His times: Schumann composed whilst the Romantic Movement was in full swing, when the popularity of virtuoso performers had become very widespread, and as a result much of his music requires a mastery of piano technique. It was also a time in which the idea of music being used to express non-musical narratives and subjects was swiftly flourishing. Here Schumann was in his element, as he was very adept at portraying characters and feelings through melodies.
His music: One of Schumann’s first works was Papillions, a suite of piano pieces inspired by the last scene of the novel Die Flegeljahre by Jean Paul (one of Schumann’s favourite authors), which depicted a masked ball through the use of a series of dance-like movements, and from the traditional celebration piece “Grandfather’s Dance”. This vivid approach to composition is something that recurs frequently throughout Schumann’s music, for example another one of his most famous works, Carnival, is a series of 21 short piano pieces which depict characters at a festival, sometimes thought to be based on people he knew, including a Harlequin and a flirtatious lady.
Himself: Born in Zwickau, Saxony, Schumann studied law at the behest of his mother, but by his twenties he had decided on music as his career path. Schumann’s teacher thought he could make him into the best concert pianist in Europe, a promise that was sadly crushed by an injury to his right hand during his studies, nudging him down the path of the composer. His love life played out much like a TV soap; he ditched his original fiancée and ended up marrying his piano teacher’s daughter Clara, much to the disapproval of her father, who made it very difficult for them to get hitched, burning all their correspondence and pursuing a lengthy legal battle against it. Unfortunately, Schumann was plagued for much of his life by mental health issues, experiencing several severe depressive episodes, paranoia and delusions, and even attempting suicide at one point; he eventually spent his final days in an asylum.