Robert Schumann’s piano music – imagination versus discipline

Posted on May 13, 2013


It is true that the piano music explosively increased in terms of quantity and technical virtuosity during the nineteenth century, but not many musicians were able to produce works as passionate, soulful and evocative of emotions as the piano music of Robert Schumann. Schumann was one of the most cultivated and complex musical personalities of the nineteenth century, composing music under the pressure of internal dilemmas as well as external – social and financial – constraints.

Even for a public familiar with experimentation and eccentricities through the works of Beethoven and Schubert, the early piano music of Schumann was considered quirky, moody and not easily accessible. Works like Papillons (Butterflies, op. 2, 1829-1831), Fantasistücke (Fantasy Pieces, 1837) Kreisleriana (op 16, 1838) or the Fantasie in C (op. 17, 1838) sound like mosaics of musical sequences evoking starkly different, often opposing moods. The rhythm changes quickly, with frequent syncopations, making this music difficult to interpret and play. In addition, Schumann published several variants of these works, with subtle differences in tempo markings, without clear indications which one was the “definitive”, finalised form, leaving much room to the performing pianist’s individual sensitivity and originality. During these years Schumann gained much inspiration  from the German writer Jean Paul (his real name being Johann Paul Friedrich Richter), an novelist with extraordinary imagination, whose writings were characterised by fragmented structure, surprising turns, poetic inspiration, humour and eccentricity.


Martha Argerich playing Kreisleriana

Although his early music was well received by a small number of connoisseurs and was often played in private saloons, it did not find its way to the general public of its own time. As a consequence, Schumann’s years of youthful romantic experimentation brought him little financial success. His romance with virtuoso pianist and composer Clara Wieck, and the need for financial stability in order to establish the material basis of their marriage (bitterly demanded by Clara’s father and former tutor of Schumann, Friedrich Wieck) led Schumann to radically review his compositional output after 1840. After years of secretly meeting against her father’s will, Clara, although recognised Robert’s genius, tried to convince him to compose “something brilliant, easily understandable, and something without titles, something that is a complete, coherent piece, not too long and not too short”, as expressed in a letter dated on 4 April 1839.

Although up to 1840 he composed exclusively for solo piano, it appears that these circumstances drew Schumann to experimentation with other genres. In 1840 Schumann dedicated his creative work almost exclusively to songs and ballads “Liederjahr or year of song). During this year he wrote 160-170 songs with piano accompaniment on poems of Heine, Goethe, Moore, Byron and Rückert. In addition, he composed four symphonies, pieces for chamber orchestra (String quartets, Piano Quartet and Quintet), choral works and oratorio (Das Paradies und die Peri).


Fischer-Dieskau singing Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (The poet’s love, Op. 48, 1840)

Although in a lesser quantity, Schumann continued to compose pieces for solo piano after 1840. These pieces are less experimental and adhere to formal clarity more strictly than his early pieces. Many of them can be played in domestic settings by enthusiastic amateurs – this placed them well in the strong trend of Hausemusic in Germany. In the same period of time, there was a revived interest among German musicians for masters of the past. Schumann had a lifelong interest in and admiration for J.S. Bach’s music, which coincided with a greater need for structural rigor, clarity and “objectivity” in his post-1840 compositions. This became apparent in many of his piano compositions, some of them structured as fugues e.g. 6 Fugues on B–A–C–H for organ or pedal piano (op. 60, 1845), Vier Fugen (Four Fugues, op. 72, 1845).


In spite of these changes in his compositional style, listening to his later pieces brings me to the conclusion that Schumann retained his affinity to represent a variety of moods in a single piece or cycle, which he continued to do with grace, introspective depth and great sensitivity. An example I included here is entitled Waldszenen  (Forest Scenes) (op. 82 1848–1849).

Sviatoslav Richter plays Waldszenen



Todd, L. (eds) (2004) Nineteenth-century piano music. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Worthen, J. (2007) Robert Schumann: life and death of a musician. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Posted in: Part 3