Schiller Institute on YouTube Schiller Institute on Facebook RSS

Home >

This Week in History
June 7-13, 2015

Robert Schumann: Passing the Torch
June 8, 1810

By David Shavin

Clara and Robert Schumann.

This week we celebrate the birthday of Classical composer Robert Schumann, born on June 8, 1810, that rare soul, who tempered the heart of a poet with the discipline of his mastery of Bach's fugues.  Much could be said regarding his passion for setting the ironic poetry of Heinrich Heine and Robert Burns[1], and for his relentless pursuit of Bach's science.[2]   However, today we will focus upon his little-noted role in the salvation of Classical Music, shortly before his tragic illness led to his leap off a bridge into the Rhine River in 1854.

At the tender age of sixteen, in an address to his school, Schumann announced his life's mission, entitled "The Life of the Poet":   "The poet stands above his surroundings, looking wistfully towards the radiance of the distant stars and making ready to open up his soul... The poet lives in the ideal world and works for the real world."  Schumann's surroundings were the entrenched feudal remnants of the Congress of Vienna. In the 1830's and 1840's, Schumann would discover how to straddle those two worlds.

However, in 1847, Schumann and his wife Clara  (1819-1896),  concert pianist, composer, and the love of his life, lost their two closest  collaborators in the fight for classical culture, composers Felix Mendelssohn   (1809-1847), and his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) .[3]  Their premature deaths were followed, hard on, by the farce of the so-called 'Revolution' of 1848.  ( Actually, more than a farce, it was perhaps a mockery of a mockery - if one rightly judges the French Revolution as a mockery of the American Revolution.)  In 1849, the Romantic composer and pianist Franz Liszt, living as the 'boy-toy' in the palace of the medievalist Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein, protected and promoted Richard Wagner, who was himself on the lam from the authorities for his role in a terrorist bomb plot on behalf of the 'Revolution'.  Wagner's 1850 assault upon Mendelssohn (entitled "Judaism in Music") - a vicious, racialist screed attacking Germany as much as the Jews - attempted to force Schumann to abandon his former 'Bach'  mission with Mendelssohn, his mission to infuse Germany with universal, scientific qualities capable of moving Europe forward. 

Johannes Brahms

By 1853, when Schumann was near the end of his tether, a young Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) appeared on his doorstep. He had been sent to the Schumanns by the violinist, Joseph Joachim  (1831-1907), the protege of Mendelssohn.  (Joachim, only 17 when Mendelssohn died, hurt and disoriented, adopted the motto, "Free but alone"  - "Frei aber einsam" or "FAE".)   Clara Schumann recorded the October 1, 1853 entrance by the 20-year-old Brahms: "He played us sonatas, scherzos, etc., of his own, all of them showing exuberant imagination, depth of feeling, and mastery of form.  Robert says there was nothing he could tell him to take away or add...”  Robert’s diary simply noted: “Visit from Brahms, a genius.”  Clara, who, that very same day, had learned she was pregnant with her eighth child, what would be her last child with Robert, added of Brahms: “Here again is one of those who comes as if sent straight from God.” 

Brahms' visit prompted Schumann, after years of literary silence, to write his famous article ("New Paths"), boldly announcing to the world that they had found a musical genius, “the Chosen One:”  The otherwise unknown Brahms “was recommended to me recently by an esteemed and well-known master. He carries all the marks of one who has received a call. Seated at the piano, he began to disclose wonderful regions. ...There were sonatas, or rather veiled symphonies; songs whose poetry would be clear even if one were ignorant of the words, though a profound singing melody runs through them all.... His contemporaries salute him on his first journey through the world where wounds may await him, but also palms and laurels; we welcome him as a powerful fighter....”  In a sense, Brahms was Schumann's 'swan-song'.

Joseph Joachim

But Schumann went further. He organized a precious gift for Joachim, in return for Joachim's gift of Brahms.  Schumann organized a joint composition of a violin sonata to welcome Joachim on his late October, 1853 visit. Schumann composed two of the movements, along with one from his composing student, Dietrich, and one from Brahms. The violin sonata would be composed around the thematic f-a-e notes, providing Joachim a living, and humorous, example that he was no longer 'free but alone', that there was hope for classical music. Joachim and Clara joyfully played it for the small grouping.

Schumann's last composition was his five variations for the piano - on a theme that he thought was brought to him by “angels as a greeting from Mendelssohn and Schubert.”[4] Two days later, on February 26th, 1854, Clara recorded that Schumann "suddenly stood up and said he must have his clothes, he must go into the asylum as he no longer had his mind under control..."  The doctor was called, and he was advised to rest; but the next day, he slipped out. When he was pulled out of the Rhine by two fishermen, his wedding ring was missing. Schumann spent his last two years in an sanatorium. After his death, Clara found a note of his: "Dear Clara, I am going to throw my ring into the Rhine. Please do the same - then the two rings will be united."        

Robert Schumann's last child, the one that Clara found out about on the day of Brahms' entrance into the Schumann's lives, was born on June 11th. He was named Felix after their lost Mendelssohn. Brahms was his godfather.[5]

Brahms spent Schumann's last two years tending Robert's library, and acquiring the education he'd never received in his own childhood. He mastered Shakespeare, Aeschylus, and, of course, Schumann's music. It was only after Schumann's February jump off of the bridge that Brahms would have fully realized what Schumann had been doing that previous October: the bold announcement to the world that "the Chosen One" had arrived, along with the private composition for Joachim. Schumann, at the end of his tether, deliberately - agapically - composed a future for classical music.

In the days following Robert's death, Brahms described his organizing of his Schumann's papers: "Being in touch with him in this way, one learns to love and honor the man more deeply with each day. I will be steeping myself in it much and often." Brahms certainly did. And should one find oneself in a world out of joint, one finding ridiculous new levels of ugliness and banality, one fighting hard to deny man's humanity, then pause to consider Schumann's agapic act, and Brahms' transmission of such agape.



[1]. See Daniel Platt's Schumann site:

[2]. See Michelle Rasmussen on the Schumann's Bach studies:

[3]. See p. 43-60 of my article at:

[4]. As a youth, Schumann had intensely studied Schubert's settings of poetry. When the 17-year-old heard that Schubert had unexpectedly died, he cried all night.

[5]. In 1873, Brahms would set three of Felix's poems to music.