Great Masters: Robert and Clara Schumann-Their Lives and Music

Course No. 759
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 759
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Course Overview

In this course by Professor Robert Greenberg you meet the Schumanns—brilliant, gifted, troubled, and unique in the history of music. Robert Schumann (1810–1856) and his wife Clara Wieck Schumann (1819–1896) have earned a distinct place in the annals of Western music. As a couple with a two-career marriage—he as a pioneering critic and composer, she as one of the leading concert pianists of Europe—they were highly exceptional in their own time though they seem very contemporary in ours.

Great Critic, Great Composer—Coupled with a Great Pianist

Robert Schumann is unique by virtue of being the only great composer who was also a great critic. His contributions to the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), the periodical he founded in 1834, made him far better known originally as a writer than composer. It also gave him a platform from which he could champion the Romantic ideas that informed his own works and recognize the geniuses of his time, including Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Franz Liszt.

The Zeitschrift would go down in history as one of the most important musical periodicals of the 19th century. Robert was its leading voice for 10 years, until depression and ill health led him to sell it in 1844. When he returned to print again nine years later it was a memorable occasion, for he broke his long silence to hail the gifts of a brilliant but thus far unknown young composer from Hamburg, Johannes Brahms.

This essay proved a mixed blessing for Brahms, but it clearly showed the quality of Robert's critical judgment. It came at the beginning of a close friendship between Brahms and the Schumann family. This friendship endured through the difficult years when Clara had to concertize continually to support her children after Robert's death—a story that Professor Greenberg details in his Great Masters lectures on the life and music of Brahms.

Clara was one of the most famous pianists and acclaimed touring musicians in Europe at a time when women of her class were rarely encouraged to pursue careers outside the home.

She was also a composer of no small talent, though her family commitments and touring schedule kept her from developing her compositional gifts as fully as she might have. The songs that she did compose with Robert's encouragement show great promise, however. During this lecture series you will hear two of Clara's songs and one of her piano works.

An Extraordinary Marriage

Clara was the only daughter of Friedrich Wieck, a tyrannical yet innovative piano teacher. His methods may have caused the crippling hand injury that ended Robert's own dreams of becoming a piano virtuoso and caused him to turn decisively toward writing and composing as his way of making an impact on the art of his time.

Clara first met her future husband when he was 18 and she was only 9. The two fell in love when Robert was 25 and she was 16—five years after her public-performance debut on the stage of the Gewandhaus in her native Leipzig.

After a dramatic, intrigue-filled courtship that included smuggled letters, secret meetings, and a lawsuit brought by Clara against her outraged father, the couple would marry when Robert was 30 and Clara was a day short of her 21st birthday.

Their alliance would result in eight children and was a loving one, though not without its tensions. Clara had been raised to be a star on the concert stage, not a wife and mother, and Robert did not always find it comfortable to be the husband of a woman whose fame and earning power exceeded his own, or to endure the slights he sometimes received while making the concert rounds with her.

And Clara was not only the main breadwinner of a growing family, but the wife of an emotionally unstable man who alternated between manic bouts of awesome creativity (he once wrote an entire symphony in four days) and terrifying fits of depression, exacerbating the worsening effects of the syphilis that would eventually kill him.

Triumph amid Adversity

Despite his illness and instability, Robert Schumann triumphed over adversity by leaving behind a magnificent legacy of compositions and insights into music that you will explore in these lectures.

He began as a writer of exquisite, often literature-inspired works for piano or piano and voice such as Papillons (1831), Carnaval (1835), Arabesque (1839), and Frauenliebe und Leben (1840). He succeeded, with Clara's indispensable encouragement, in combining his taste for "program music" (instrumental works inspired by and intended to bring literature to life) with the strict compositional technique and abstract content required to write chamber and orchestral music—the kind of "stand-alone" works that critics call "absolute music."

Thus Robert was able, in the wonderful "symphonic year" of 1841, to step out from beneath the long shadow cast by Beethoven's symphonies and make his own mark in this form with his First Symphony in B-flat Major, to be followed by three more by 1851.

In the second half of 1842, Robert turned his energies to chamber music and produced three string quartets as well as a piano quartet and piano quintet, all of which remain among the most enduring works in the chamber repertoire.

Music was, for the Romantic 19th century, truly the ultimate art form, and Robert Schumann, according to Professor Greenberg, represents its Romantic quintessence.

