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  • Writer's pictureMayda Narvey

Complete History of Music: Lesson 7

Welcome back dear music history enthusiasts (and welcome any of you who have decided to jump in at Lesson 7). This lesson looks at two 19th century musical giants who were born the same year: Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1948).  You may actually be wondering if being a great 19th century composer necessitated dying young!  But it is extraordinary how much wonderful music these two produced in such short lives.

I hope you enjoyed listening to the slow movement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden.  Perhaps you listened to the whole Quartet. You may have been struck by the vast difference in style between Schubert's music and the music of Bach we listened to in Lesson 3, or even the music of Mozart in Lesson 4. 

But what are the components of that difference? 

We've talked about the shift from thinking horizontally to thinking vertically, that is to say from polyphony to homophony where a melody is accompanied by rich textures of sound that we call chords or harmony.  And you may remember thinking about Beethoven's wish to express ideas and feelings beyond the strictly musical. This type of music is called Programme Music (although Beethoven rejected the term) whereas music that is not about anything but is to be enjoyed for its  construction is referred to as Absolute Music. 

In the 19th c there was a huge shift in both in the Arts and more generally in society's world view.  The values of the Enlightenment - reason, logic, science, fact - gave way to their very opposite. Romanticism now found writers, artists and composers trying to communicate feelings and states of being.  Intuition, the mystical, Nature, reveries of childhood... these were all to be valued and pursued.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Cloud

by Caspar Friederich

How did Robert Schumann express Romanticism in his life and work?

One composer who not only explored these ideas in his work but seemed to have lived a life that was the very epitome of the Romantic, was Robert Schumann. Schumann as a young man felt torn between a love of literature and music.  He initially set out to study law but his pull to music led him, in his early twenties to study the piano with one of the most sought after teachers in Germany, Friedrich Wieck.  Wieck was impressed with Robert's talent and took him into the household where he got to know and enjoy the company of Wieck's nine year old daughter Clara, an extraordinarily talented young pianist in her own right.  (In fact, Wieck, like Leopold Mozart with the young Wolfgang was very exacting of Clara and expected great things from her.  And Clara, like Wolfgang, eventually rebelled. But more of that in a bit). Robert worked hard under Wieck's tutelage. Drawn to the extraordinary and sometimes quite twisted and  haunting short stories and musical commentary of the writer and composer, ETA Hoffmann (you will know him from The Nutcracker)...

(You might want to read these stories; they are very gripping:

...he soon started experimenting with musical journalism. He created a fictional musical society, the Davidsbündler whose two most notable members, Florestan the extrovert and Eusebius, the introvert were able to express two conflicting sides of his nature. (It is amusing to reflect that the 21 year old Schumann's first musical review was of a set of variations by the 21 year old Chopin whose life we will look at in a minute. It began, 'Hats off gentlemen, a genius!' Years later Schumann hoped that Chopin would reciprocate and sent him one of his own manuscripts. Sadly it lay on Chopin's piano for years gathering dust.)

Listen to these first 9 pieces in Schumann's musical evocation of the Davidsbündler. Can you make out the impetuous Florestan and the more poetic Eusebius?

Generally things were going well for Robert until disaster struck. He damaged his hand by devising a contraption to create a better stretch in his fingers. And to compound his difficulties, the great love he had come to conceive for Clara was fiercely rejected by Wieck who was adamant that Robert must leave her alone. The two lovers appealed the decision in court and were given permission to marry one day before Clara's 21st birthday.

Listen to this touching first lied from the song cycle (sequence of lieder which loosely tells a story) 'Frauenliebe und Leben' that Robert wrote at the time of their marriage, 'Seit ich ihn gesehen':

Since first seeing him, I think I am blind, Wherever I look, Him only I see; As in a waking dream His image hovers before me, Rising out of deepest darkness Ever more brightly. All else is dark and pale Around me, My sisters’ games I no more long to share, I would rather weep Quietly in my room; Since first seeing him, I think I am blind.

The couple were devoted to one another and produced 8 children. Schumann composed several collections of children's pieces partly for the benefit of his own family and partly inspired by the prevailing reverence for the innocence of childhood. Here is the beautiful Traumerei (Dreaming) from his Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood):

But there was a certain rottenness in the State of Denmark.  For whatever reason (it is now pretty much accepted that he had contracted syphilis in his student days), Schumann's youthful depressive episodes persisted and in time he experienced psychotic symptoms.  His jealousy of Clara's success (she was widely celebrated as a pianist and toured Europe and even Russia) played upon him and when the beautiful young Johannes Brahms entered the scene (spoiler - see Lesson 8), it seems it was all too much. Robert tried to throw himself in the Rhine and was incarcerated in an asylum where he died two years later. 

I wonder if you can sense his troubled nature in this set of pieces for solo piano that he wrote the year before his attempted suicide, Gesänge der Frühe, Songs of Dawn.  To my mind the writing has a certain lack of direction and incoherence.  See what you think!

If you were taken with Schumann's story, here is a film you can watch about his life!

How did Chopin write his sense of being 'a stranger in a strange land' into his music?

