This year also marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann. I thought that I’d share with you one of my favourite pieces of music, namely his Symphony No. 1, Op. 38 “Spring”. This was Schumann’s first symphonic work. Unlike Mozart and Haydn, both of whom seemed to compose symphonies as easily as most people write shopping lists, Schumann only composed four. Especially after Beethoven, the symphony became the most prestigious and demanding form. Composers sort of knew that their labours would be compared to the great maestro from Bonn. Brahms, who had a solid and complete mastery of classical form, did not even compose his first symphony until he was in his 40s.
There also developed a sort of weird fascination with Ninth Symphonies. Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, Bruckner, and Mahler all died not long after completiting their respective Ninth Symphonies. Glazunov, by no means ready to meet his maker, deliberately left his Ninth unfinished. Mahler called his Ninth “Das Lied von der Erde”. Having then been pleased to have cheated death by calling his Ninth by another name, he went on to composer an symphony bearing the dread title of Symphony No. 9, dying one year later in Vienna. Shostakovich would go on break the curse, leaving some 15 symphonies in his wake. Maybe the curse only applies to those who lived in countries belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Schumann’s lead quite a unique life. Born in Zwickau, Saxony, the youngest son of a bookseller, Schumann went on to study piano from Friedrich Wieck. Wieck had a very talented and very cute daughter in the person of Clara. They both fell in love, over the strong objections of her father. Eventually, they had to take their case to court in order to marry. Their marriage was, for a while, a happy one. Wieck was especially unhappy over the fact that his daughter, whom he had trained to become one of the greatest virtuosae in Europe, was throwing her life away over a poor composer. Nevertheless, they stuck it out and waited until she was of legal age. Then, they eloped. She bore him eight children and for a while, it seemed as if they had an idyllic marriage. In some ways, you might say that they were the Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning of music.
Unfortunately, Robert would eventually go insane. In 1854, he attempted suicide by throwing himself in the Rhine. In one of his more lucid moments, he told his wife that he feared he would harm her or their children. He was rescued by boatmen and placed in an insane asylum at his request. He died in Bonn at the asylum in 1856. His wife, finding herself the sole breadwinner at the time of his confinement, resumed her concert career in full. While she was away on tour, family friend Johannes Brahms would help out by taking care of the children. She was highly regarded as one of the greatest pianists of her time. Until Germany switched to the Euro, her portrait appeared on the 100 Deutschemark note. Herr Wieck’s dreams for his daughter were fulfilled, albeit in a roundabout way.
Clara would never remarry. To the end of her days, she dressed in black. She devoted much time to editing her late husband’s work. She was seen by many as the authoritative source for how Robert Schumann’s work should be played. After all, she was married to him. She was a composer as well. Her works are now performed, sometimes alongside those of her husband.