"Of all the early Romantic composers, it is Robert Schumann even more than Hector Berlioz whose music stands as the quintessence of the Romantic ideal—an art that combines music and literary storytelling in pursuit of the fullest possible degree of expression. It tended to strike contemporaries—including, in this case, even Schumann's wife, Clara—with its originality, its personal character, and its willingness to test aesthetic limits."

Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:

Robert Schumann's Works:

Papillons (Butterflies), op. 2 (1831)
Carnaval, op. 9 (1835)
Symphony no. 1 in B-flat Major (Spring), op. 38 (1841)
Piano Quintet in E-flat, op. 44 (1842)
Das Paradies und die Peri (Paradise and the Peri), oratorio (1843)
Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 54 (1845)
Concert Piece for Four Horns and Orchestra, op. 86 (1849)
Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major, op. 97, Rhenish (1850)
"An Anna" (1828)
Symphony in G Minor, WoO 29, Zwickau (1832)
Kreisleriana, op. 16 (1838)
Arabesque, op. 18 (1839)
Frauenliebe und Leben (Woman's Love and Life), op. 42 (1840)
Symphony no. 2 in C Major, op. 61 (1846)
Theme in E-flat Major (1854)

Clara Schumann's Works:

Walzer (1834)
Soirées Musicales, op. 6 (1836)
Am Strand (Musing on the Roaring Ocean) (1840).

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8 lectures
 |  Average 47 minutes each
  • 1
    Isn't it Romantic!
    This lecture provides background on Romanticism, the dominant movement in European art in the 19th century, and on Robert Schumann's youth. He showed an early talent for piano and composing. In his teen years he wrote songs that began to reveal the duality of poet and musician in his personality and work. Before he went on to university, Schumann experienced two tragedies: the death of his sister Emilie and the sudden death of his father from a heart attack at age 53. x
  • 2
    A Pianist in Leipzig
    Schumann enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1828. He began piano lessons with Friedrich Wieck, father of Clara. In 1831, Schumann also made his debut as a professional music critic. When his hands started to go numb, Schumann knew that he would not have a career as a pianist; he turned to composition. In July 1833, illness and deaths caused him to go into a deep depression. x
  • 3
    Clara
    Schumann's teacher and Clara's father, Friedrich Wieck, was an ambitious and difficult man, determined to transform Clara into a great pianist using his teaching methods. Clara was well received wherever she and her father traveled. Robert Schumann lived with the Wiecks for almost a year. Clara played Schumann's Papillons, and by the time she was 16, they had fallen in love. x
  • 4
    Carnaval
    Schumann composed Carnaval, which is made up of 21 miniatures describing Schumann's friends and colleagues in the setting of a masked ball. When Wieck discovered Schumann's relationship with Clara, took Clara away from Leipzig and severed all ties with Schumann. Schumann was driven to episodes of mania and depression. During one of his manic periods, he composed Kreisleriana, a kind of "spiritual diary" of his emotions and personality at the time. x
  • 5
    Marriage and Songs
    After Robert and Clara won a lawsuit filed against her father, they were married. Robert was composing prodigiously, producing almost 150 songs in the year 1840, including the beautiful Frauenliebe und Leben (Woman's Love and Life). The early days of their marriage were happy, but the realities of balancing their demanding professional and personal lives soon brought conflict to the couple. x
  • 6
    The Symphonic Year
    Robert's Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major, op. 38, was brilliant and wonderfully received by both audiences and critics. Inspired by the symphony's triumph, Robert wrote a number of other orchestral works and chamber music. Clara returned to touring just three months after the couple's first child was born. Robert and Clara managed to strike a balance in their professional and personal lives. x
  • 7
    Illness Takes Hold
    Robert Schumann's compositional career took off, but in 1844, his mental health began to decline. They moved to Dresden to be closer to Robert's doctors. They moved to Kreischa, where Schumann experienced a period of intense creativity. In 1850, Schumann took an appointment as music director for the city of Düsseldorf. They were initially welcomed with enthusiasm, but three years later, the orchestra would demand Schumann's resignation. x
  • 8
    Madness
    In Düsseldorf Robert was inspired to write the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, along with trios, sonatas, orchestral works, and pieces for chorus and voice and piano. Robert and Clara also met Johannes Brahms there; he became a lifelong friend and source of strength for Clara. In 1854 Robert attempted to drown himself in the Rhine and was taken to an asylum. He died there two years later. Clara managed to sustain the family through her concerts but was dealt even more pain by the early deaths of several of her children. x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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Reviews

