Of all the composers who have made a permanent contribution to the standard concert repertoire and who have radically altered the subsequent history of classical music, Robert Schumann, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year, has inspired the greatest misunderstanding. The misunderstanding began with his own conception of his genius and his place in history.
As a young man in Leipzig, by the age of twenty-nine he created a revolutionary new form of piano music, a collection of character pieces—portraits of friends, popular dances, landscape or mood pictures—that were not just heard as individual numbers but that formed a whole. Each set could be experienced as a single work and astonishingly each even had something like a narrative structure, starting with stability, increasing in dramatic tension, and ending with a resolution, sometimes triumphant and brilliant, sometimes movingly poetic. Among these works are Papillons, Carnaval, the Davidsbündlertänze, the Kinderszenen, and Kreisleriana. Schumann himself remained ill at ease with his achievement, claiming that we had enough composers who could write short character pieces and what we needed was truly serious work—sonatas, symphonies, and quartets. In other words, what the age called for was a successor to Beethoven.
When his great series of piano works came mostly to an end by 1840, Schumann began to write songs. This was a musical form he had previously considered unworthy of the consideration of a truly ambitious composer. Now he set poems by Heine, Eichendorff, Chamisso, and others, and in a year and a half he had produced 125 songs. Building on the work of Franz Schubert, he revolutionized the German lied with a new understanding of the relation of the sung melody to the accompaniment. He created song cycles like his great piano sets in which all the songs were understood as part of a single unified work, but in which the piano accompaniment played a role equal in importance to the vocal line.
Schubert had often set the scene of his songs with an opening phrase in the piano, but Schumann’s most striking innovation was the occasional long postlude in the piano, sometimes incorporating entirely new material, making an elaborate pure instrumental commentary on the matter of the song. He also expanded the range of musical representation far beyond any of his predecessors, with effects of irony and sarcasm, ecstasy and desperation.
After that he devoted himself largely to composing ambitious musical forms that were supposed to be important—symphonies, oratorios, quartets, etc. He occasionally wrote some songs later, but they are rarely as effective as those from the monumental production of his twenty-ninth and thirtieth years. Among the works in large classical forms such as his symphonies there are many fine things to be found, but they do not often compare in power, energy, and originality with the great piano sets and song cycles of the previous decade.
One pattern emerges in Schumann’s life: with each new form or medium, he …