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17 April 2024

Schumann and the arrival of spring

How the composer moved from riotously original piano music to the light-footed symphony that made his name.

By Phil Hebblethwaite

For years before Robert Schumann completed his First Symphony in 1841, which he nicknamed the Spring Symphony, he’d been finding that his riotously original solo piano music tended to perplex, even irritate, listeners. Clara Wieck, the greatest female pianist of the age, who became his wife in 1840 after a protracted battle with her disapproving father, would ask him for less nutty pieces that she could play at her recitals, to help draw attention to his obvious raw talent as a composer. But, as he once said to a critic who reproached him for not writing piano sonatas that obeyed traditional structural rules: “As if all mental pictures must be shaped to fit one or two forms! As if each idea did not come into existence with its form ready-made! As if each work of art had not its own meaning and consequently its own form!”

This was a new way of thinking, ahead of its time. Before the Spring Symphony, there was Carnaval, written in something of a manic state a year after his first nervous breakdown in 1833, aged 23. It’s a suite of 21 short piano works, each representing different figures at a masquerade ball, two of which he invented to represent opposing sides of his personality – Florestan (wild) and Eusebius (mild). It’s fabulously imaginative music that Clara would play often, but it didn’t fit into any neat boxes; it wasn’t a set of variations or a collection of preludes and fugues. Neither was his fiendishly difficult Fantasie in C – dedicated on publication in 1839 to Franz Liszt, one of the few pianists in Europe capable of playing it – although it was written in approximate, three-movement sonata form. As for 1838’s Kreisleriana, you could be forgiven for not keeping up. A highly conceptual, eight-movement work, it uses Bach-like counterpoint to tell the story in sound of the “fantastic and mad” Johannes Kreisler, a character from the writings of ETA Hoffmann. Clara was in awe of the work, while admitting that she was almost frightened to marry its creator.

It’s tempting to think that these experimental early piano works by Schumann, who was born in Zwickau in 1810, might have landed better if they’d been composed 60 or 70 years later – in the time of Debussy and Ravel’s revolutionary impressionistic music. But Schumann was unequivocally of his time. “He was a true romantic in his embrace of poetry and feeling, his love of emotional extremes, his intermingling of life and art,” Judith Chernaik wrote in a 2018 biography. He knew many of the other romantic composers, too, and was unusually generous in his support of them – they were rivals, after all – in a music periodical he edited for a decade, beginning in 1834. “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius!” he wrote about Chopin, before dedicating Kreisleriana to his contemporary, whom he called his friend. Chopin was reported to have snipped that he admired only the design on the title page of the score. Out of politeness, one assumes, he returned the favour and dedicated his “Ballade No 2” to “R Schumann”, omitting the word “friend”.

That must have hurt. Schumann was a shy, sensitive man, born – or cursed – with a mind that was “a delicate seismograph upon which music registered violent shocks – shocks that would not even be noticed by people with less sensitive receiving apparatus”, as Harold C Schonberg wrote in The Lives of the Great Composers. Even the sophisticated, debonair Mendelssohn could be dismissive. He thought of Schumann as a critic and not a serious composer in those early years, although he enjoyed his company. Clara would have known this; she would have intuitively understood that her beloved Robert risked ridicule if he only went his own way with his music, despite her veneration of it. Come 1839, with her career already exploding across Europe, she snapped. “Once you provide an audience with something they can understand, you can show them something more difficult – but first you have to win the audience over,” she wrote.

She was asking for more Eusebius and less Florestan, and there were attempts. “Träumerei” from 1838’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) has always been a recital (and encore) staple. In 1839, he composed the gorgeous “Arabeske” and “Blumenstück” (“Flower Piece”), marking them “for C” in his notes. But perhaps there were other, marketable solutions. A restless mind, he moved on from solo piano works to Schubert-like song cycles in 1840, composing Dichterliebe, although it wouldn’t be performed until after his death.

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And then, in January 1841, newly married after an excruciating final court battle with Clara’s father, he looked to a form that harked back to the glory years of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in Vienna, where Schumann was based at the time. It wasn’t his first attempt at writing a symphony – he’d tried his hand almost a decade earlier – but it was the first that he completed, in what he called “symphonic fever”. Astonishingly, he sketched out the four movements in just four days (and sleepless nights), before orchestrating the full work shortly after. It was premiered by the Leipzig Gewandhaus in time for the beginning of spring – on 31 March, with Mendelssohn conducting.

“However old one is, each year the longing for spring returns,” Schumann wrote about the symphony, which opens with a horn announcing the arrival of the year’s most hopeful season, fanfare-style. It was just as Clara had wished for – something an audience could easily understand, and it did win them over. Light-footed and exultant, the Spring Symphony was a success on premiere, and marks in Schumann’s career the moment when he became recognised by the public (and by Mendelssohn) as a leading composer of the day. It remains the most popular and most frequently performed of his four symphonies, but in its creation, there’s a hint of illness. Even by Schumann’s heroic standards, writing a symphony in four days was unusual. As were the excruciating, soul-sapping lows that he frequently suffered after his creative highs.

Diagnosing what caused Schumann to attempt suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine in 1854 has been a preoccupation for psychiatrists from the moment he died in a psychiatric hospital in Endenich, near Bonn, two years later, aged 46. Current thinking suggests a double diagnosis – hereditary bipolar disorder and tertiary syphilis, which he contracted as a young man and likely remained latent until later in his life. “Robert Schumann’s fate is probably the greatest human tragedy of German romanticism,” wrote the physician Franz Hermann Franken after he examined Schumann’s long-lost medical records from the asylum in 1994.

The composer’s fate has also affected how he sits in repertoire, his detractors too quick to identify madness and irrationality in his often-difficult compositions, where his supporters find singular, spectacularly inventive musical thinking – not heard before, or since. Many later works are seldom performed; some were destroyed by Clara, to the annoyance of musicologists. But the Spring Symphony, thankfully, endures.

[See also: Bach’s bridge to the past]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran