Robert Schumann

Portrait of Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann was a German composer, pianist, and influential music critic and is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. He was born on 8th June 1810 in Zwickau, Germany and died on the 29th July 1856 in Endenich, Bonn, Germany aged 46. 

Major Works

4 symphonies
Piano Concerto (1845)
Violin Concerto (1853)

Biography Timeline

Robert Alexander Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony, Germany on 8th June 1810 to August Schumann a bookseller, publisher, and novelist and Johanna Christiane (née Schnabel). He was the youngest of 5 children. He became interested in music through his teacher at school, Johann Gottfried Kuntzsch. After school he initially studied law but his music teacher Friedrich Wieck told him he had the potential to be one of the best pianists in Europe but sadly a hand injury put paid to that and he turned his attention to composing.

1817: He begins to compose at the age of seven.

1824: He writes an essay on the aesthetics of music and also contributes “Portraits of Famous Men” edited by his father. At this period he was influenced by German writers such as Friedrich von Schiller and Johann von Goethe and other romantic poets such as Lord Byron.

1825: Death of his elder sister Emilie by suicide, probably by drowning.

1826: Death of his father. He completes his novel “Juniusabende”.

1828: He leaves school and goes to the University of Leipzig in Germany to study law. However, he became more interested in music spending his time on improvisation, composition and writing novels.

1829: He begins to study piano with Friedrich Wieck although he continues his study of the law in Heidelberg.  

1830: At Easter he hears the Italian violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini play in Frankfurt. He begins a study of music theory with Heinrich Dorn a composer and conductor of the Leipzig Opera. 

1831: He writes his first music criticism work on Frederic Chopins “Variations on a Theme from Mozart’s Don Giovanni” which is published in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. 

1832: Completion of “Papillons” opus 2. (Butterflies). Later in the year he performs the first movement of his Symphony in G minor (now known as the “Zwickauer”).

1833: His brother Julius and his wife Rosalie die in a worldwide cholera epidemic. Schumann suffers a severe melancholic depressive episode. These began to recur more frequently thereafter and he went from exaltation to paranoia about being poisoned or stabbed.

1834: He founds “Die Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik” (New Journal for Music) in April. In it Schumann championed the work of composers from the past to revive interest such as Wolfgang Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber. He also introduced the work of contemporary composers such as Frederic Chopin and Hector Berlioz although he was less than complimentary about the work of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. He completes “Carnaval” opus 9 for piano. During the summer he becomes engaged to Ernestine von Fricken, the adopted daughter of a Bohemian noble who was just sixteen.

1835: In August he realises that Ernestine is illegitimate, and would therefore have no dowry and breaks with her fearing poverty. He is now becoming close to the fifteen-year-old Clara Wieck whom he had seen playing in a concert. Her father, his piano teacher, soon puts a stop to the romance and burns all their correspondence. On 3rd October he meets Felix Mendelssohn at Wieck’s house in Leipzig.

1836: He composes the “Fantasie in C” opus 17. Schumann intended to use proceeds from sales of the work toward the construction of a monument to Ludwig van Beethoven.

1837: He publishes his “Symphonic Studies” a set of etude variations. It was dedicated to the young English composer William Sterndale Bennett whom Schumann had worked with in Leipzig. He also publishes “Davidsbundlertanze” opus 6 (Dances of the League of David).

1838: Composition of “Kinderszenen” opus 15, the “Träumerei” in F major, No. 7 and “Kressleriana” opus 16. 

1839: He visits Vienna where he discovers Franz Schubert’s Symphony No 9 for the first time. He also writes “Faschingschwank aus Wien” (Carnival Prank from Vienna).

1840: He marries Clara Josephine Wieck in the Gedachtniskirche Schonefeld in Leipzig on 12th September, the day before her twenty first birthday. He was thirty. Clara’s father had carried out a long legal challenge against the wedding. Clara was herself a musical prodigy and the two worked together well forming a business partnership, with Clara providing inspiration and a friendly ear to her husband. This was a very industrious year for Schumann who composed around one hundred and eighty songs during the period. 

1841: Birth of his daughter Marie. He composes Symphony no 1 in B Flat opus 38 (The Spring) and what is now known as No 4 in D Minor.

1842: This year is almost entirely taken up with chamber works including the Piano Quintet in E flat opus 44.

1843: Birth of his daughter Elise. He composes “Andante and Variations” opus 46 and his first choral work “Paradise and the Peri” based on words by Thomas Moore.

1844: He goes to Russia with Clara on a concert tour but feels inferior to her playing. On return to Germany he leaves Leipzig and sets up in Dresden. He begins setting Johann von Goethe’s “Faust” to music which will engage him until 1853.

1845: Birth of his daughter Julie. He composes Symphony No 2 in C (although his third) and one of his most famous works the Piano Concerto in A Minor opus 54.

1846: Birth of his son Emil who died aged one year. During the winter the Schumann’s visit Vienna and Prague.

1847: Their tour then takes them to Berlin where he is received with great enthusiasm and he realises his fame has spread outside more widely.

1848: Birth of his son Ludwig. The Insurrection of Dresden, part of the revolutionary upheavals that year throughout Europe, causes the Schumann’s to move to Kreischa, a small village outside the city.

1849: Birth of his son Ferdinand. He composes music to Lord Byron’s “Manfred”. In August, on the centenary of Goethe’s birth, completed scenes of his “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust” are performed in Dresden, Leipzig and Weimar.

1850: His only opera “Genoveva” is premiered during the spring. Schumann becomes the musical director at Dusseldorf but is not a success with the musicians there. At the end of the year he finishes his Symphony No 3, The “Rhenish”.

1851: Birth of his daughter Eugenie. He revises his Fourth Symphony and visits Switzerland, Belgium and Leipzig over the next few months.

1853: He composes the Violin Concerto and the “Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra” and the Violin Sonata No. 3. On 30th September Johannes Brahms knocks at their front door with a letter of introduction from the violinist Joseph Joachim. Both Robert and Clara were very taken by the music of Brahms and he stayed with them for several weeks afterwards and became a friend.

1854: In January he visits Hanover where he hears a performance of his “Paradise and the Peri” organised by Brahms and then he returns to Dusseldorf. He completes his last known work the “Geistervariationen” (Ghost Variations). In February Schumann has a variety of visions and felt he was going to harm Clara. On 27th February he attempts suicide by throwing himself into the River Rhine from a bridge. He is rescued by river boatmen and taken home and thence to Dr Franz Richarz’s sanatorium in Bonn. He was not allowed to see Clara but Johannes Brahms was allowed to make several visits. Birth of his son Felix.

Robert Schumann died on 29th July 1856. Clara had visited him two days before but his words were incoherent. The cause of death was thought to be syphilis or mercury poisoning from his treatment but scholars still debate this issue today and the likely final cause was pneumonia.