Robert Schumann

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s birth.  And I must say, he looks rather good for his age – not a day over 46, even… .

On this day, I ask: In what light is it best to remember Schumann?  Many people remember him as one player in a bizarre love triangle (with his wife Clara and the young Brahms) that was as intrigue-riddled as an episode of Gossip Girl.  The fact that he spent the last two years of his life confined to a mental asylum has further deflected the focus from his music.  These sadder, more disordered aspects of his life and personality have even led a scattered few to question the structural integrity of his works.

If nothing else, days such as this can remind us of the great musical heritage that has come before us, and of which Schumann was a pivotal part.  There has never been more music in the world than there is now, and technology gives us ready access to it.  And yet, the classical repertoire survives: Schumann and friends are off the radar to some, maybe, but the significance of their music has not been eclipsed.  It is still there to be mined, still there to be discovered and advanced.  For an example of one of my prized Schumann discs, you can listen to Maurizio Pollini’s interpretation of the Symphonic Etudes here.

But what I’d like to point to here is perhaps something more than any given Schumann composition.  It is simply the fact that Schumann was a huge lover of music, and a tireless champion of art.  In his early twenties, Schumann founded the New Journal for Music (Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik) which he used as a springboard for discussion about all things music and culture.  There he acclaimed the work of some of his contemporaries; others were burned by his fiery wit.  It was in the New Journal that Schumann famously touted the then-unknown twenty year-old Brahms as the “chosen one” of music. 

For someone who is quoted as saying that music cannot be spoken about because its language is too precise for words, Schumann did an awful lot of talking.

This is because Schumann (and I’m paraphrasing here) thought it the artist’s duty to bring light into the darkness of the human heart.  And one way of accomplishing this, beyond his own compositions, was to fight for the music of others. 

Perhaps Schumann’s greatest gift to us?  It was he who, while on a visit to Vienna, discovered the dusty score to Schubert’s eighth symphony (the great “Unfinished Symphony”).

On the 200th anniversary of his birth, I remember him in this way:

Robert Schumann: All in the name of music.

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