Just as Schumann seemed to express the ideals and vagaries of Romanticism in his life so did, in another way, our second composer Frédéric Chopin, a man with a French name, a Polish nationality who spent his last year in London and Scotland.  A waif wracked by consumption (the Romantic disease) Chopin lived his whole adult life in Paris on a passport stamped 'just passing through'. Dislocation was part of his heritage; his French father had made his home in Warsaw and married a Polish woman from a much less salubrious family.  Frédéric showed huge talent as a pianist in his childhood and when he was 20 he set out to test that talent in the wider world.  A short trip to Vienna was followed by another foray which unfortunately coincided with the outbreak of revolution in Poland (Poland was a country with a history of domination and moveable borders).  Would the young Frédéric return and fight the Russians with his friends?  Wracked by indecision (a tendency that dogged him his entire life) he instead moved on to Paris where he had his passport stamped with a temporary status (a status that continued for the next 20 years).  His despair however was our gain in one of the Etudes or studies that he wrote at that time.  The Revolutionary Etude, 'on the Bombardment of Warsaw', Op. 10 No. 12, was the stirring and emotionally-charged last of a set of hugely demanding pieces for the piano that explored various technical problems in a musically ravishing way. For a 20 year old to have conceived this novel, even revolutionary (!) approach to the piano was extraordinary. Chopin was a champion of breaking the rules and despite small hands wrote music that wandered, spider-like across the instrument to stunning affect.

Listen to the legendary Sviatoslav Richter playing the Revolutionary Etude:

Chopin, the dandy, for whom the necessities included velvet suits and fashionable fiacres, set out to earn his money teaching the daughters of the wealthy aristocracy.  He wasn't keen on public performance but didn't mind playing for a small group of people in that wonderful 19th century phenomenon, the Salon. Meanwhile he was assuaging his homesickness by writing Polish inspired music: Mazurkas (he wrote almost 60), Polonaises and other longer compositions which he called Ballades orScherzi, which always seemed to include some echo of those two well-known Polish dance forms. He almost exclusively wrote for piano (there are otherwise only a couple of piano concerti, some pieces for cello and a few songs) and it seems that his method of composition was to improvise at the piano and then try to set down what had happened on paper.  But what had happened was a miracle he could never, to his frustration, quite capture.  He experimented with harmonies in a novel way, was partial to a chord called the diminished 7th that is as evil sounding as its name and used it to move around the keys (i.e. scales) with dazzling speed.

I can't resist sharing with you the scene from the film 'The Pianist' where the protagonist in hiding melts the enemy with the first of the four Ballades of Chopin. It somehow points to the central place that Chopin continues to hold in the Polish heart. It is very unlikely that the refugee pianist could have executed this Ballade's huge difficulties with such cold hands, but suspend your disbelief and enjoy:

Meanwhile Chopin did have a love life -  of sorts.  He was taken up by the great 19th c (woman) writer and novelist, George Sand.  Her life and work demands a whole other lesson in itself but suffice it say she was powerful, and indecisive Chopin was vulnerable and needing care.  She took him to Majorca in 1838 to help heal his persistent cough and initially he found it a heavenly place to rest and compose.  There he continued work on his Op.28, a set of 24 Preludes in all 24 available keys with a nod to Bach. Legend has it that No. 15, known as The Raindrop was inspired by the plash of rain on the tin roof of their accommodation. Sand writes:

‘We hurried, knowing how our sick one would worry. Indeed he had, but now was as though congealed in a kind of quiet desperation, and, weeping, he was playing his wonderful prelude… When I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might – and he was right to – against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds.’

Here is Vladimir Horowitz playing the 'Raindrop' Prelude.

But things went badly wrong in Majorca.  Chopin became seriously ill and from that point was dogged by the consumption that eventually killed him. The relationship with Sand ended acrimoniously and in 1848 when Louis Philippe was toppled and the aristocracy fled Paris, ill and alone, he found himself with no pupils and therefore no income.  He was rescued by his Scottish student, Jane Stirling who took him home with her.  But the Scottish winter, like the Majorca winter  exacerbated his consumption and, defeated, he returned to Paris to die. It had been a too-short and grief-filled life but one that gave birth to the most tender and poetic music and opened up a whole new world of sound that the piano, a mechanical instrument of wood and iron, is able to produce.

I'd like to leave you with one of Chopin's most haunting Nocturnes (another lovely Romantic title referring to a darker nocturnal quality in the music), Op. 27 no 1. Perhaps you can hear in it both the nostalgia and a sense of urgency in its discords and roving left hand accompaniment?

This has been a rather unusual lesson as it focussed mainly on the life stories of two composers. It does beg the question whether knowing about the life of a composer in any way aids an understanding of his music. But Schumann and Chopin so completely expressed the Romantic through their lives and work that a closer look at their biographies seems justified. I look forward to seeing you next week to reflect on the fascinating story of the 'War of the Romantics' that ensued in the following years between Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt along with Liszt's musical colleague and son-in-law, Richard Wagner.

Musical Terms:


Programme Music

Absolute Music


Song Cycle







Diminished 7th

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