, but was met with a refusal. In the series Fantasiestücke for the piano (op. 12) he once more gives a sublime illustration of the fusion of literary and musical ideas as embodied conceptions in such pieces as Warum and In der Nacht. After he had written the latter of these two he detected in the music the fanciful suggestion of a series of episodes from the story of Hero and Leander.
The Kreisleriana, which he regarded as one of his most successful works, was written in 1838, and in this the composer's realism is again carried a step farther. Kreisler, the romantic poet brought into contact with the real world, was a character drawn from life by the poet E. T. A. Hoffmann (q.v.), and Schumann utilized him as an imaginary mouthpiece for the recital in music of his own personal experiences. The Phantasie in C (op. 17), written in the summer of 1836, is a work of the highest quality of passion. With the Faschingschwank aus Wien, his most pictorial work for the piano, written in 1839, after a visit to Vienna (during which he discovered a previously unknown symphony by Schubert), this period of his life comes to an end.
As Wieck still withheld his consent to their marriage, Robert and Clara at last dispensed with it, and were married on the 12th of September at Schönefeld near Leipzig.
The year 1840 may be said to have yielded the most extraordinary results in Schumann's career. Until now he had written almost solely for the pianoforte, but in this one year he wrote about a hundred and fifty songs. Schumann's biographers represent him as caught in a tempest of song, the sweetness, the doubt and the despair of which are all to be attributed to varying emotions aroused by his love for Clara. Yet it would be idle to ascribe to this influence alone the lyrical perfection of such songs as Frühlingsnacht, Im wunderschönen Monat Mai and Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden.
His chief song-cycles of this period were his settings of the Liederkreis of J. von Eichendorff (op. 39), the Frauenliebe und Leben of Chamisso (op. 42), the Dichterliebe of Heine (op. 48) and Myrthen, a collection of songs, including poems by Goethe, Ruckert, Heine, Byron, Burns and Moore. The songs Belsatzar (op. 57) and Die beiden Grenadiere (op. 49), each to Heine's words, show Schumann at his best as a ballad writer, though the dramatic ballad is less congenial to him than the introspective lyric. As Grillparzer said, "He has made himself a new ideal world in which he moves almost as he wills."
Yet it was not until long afterwards that he met with adequate recognition. In his lifetime the sole tokens of honour bestowed upon Schumann were the degree of Doctor by the University of Jena In 1840, and in 1843 a professorship in the Conservatorium of Leipzig.
Probably no composer ever rivaled Schumann in concentrating his energies on one form of music at a time. At first all his creative impulses were translated into pianoforte music, then followed the miraculous year of the songs. In 1841 he wrote two of his four symphonies. The year 1842 was devoted to the composition of chamber music, and includes the pianoforte quintet (op. 44), now one of his best known and most admired works. In 1843 he wrote Paradise and the Pen, his first essay at concerted vocal music.
He had now mastered the separate forms, and from this time forward his compositions are not confined during any particular period to any one of them. In Schumann, above all musicians, the acquisition of technical knowledge was closely bound up with the growth of his own experience and the impulse to express it.
The stage in his life when he was deeply engaged in his music to Goethe's Faust (1844-1853) was a critical one for his health. The first half of the year 1844 had been spent with his wife in Russia. On returning to Germany he had abandoned his editorial work, and left Leipzig for Dresden, where be suffered from persistent nervous prostration. As soon as he began to work he was seized with fits of shivering, and an apprehension of death which was exhibited in an abhorrence for high places, for all metal instruments (even keys) and for drugs. He suffered perpetually also from imagining that he had the note A sounding in his ears. In 1846 he had recovered and in the winter revisited Vienna, travelling to Prague and Berlin in the spring of 1847 and in the summer to Zwickau, where he was received with enthusiasm, gratifying because Dresden and Leipzig were the only large cities in which his fame was at this time appreciated.
To 1848 belongs his only opera, Genoveva (op. 81), a work containing much beautiful music, but lacking dramatic force. It is interesting for its attempt to abolish the recitative, which Schumann regarded as an interruption to the musical flow. The subject of Genoveva, based on Tieck and Hebbel, was in itself not a particularly happy choice; but it is worth remembering that as early as 1842 the possibilities of German opera had been keenly realized by Schumann, who wrote, "Do you know my prayer as an artist, night and morning? It is called 'German Opera.' Here is a real field for enterprise . . . something simple, profound, German." And in his notebook of suggestions for the text of operas are found amongst others: Nibelungen, Lohengrin and Till Eulenspiegel.
The music to Byron's Manfred is pre-eminent in a year (1849) in which he wrote more than in any other. The insurrection of Dresden caused Schumann to move to Kreischa, a little village a few miles outside the city. In the August of this year, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Goethe's birth, such scenes of Schumann's Faust as were already completed were performed in Dresden, Leipzig and Weimar, Liszt, as always giving unwearied assistance and encouragement. The rest of the work was written in the latter part of the year, and the overture in 1853.
From 1850 to 1854 the text of Schumann's works is extremely varied. In 1850 he succeeded Ferdinand Hiller as musical director at Düsseldorf; in 1851-1853 he visited Switzerland and Belgium as well as Leipzig. In January 1854 Schumann went to Hanover, where he heard a performance of his Paradise and the Pen.
Soon after his return to Düsseldorf, where he was engaged in editing his complete works and making an anthology on the subject of music, a renewal of the symptoms that had threatened him before showed itself. Besides the single note he now imagined that voices sounded in his ear. One night he suddenly left his bed, saying that Schubert and Mendelssohn had sent him a theme which he must write down, and on this theme he wrote five variations for the pianoforte, his last work.
On the 27th of February, 1854 he threw himself into the Rhine. He was rescued by some boatmen, but when brought to land was determined to be quite insane. He suffered from syphilis, that had not been properly treated and that developed into its tertiary stage. He was taken to a private asylum in Endenich near Bonn, and remained there until his death on the 29th of July 1856. He was buried at Bonn, and in 1880 a statue by A. Donndorf was erected on his tomb.
From the time of her husband's death, Clara devoted herself principally to the interpretation of her husband's works, but when in 1856 she first visited England the critics received Schumann's music with a chorus of disapprobation. She returned to London in 1865 and continued her visits annually, with the exception of four seasons, until 1882; and from 1885 to 1888 she appeared each year. She became the authoritative editor of her husband's works for Breitkopf and Härtel.