Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2010

A series of short essays looking at different perspectives on the life and work of Robert Schumann.



The opposition of Clara Wieck’s father to Clara’s love for Robert Schumann is well known. Pianist Lucy Parham focuses more on Clara as she describes the passionate yearning she had for him, and the fulfilment of married life, which was eventually to produce eight children, of which seven survived. As importantly she also became his muse, inspiring some of his best work, as well as being his greatest advocate. A brilliant pianist she set off with him on numerous concert tours, bringing in much needed income. He, on his part, encouraged her to compose and, despite successive pregnancies and the duties of motherhood, allowed her own musical skills to flourish.  She survived him by 40 years continuing to perform his works and ensuring his name did not vanish from musical history. The Essay is illustrated with readings chosen by Lucy Parham, with Gabrielle Drake as Clara and Martin Jarvis as Robert.



Schumann’s family wanted him to become a lawyer. Schumann opposed them but he loved books, and wondered whether he might become a writer. At the age of 20 he made up his mind to be a musician, but his commitment to writing never left him. He co-founded the most influential music magazine of the time, the Neue Zeitschift Fur Musik, and became its owner and editor. In fact it paid him more than his compositions for the first 10 years of composing. His biographer Eric Jensen shows how his appraisal of his fellow composers paved the way for writing about music in a new and informed style, as well as painting a picture of musical developments in the mid-19th century.  When his compositions began to find success he resigned from the magazine, but towards the end of his life he collected his best work to form a book of musical criticism, including his last piece about an unknown composer called Johannes Brahms. Schumann described him briefly and generously as ‘ a genius’.



Robert Schumann loved the seven surviving children he brought up with Clara, and was an active and creative father. He was also genuinely interested in the idea of childhood, and read widely about new approaches to educating children and preparing them for adult life.  It was predictable then that he would write simple pieces for his children to play as well as music like Kinderszenen that evoked the spirit of childhood. How many small fingers have tried to master The Merry Peasant, one of the 43 pieces in his Piano Album for the Young, originally written for his three daughters. That album also became one of his early moneyspinners, and he followed it up with other songs and piano pieces to please his publisher and help his bank balance. Graham Johnson traces the course of Schumann’s music for and about children, and the influence that he had on successive composers, such as Bizet in his Jeux d’Enfants pieces and Debussy in his Children’s Corner Suite.



At the end of Schumann’s cycle of piano pieces Papillons (Butterflies), the carnival ball scene ends with the striking of the clock and the departure of some of the characters. American writer and broadcaster on music John C. Tibbetts describes this chord as ‘vanishing before our ears’ as the pianist removes his fingers one by one from the notes. Tibbetts explores other mysteries in Schumann’s use of silence, which he likens to ‘eavesdropping on some private, interior message’. In fact during his courtship of Clara, he claims Schumann used musical notes as hidden messages to his fiancee, asking her in musical disguise whether she loved him. Towards the end of his increasingly disturbed life, these inner voices became shrill and troubling, and his life and music ended in the silence that had been an intrinsic component of his music.



On February 27 1854 at the age of 43 Schumann attempted to drown himself in the river Rhine. He was taken to the mental asylum at Endenich near Bonn, where he spent the last 29 months of his life. Much has been written about the causes of his illness, but that information was able to be revisited in detail when the notes written by the doctors who cared for him came to light in the 1990’s. John Worthen considers that through these notes new thoughts should be examined about the nature of the illness. Schumann had periods of illness throughout his marriage to Clara, and there are suggestions that this could have been caused by depression, nervous instability or syphilis. John Worthen reaches his own conclusion in this Essay, but feels that it’s time the catch-all of mental instability was revised and a clearer analysis of both Schumann’s health as well as illness was undertaken.


N.B. Some audio has been edited from the original broadcast version due to copyright restrictions


Lucy Parham, Graham Johnson, John C Tibbetts, John Worthen, Eric Jensen


Neil Gardner


Richard Bannerman




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