Born 200 years ago on June 8, 1810, Robert Schumann was one of the most influential composers of the Romantic era. Today, he's often viewed as a tragic genius - but musicologists say he just fit in with the times.
Schumann had a passion for both music and literature
German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) is known for having set up secret societies and creating various imaginary characters, which appear throughout his works. He died relatively young after being admitted to a mental institution - indeed, he fits the stereotypical image of the tragic genius who doesn't quite fit into society, whose psychological health is questionable and who creates extraordinary and enduring pieces of music.
But Schumann may have been more "normal" than he seems to the 21st-century eye. The composer "was, in fact, doing what was common in his days," Bernhard Appel, a musicologist and former member of the Schumann research center in Dusseldorf, told Deutsche Welle. "You have to keep in mind that in the spirit of his time, people wanted to see more in reality than what is just physically present."
The early Romanticist author Novalis (1772-1801) explained the longings of the era in a nutshell when he wrote, "The world must be romanticized. That way, original meaning may be found again."
Schumann lived in this house in the eastern German city of Zwickau
Schumann, like many others of his time, followed that path for meaning. He insisted on a natural tie between life and art and was convinced that his music was a reflection of everything he experienced in life - despite frequent references to the imaginary characters he had invented.
That the composer's second great passion was literature is not surprising, considering the environment he was raised in. His father August Schumann, a wealthy editor and book publisher, owned a large private library where he collected literary classics from around the world.
Through his father, Robert encountered Germany’s most influential authors and their writings at an early age and is said to have read up to 700 books in his life.
Secret societies and fictional friends
At age 15, Schumann founded his first secret literature club. In 1833, while living in Leipzig where he had gone to study law, he established the Davidsbund, another secret circle of young artists, who made it their business to fight any disregard for art and literature.
"It was quite common for educated people to build up secret societies for different purposes," Appel said. "However, most of them were never really secret. Mystification was a regular part of that game."
As a reaction to a rather rational world view influenced by the Industrial Revolution, sophisticated young artists of the time came together, looking to develop a new dialogue on cultural issues and better understand the changing world around them.
Germany issued a special edition stamp for Schumann Year
The activities of the Davidsbund mainly took place in Schumann’s imagination, although most of the members had real-life counterparts. Florestan and Eusebius are perhaps Schumann’s most popular fictional characters. They reflect two contrasting aspects of Schumann himself: While Florestan stands for his active part, Eusebius symbolizes the passive side of his personality. Both names also frequently appear in his musical works.
To communicate what the fictitious members of the Davidsbund had to say, Schumann also used Florestan and Eusebius as pseudonyms for his articles in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal of Music), a journal of music criticism he had established in Leipzig in 1834.
In his essay "Why Florestan and Eusebius?," musicologist Eric Sams tries to get to the bottom of Schumann's use of pseudonyms and fictional characters. First, he provocatively suggests that Florestan and Eusebius could be regarded as "a confession of schizophrenia" - which supports the composer's "genius-but-insane" image.
But then he comes up with a more moderate interpretation: "In any event, it is not just Schumann but human nature to have both introvert and extrovert character traits. That is why the device of related but contrasting characters is found in fiction - which is where Schumann found it."
The banality of genius
"For Schumann, literature and music had a common symbolism," Sams also wrote in his essay on Schumann's partiality to language and symbols, published in The Musical Times in 1967.
His mind seems to have been a downright melting point for music and language, as he gave his pieces poetic titles and hid names and secret messages in his musical scores. He implemented the basic idea of Romanticism by poetizing his music to allow for connections between different artistic disciplines.
Schumann married pianist Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher
The poetic titles for musical pieces, however, are not related to clearly stated events, as in a written story. "He literally composed these titles, rather than just tagging his pieces with words," Appel said.
Schumann's handling of music opened up the doors to new musical forms. As Bernhard Appel pointed out, his compositions often even have a kind of narrative musical form: "Sometimes, the way he sets general pauses in his pieces reminds me of someone reading out a story."
While Schumann was arguably a musical genius, it seems he doesn't quite fit the tragic-genius mold after all. Appel also pointed out that Schumann’s medical records indicate that his bipolar disorder was nothing more than a long-term consequence of a syphilis infection.
Author: Noelle O'Brien-Coker
Editor: Kate Bowen