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Why composer Robert Schumann was a misunderstood genius

Rick Fulker
June 6, 2017

He was an ambivalent genius and a manic-depressive whose tragic end colored our perception of his works. Only in recent years has the music world come to better understand Robert Schumann's creative output and influence.

Robert Schumann
Image: picture-alliance/Luisa Ricciar

"He started out as a genius and ended as a talent," said the German composer Felix Draeseke. For decades, orchestral musicians lamented the "gray in gray" of his instrumentation. He's even been called a second-rate composer.

Epithets like these took on a life of their own after Robert Schumann's death. Perhaps writers and musicians were horrified by the tragic end of the composer who spent his final months in an insane asylum. Even his widow Clara Schumann and his friend Johannes Brahms withdrew or destroyed some of Schumann's late works, fearing damage to his reputation: In their view they betrayed signs of his degenerative mental illness and were thus of inferior quality. 

Only in the final years of the 20th century did musicologists come to re-evalute the music of Robert Schumann - including his late works, which are now recognized as highly progressive. His status as one of the 19th century's greatest composers has never been in dispute, however.

Like none other, Schumann embodied the era of musical romanticism. Prominent individuals in the music world were guests at his household, and Schumann unselfishly advanced the careers of other musicians, introducing the Pole Frédéric Chopin, the Dane Niels Gade and the German Johannes Brahms.

Robert Schumann's own musical innovations were so unique that in terms of style, he actually neither had real predecessors or successors. Some of his music is anchored in the collective consciousness and turns up in advertisements and films without listeners knowing that it was written by Schumann. Many other works - including his lieder and his chamber music - only rarely turn up on concert programs. 

Taking place from June 6-18, the Schumannfest in Bonn advances the composer's rediscovery. In conformity with the salon music of Schumann's time, many of the concerts are performed in the tiny concert hall, once a library, at his last residence.

Click through the gallery above for the important moments in Schumann's life and times.

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