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Schumann’s Character Pieces

The following is a guest post by Timothy Jones.

Robert Schumann was born on June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Saxony. Living in a region dominated by prolific literature and music, he received an abundance of inspiration from contemporary composers and authors. Growing up, Schumann possessed an equal desire to pursue both music and poetry. He wrote his first compositions at the age of seven, branched out into large-scale choral and orchestral compositions at eleven, and set some of his own poems to music at seventeen.

At first, Schumann’s higher education focus was on law. However, he switched his career path to music in 1830 in Leipzig, studying under pianist Friedrich Wieck and composer Heinrich Dorn. Unfortunately, Schumann’s dream of being a concert pianist would end all too soon. While still completing his studies, Schumann thought he could strengthen his fourth finger by keeping it suspended in a sling during practice sessions. This resulted in permanent injury, causing him to resort to an exclusive career of composition and verse.

It was also while he pursued his studies that he met his future wife Clara, who was the daughter of his piano teacher. However, her father was opposed to the idea at first due to Schumann’s sporadic income. After several years of persuasion, Wieck gave the blessing, and the couple got married in 1840. Less than a decade after, Schumann was experiencing signs of depression. These signs developed into a serious and life-threatening mental illness.  His condition eventually confined him to a care facility, and he passed away on July 29, 1856.

Like most composers of his day, Schumann wrote a wide variety of musical selections, including sonatas, dances, symphonies, quartets, and sets of character pieces. In these kinds of sets, each piece portrays a different mood or character. Unlike sonatas, whose movements are very long with multiple sections, Schumann’s character pieces are much shorter in length.

Schumann’s set called “Kinderszenen,” or “Scenes from Childhood,” is one of his well-known collections. It features thirteen pieces that are about a minute in length. Unlike most of his works, these pieces possess simpler textures with each movement providing a contrasted idea, or scene in this case.

The first movement, titled “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen,” or “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples,” contains a two-voice melody line. The melody trades places and appears in the bass for the secondary theme. Some other movements in the set include:

“Kuriose Geschichte” or “A Curious Story,” “Hasche-Mann” orBlind Man’s Bluff,” “Bittendes Kind” orPleading Child,” and “Ritter vom Steckenpferd” or “Knight of the Hobbyhorse.” Of course, this set is also home to the ever-popular movement “Träumerei” or “Dream.”

In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown in early 2020, the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled was unable to ship out any scores. I was directed to obtain scores I needed for college on BARD. Among the pieces I learned, I chose to add some of Schumann’s repertoire to the mix. I had never learned any of his pieces prior to college, and was able to find a score of “Kinderszenen op. 15” relatively easily.

If you enjoyed learning about Robert Schumann, then please enjoy these resources from the NLS Collection that relate to this post. You can access many of our materials any time using Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access. To borrow music-related talking books on digital cartridge or hard copies of braille scores, please contact the Music Section either by phone at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

Braille

Schumann, Robert. Carnaval: Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notees : pour piano : op. 9. For piano. Paragraph format. (BRM21881)

____ Des Abends: op. 12, no. 1. For piano. Section by section format. (BRM20620)

____ Kinderszenen op. 15. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM29364)

____ Kreisleriana: op. 16. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM36061)

____ Mondnacht = Moonlight. For voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar format. (BRM23616)

____ Sonata in fa diesis minor: par pianoforte : op. 11. For piano. Paragraph format. (BRM21534)

Audio

Dangerfield, Marcia. The Narrated life History of Robert Schumann. The life and music of Robert Schumann with the composer’s music in the background. (DBM03399)

Randolph, David. Robert Schumann. David Randolph discusses the life of the composer who set out to become the world’s greatest pianist, but lost the use of his hand and died impoverished. Illustrated with numerous examples of Schumann’s compositions for piano, orchestra, instrumental ensembles, and voices. (DBM00014)

Tibbetts, John C. The World of Robert Schumann: A 15-Part Educational Series. Traces the life and work of Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, using dramatizations of key events and commentaries by biographers, critics and musicians. Includes musical analysis of many of Schumann’s works. (DBM03456)

Whorf, Mike. A Tribute to Schumann. The life and work of Robert Schumann. Several of his piano works and songs are performed. (DBM00924)

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