Five Things to Know: Robert Schumann

Houston Symphony Schumann festival art.

Five Things to Know: Robert Schumann

In February 2020, the Houston Symphony and Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada present the Schumann Festival: Angels and Demons, a celebration of German composer Robert Schumann. The signature event of the 2019–20 season, this immersive, two-week festival gives audiences the unique chance to experience the full spectrum of Schumann’s musical output while diving into one of the most fascinating personal stories in music history.

Before taking a deep dive into his music and life at the Schumann Festival, check out a quick primer on this fascinating composer!

  1. What can I expect from his music?
    The Romantic Era boasts a legion of luminary composers, from Brahms and Tchaikovsky to Mendelssohn and Berlioz—but Schumann is often deemed the “quintessential Romantic,” his ardent passions, poetic feeling, and heart-on-sleeve style perfectly embodying the ideals of the age. His music often conveys moods and scenes, from the blooming of spring to a scenic trip through the German countryside.
  2. He was also a writer, right?
    The son of a bookseller and publisher, Schumann developed a keen interest in literature at a young age. Along with music, reading and writing would remain a lifelong passion. At age 24 he inaugurated the music periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), where he championed the work of up and coming composers like Johannes Brahms and became one of the most important music critics of his day.
  3. What is the “Clara motif”?
    In 1840, Schumann married virtuoso pianist Clara Wieck after prevailing in a lawsuit against her father, who vehemently opposed the relationship. In addition to being one of the greatest concert pianists in history, Clara was a gifted composer (a selection of her works is a part of the Schumann Festival). She was a lifelong muse for her husband, and he encoded her name into many of his works in the form of a five-note “Clara motif,” which includes a C and two As—the letters in her name that translate directly to musical notes.
  4. Did he really write more than 130 songs in one year?
    In addition to composing symphonies and concertos, Schumann is recognized today as one of the great masters of song. In 1840 alone, he wrote more than 130 of them. This “year of song” was also the year of his marriage to Clara, and his personal happiness is like a radiant thread woven throughout these exquisite masterpieces, many of which are love songs. You will have the chance to hear some of these romantic tunes in a special performance featuring the Houston Symphony Chorus (on the week of Valentine’s Day, no less!).
  5. Is it true that Schumann was affected by mental illness?
    Throughout his life, Schumann struggled with his emotions and inner world. Some doctors today have suggested a diagnosis of bipolar disorder to account for alternating periods of manic energy and extreme, debilitating depression. By his mid-40s, Schumann’s symptoms had progressed to include auditory hallucinations and visions of angels and demons. In 1854, Schumann attempted suicide by jumping into the Rhine River. After being rescued, he entered an asylum at his own request, remaining there until his death in 1856 at the age of 46. Schumann’s tragic decline is all the more poignant when considered alongside the character of his music: life-affirming, noble, exalting the small, everyday moments that give life beauty and color. In this sense, Schumann embodies his self-proclaimed aesthetic mantra: “to send light into the darkness of men’s hearts—such is the duty of the artist.”

Katy Judd

Experience the Schumann Festival on February 8–16, 2020! Concerts at Jones Hall are supplemented by events throughout the city (additional details and announcements to be announced). Learn more & get tickets.

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