Great Masters: Robert and Clara Schumann-Their Lives and Music is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 36.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I’m very glad that I bought this course as Greenberg does his usual fantastic job of presenting the information. I have 4 of his courses, and he has not failed to provide hey spectacular experience.
Date published: 2019-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exemplifies the tragedy of 19th century diseases Dr. Greenberg has the knack of putting you right into the home and concert hall, concisely presenting the relationships, tragedies, and personalities of all involved, and doing it with good humor and irony. The music selections are exquisite, whether they are well or little known. I have watched many of his courses, and gained an understanding of music and composers that would not have been possible so easily in any other way. One also comes away with a greater understanding of the cultures and societal pressures and prejudices involved, and a world of then-incurable diseases and dangerous medical treatments that blighted lives. If one feels nostalgic for a world before antibiotics, think again!
Date published: 2018-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Talented and Troubled Couple I’m not really sure how many of Dr. Greenberg’s courses I’ve taken, but for sure this is the 9th in the “Great Masters” series. This series is so consistent that it is hard to write anything that I have not written before. As usual we get a factual and fast-paced recitation of facts, places, dates and persons behind the lives of the composers. And as usual and more importantly, Professor Greenberg delves into those lives in some depth. We learn the reasons behind their actions and in some cases how and why the musicians composed and performed as they did. And best of all we get excerpts of the music created by the composers, illustrating their developing skills and compositional maturity. I thought that Dr. Greenberg gave a little less analysis of Robert Schumann’s music than is normal in this series. Then again, I am not nearly as familiar with his music as most of the other composers in the series, so perhaps I needed a bit more help in understanding the whys and wherefores of the music. On the other hand, we are treated to a masterful interweaving of the lives of Robert and Clara from their earliest years to the last days of each of them. Plus a bit of Brahms thrown in (for those who wish a bit more of the Schumann-Brahms relationship, Dr. Greenberg’s course on Brahms relates this in some detail. I really learned a lot, especially about Clara’s early life and her relationship with her father. As usual, Dr. Greenberg gives us the warts, as well as the virtues in this dual biography. I was especially surprised to learn how often and how much Robert was in the background, as Clara, the renowned performer got the limelight and acclaim. Thinking about this a bit, made me appreciate Robert the man more than I had before. It also rounded Clara as a person quite a bit more, especially when coupled with her difficulties balancing out her professional career with motherhood. Here Professor Greenberg ties the 19th century single issue to our current lives and times. As with all this series, highly recommended.
Date published: 2018-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting Thanks to professor Greenberg to speak about Clara Schuman too often forget Good choice for the musical pieces.
Date published: 2018-09-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Miracle Music When I heard about the struggles of the lives of both Schumanns, and how Robert's music burst forth in huge inspired gushes in moments between bouts of illness and depression, I was amazed. Robert Greenberg's analysis of Schumann's Symphonies and how they tied into music of other greats of his day are fascinating. A bit more music and a bit less emphasis on personal matters would have made me even happier, but I still greatly enjoyed this set of lectures. I did not see any listing of the musicians or groups that performed the various music samples, an interesting omission. (Maybe I didn't look hard enough.)
Date published: 2018-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very appropriate Prof. R. Greenberg, as always, presents a very erudite approach to the subject with just a hint of humor where it is very effective. I look forward to his Beethoven presentation at the Philadelphia College of Physicians on May 29th.
Date published: 2018-05-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another splendid biography I have heard many of Professor Greenberg’s biographical courses on great composers: the ones about Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms. I found them all to be first rate, fascinating and enjoyable. I therefore had very high expectations for this one focusing on Robert and Clara Schumann. I was not at all disappointed! In this course too, Professor Greenberg surveys with much wit and compassion the lives of these two great artists. Although I was quite familiar with Robert Schumann’s music (particularly for piano solo and chamber music), many of the works introduced were new to me and I will surely follow up on them in the future. I knew next to nothing about their lives – except for the portions that were taught in his biographical course on Brahms. This biographical context was pivotal for me for understanding how to think of his music and I will now “listen to it in a different light”. Overall – another delightful, fascinating and beautifully taught biography by Professor Greenberg; nothing short of the high marks that were expected. My only regret regarding this series is that there are a few major names that I would have loved to hear biogrphies about - not least are Schubert and Chopin.
Date published: 2018-04-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Touching treatment of the Schumanns Prof Greenberg always does a terrific job in his biographical courses about famed composers, and this set on Robert and Clara Schumann meets that standard. He deftly mixes the music with the backgrounds and personalities of his subjects, and tells a complete and interesting story.
Date published: 2017-10-08
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