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One of the great composers of the nineteenth century, Schumann was the quintessential artist whose life and work embody the idea of Romanticism in music. Schumann was uncomfortable with larger musical forms, such as the symphony and the concerto (nevertheless, representative works in these genres contain moments of great beauty), expressing the full range of his lyrical genius in songs and short pieces for piano. Schumann's extraordinary ability to translate profound, delicate -- and sometimes fleeting -- states of the soul is exemplified by works such as the song cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love), after Heinrich Heine, and his brilliant collections of short piano pieces, including Phantasiestücke (Fantastic Pieces), Kinderszenen (Scenes form Childhood), and Waldszenen (Forest Scenes). In his songs, as critics have remarked, Schumann attained the elusive union of music and poetry which Romantic poets and musicians defined as the ultimate goal of art.
Schumann's father was a bookseller who encouraged Robert's musical and literary talents. Robert started studying piano at age 10. In 1828, he enrolled at the University of Leipzig as a law student, although he found music, philosophy, and Leipzig's taverns more interesting than the law. He also began studies with a prominent Leipzig piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck. There was serious mental illness in Schumann's family, and the composer, who most likely suffered from a manic-depressive condition, approached madness with the typical Romantic combination of fear and fascination. A compulsive womanizer and a heavy drinker, Schumann led a life that aggravated his psychological problems. His efforts to become a concert pianist failed after he developed partial paralysis of his right hand. According to a conventional story, the injury resulted from Schumann's compulsive use of a finger-strengthening device, but newer research points to mercury poisoning due to treatment for syphilis. Schumann settled on a career as a composer and musical writer, co-founding the influential Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and attracting attention early with his prophetic praise of Chopin. Many of his articles take the form of dialogues featuring the "League of David," young artists fighting the "Philistines," and headed by his alter egos "Florestan" and "Eusebius," intended to represent the two contrasting facets -- one ebullient, the other reserved -- of his personality. Schumann's music, with its sharp changes in mood, also reflects his tumultuous inner life. Wieck's highly talented pianist daughter Clara grew up and fell in love with Schumann, to her father's horror. Despite Wieck's opposition, Clara and Robert gained the legal right to marry in 1840, a day before Clara's 21st birthday. During this period Schumann composed feverishly. Spellbound by a musical thought, he would work himself to exhaustion, enthusiastically cultivating a particular genre for a period of time. (For instance, 1841 was a "year of songs" in which he brought the Romantic song cycle to its apex). He virtually invented the short, poetic, descriptive Romantic piano work, and produced such works in glorious profusion in the late 1830s. Schumann tackled larger forms in the 1840s, partly at Clara's urging; his four mature symphonies retain a place in the repertoire, but his opera Genoveva failed. He held several musical jobs, teaching at the newly-founded Leipzig Conservatory, eventually becoming town music director in Düsseldorf, but without much success. On February 27, 1854, he threw himself into the freezing waters of the Rhine. After his rescue, he voluntarily entered an asylum. Although he had periods of lucidity, his condition deteriorated, and he died there in 1856, probably of tertiary syphilis.
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Most Popular Works
Composition Type: Solo Piano
Work: Kreisleriana, Op. 16
About This Work
1. Ausserst bewegt (Extremely moving) Fast and diabolical D minor outer sections flank a slow and supple B flat major central section.
2. Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (Very inwardly and not to quickly) This is a triple time-stylized dance movement with two trios. After a tenderly musing B flat major outer section follows the fast and capricious Intermezzo I in G minor. After the return of the opening section follows the fast and passionate Intermezzo II in G minor. The second Intermezzo is followed by intensely chromatic music and darkly wends it way back to the final return of the opening.
3. Sehr aufgereg (Very agitated) Quietly creeping chromatic music in G minor, reminiscent of the first movement, flanks somewhat slower and deeply affectionate music in B flat major. The return of the G minor music is at first exact, but rises to a fortissimo climax in which the rhythm slows and the music drops down into the depths of the piano.
4. Sehr langsam (Very slowly) This meditative music in B flat major has intense lyrical music, bordering on a recitative, followed by intimately poetic music hovering between quietness and stillness.
5. Sehr lebhaft (Very lively) In this pianissimo triple-time movement in G minor that is close to a Scherzo in tone and speed are two trios: one whimsical and the other building to a dramatic climax.
6. Sehr langsam (Very slowly) The heart of Kreisleriana starts with a folk-like melody in B flat major, but transforms into an extremely ardent central section in C minor.
7. Sehr rasch (Very fast) A violently excited movement in C minor, the velocity and intensity increase in a central fugato until it collapses in slower, chorale-like music at its close.
8. Schnell und spielend (Fast and playful) This G minor music skulks and slinks in seemingly two tempos at once: the right hand's frisky melody moving in one tempo while the left hand's slow-moving melody in octaves is slightly out of sync. The music enigmatically ends on the bottom of the keyboard.