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6.5: Music of the Schumanns

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    Husband and wife Robert and Clara Schumann were another prominent musical pair of the nineteenth century. The couple became acquainted after Robert (1810- 1856) moved to Leipzig and started studying piano with Friedrich Wieck, the father of the young piano prodigy Clara (1819-1896). The nine-year-old Clara was just starting to embark on her musical career. Throughout her teens, she would travel giving concerts, dazzling aristocratic and public audiences with her virtuosity. She also started publishing her compositions, which she often incorporated into her concerts. Her father, perhaps realizing what marriage would mean for the career of his daughter, refused to consent to her marriage with Robert Schumann, a marriage she desired as she and Robert had fallen in love. They subsequently married in 1840, shortly before Clara’s twenty-first birthday, after a protracted court battle with her father.

    Once the two were married, Robert’s musical activities became the couple’s first priority. Robert began his musical career with aims of becoming a professional pianist. When he suffered weakness of the fingers and hands, he shifted his focus to music journalism and music composition. He founded a music magazine dedicated to showcasing the newer and more experimental music then being composed. And he started writing piano compositions, songs, chamber music, and eventually orchestral music, the most important of which include four symphonies and a piano concerto, premiered by Clara in 1846. While Robert was gaining recognition as a composer and conductor, Clara’s composition and performance activities were restricted by her giving birth to eight children. Then in early 1854, Robert started showing signs of psychosis and, after a suicide attempt, was taken to an asylum. Although one of the more progressive hospitals of its day, this asylum did not allow visits from close relatives, so Clara would not see her husband for over two years and then only in the two days before his death. After his death, Clara returned to a more active career as performer; indeed, she spent the rest of her life supporting her children and grandchildren through her public appearances and teaching. Her busy calendar may have been one of the reasons why she did not compose after Robert’s death.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.15.33 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Robert and Clara Schumann by Eduard Kaiser. Source: Wikimedia

    The compositional careers of Robert and Clara followed a similar trajectory. Both started their compositional work with short piano pieces that were either virtuoso showpieces or reflective character pieces that explored extra musical ideas in musical form. Theirs were just a portion of the many character pieces, especially those at a level of difficulty appropriate for the enthusiastic amateur pianist, published throughout Europe. After their marriage, they both merged poetic and musical concerns in Lieder—Robert published many song cycles, and he and Clara joined forces on a song cycle published in 1841. They also both turned to traditional genres, such as the sonata and larger four-movement chamber music compositions.

    Focus Compositions: Character Pieces by Robert and Clara Schumann

    We’ll listen to two character pieces from the 1830s. Robert Schumann’s “Chiarina,” was written between 1834 and 1835 and published in 1837 in a cycle of piano character pieces that he called Carnaval, after the festive celebrations that occurred each year before the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Each short piece in the collection has a title, some of which refer to imaginary characters that Robert employed to give musical opinions in his music journalism. Others, such as “Chopin” and “Chiarina,” refer to real people, the former referring to the popular French-Polish pianist Fryderyk Chopin, and the later referring to the young Clara. At the beginning of the “Chiarina,” Robert inscribed the performance instruction “passionata,” meaning that the pianist should play the piece with passion. “Chiarina” is little over a minute long and consists of a two slightly contrasting musical phrases.

    Video: Played by Daniel Barenboim.

    • Composer: Robert Schumann
    • Composition: “Chiarina” from Carnaval
    • Date: Published 1837
    • Genre: piano character piece
    • Form: aaba’ba’
    • Nature of Text: The title refers to Clara
    • Performing Forces: small ensemble of vocalists
    • What we want you to remember about this composition:
      • This is a character piece for solo piano
      • A dance-like mood is conveyed by its triple meter and moderately fast tempo
    • Other things to listen for:
      • It has a leaping melody in the right hand and is accompanied by chords in the left hand.
      • It uses two slightly different melodies
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Text and Form
    0:00 Forte rising, leaping melody, in homophonic texture throughout a
    0:09 Fortissimo (very loud) rising, leap- ing melody now doubled in octaves a
    0:19 Mezzo-forte melody has leaps but a smaller range and descends slightly b
    0:28 Played once and then crescendos as a it is repeated in octaves a
    0:46 Melody has leaps but a smaller b range and descends slightly b
    0:57 Played once and then repeated in a octaves a

    The second character piece is one written by Clara Schumann between 1834 and 1836 and published as one piece in the collection Soirées Musicales in 1836 (a soirée was an event generally held in the home of a well-to-do lover of the arts where musicians and other artists were invited for entertainment and conversation). Clara called this composition Ballade in D minor. The meaning of the title seems to have been vague almost by design, but, most broadly considered, a ballade referred to a composition thought of as a narrative. As a character piece, it tells its narrative completely through music. Several contemporary composers wrote ballades of different moods and styles; Clara’s “Ballade” shows some influence of Chopin.

    Clara’s Ballade like Robert’s “Chiarina,” has a homophonic texture and starts in a minor key. A longer piece than “Chiarina,” the Ballade in D minor modulates to D major, before returning to D minor for a reprise of the A section. Its themes are not nearly as clearly delineated as the themes in “Chiarina.” Instead phrases start multiple times, each time slightly varied. You many hear what we call musical embellishments. These are notes the composer adds to a melody to provide variations. You might think of them like jewelry on a dress or ornaments on a Christmas tree. One of the most famous sorts of ornaments is the trill, in which the performer rapidly and repeatedly alternates between two pitches. We also talk of turns, in which the performer traces a rapid stepwise ascent and descent (or descent and as- cent) for effect. You should also note that as the pianist in this recording plays, he seems to hold back notes at some moments and rush ahead at others: this is called rubato, that is, the robbing of time from one note to give it to another. We will see the use of rubato even more prominently in the music of Chopin.

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to:

    Performed by Jozef de Beenhouwer (at 10:21)

    Composer: Clara Wieck Schumann
    Composition: Ballade in D minor, Op. 6, no. 4
    Date: 1836
    Genre: piano character piece
    Form: ABA
    Nature of Text: This is a ballade, that is, a composition with narrative premises
    Performing Forces: piano

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • A lyrical melody over chordal accompaniment making this homophonic texture
    • A moderate to slow tempo
    • In duple time (in this case, four beats for each measure)

    Other things to listen for:

    • Musical themes that develop and repeat but are always varied
    • Musical embellishments in the form of trills and turns
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Text and Form
    0:00 [10:21] Theme starts three times before taking off; melody ascends and uses ornaments for variations; in D minor. Piano dynamics, slow tempo, duple time. A
    0:55 Transitional idea using trills (extended ornaments).  
    2:09 Transitional idea returns. Slightly louder.  


    New musical idea repeated a couple of times with variation.
    Ascending phrases crescendo and descending phrases decrescendo.



    Repeated note theme .
    More passionate and louder then subsiding in dynamics.



    First theme returns in D minor and then is varied .
    Piano with a crescendo to fortissimo and then a return to piano.


    4:19 Piano dynamics quickly altered by crescendos and decrescendos. A'


    Return of rhythmic motive from opening.

    A section and then varied Dynamics move from soft to loud to soft.


    This page titled 6.5: Music of the Schumanns is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.