Requiem for Mignon
Born: 8 June 1810 (Zwickau)
Died: 29 July 1856 (Endenich, near Bonn)
Schumann was born into a literary family, and all his life literature and poetry were immensely important to him. His life, in fact, resembles a nineteenth-century novel, but unfortunately not one with a happy ending.
Schumann was the fifth, last, and favorite child of a writer, publisher, bookdealer, and translator, whose versions of Byron and Sir Walter Scott provided a comfortable living for the family. Schumann was thus surrounded by literature, and various writers ultimately influenced his musical compositions, especially Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann.
He started piano lessons at age 7 (with flute and cello somewhat later), and began composing not long afterwards. His father died when Schumann was 16, and his will required university study for Schumann, so he pursued legal studies (not very assiduously) in Leipzig in 1828. Here he also took up piano studies with noted pedagogue Friedrich Wieck and met his nine-year-old daughter, Clara, a child prodigy on the piano.
In 1829 Schumann moved to Heidelberg to continue his law studies, but by the following year he decided to devote his life to music, with the goal of becoming a piano virtuoso. He thus returned to Leipzig, moved in with the Wiecks, began daily piano lessons, and started formal composition lessons as well, the only ones he was ever to have. Wieck was optimistic that Schumann could accomplish his goal. Towards that end, Schumann began using a mechanical device known as a chiroplast that would purportedly increase the power of the fingers. Unfortunately the chiroplast (which looks like a medieval instrument of torture) only succeeded in permanently damaging Schumann’s right hand, thus putting an end to any plans for a concert career. Wieck, by the way, was opposed to the device (for good reason).
Schumann switched his career plans to composition and music criticism. He had already been doing some of both. In 1831, in the major musical journal Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, he famously hailed Chopin with the words “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” But for the most part he was not especially happy with the way either music or music criticism were going. Composition, he believed, was focused too much on insubstantial frippery, whether shallow virtuosity in the concert hall or its equivalent in the opera house. He therefore came up with the idea of a “Davidsbündler,” a League of David against the musical Philistines. This league included his alter egos (used in his criticism, and in musical composition as well) Florestan (for his stormy, impetuous, fiery, extroverted side) and Eusebius (for his dreamy, introspective, lyrical, contemplative side).
As a mouthpiece for his criticism, Schumann and several others founded a new journal whose first issue appeared in April 1834. By January 1835 Schumann was the sole editor and owner (and lead writer), the journal had a new name (the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the “New Periodical for Music), and Schumann had a vehicle for his “excellent, perceptive, and progressive” criticism. The journal was an important focus of his life until he sold it in 1844.
His personal life was eventful as well, and, for the most part, not in a good way. He endured a broken engagement, and (late in life) said that he contracted syphilis in 1832 and was treated with arsenic (the standard remedy at the time, but insufficient. Syphilis was probably what killed him in the end). In the summer of 1833 he endured the first manifestation of the recurring depression that would darken so much of his life. This terrible illness has a genetic component; his sister Julie probably died by her own hand, and his father’s death was attributed to a “nervous condition.”
By 1835, though, he had realized that the great passion of his life was the now-16-year-old Clara Wieck. But almost as soon as they had declared their mutual love and shared their first kiss, Clara’s father became their implacable enemy, and for the next five years waged war on the couple. They were separated for long periods of time (Clara was often on tour), Wieck circulated scurrilous rumors about the composer and made impossible demands for Schumann to prove his fiscal competence, and so on. The couple embarked on an extensive, almost daily correspondence, snatched meetings when they could, and considered themselves betrothed (though without the necessary permission of Wieck) by 1837.
The following year Schumann undertook an eight-month visit to Vienna to explore the possibility of moving there with Clara. Although that change of residence proved impractical, the visit had one spectacular result: in a visit to Schubert’s brother Ferdinand (Schubert was one of Schumann’s idols, and rightly so), he discovered manuscripts of previously unpublished music, including Schubert’s ninth and final symphony, the “Great” C Major. The manuscript came back to Leipzig with Schumann, Mendelssohn conducted the premiere, and Schumann hailed the work in his review as being of “heavenly length.” How right he was!
In 1839, fed up with Wieck’s machinations, Schumann finally said “basta!” (or, more likely, “genug!”—enough!) and instituted legal action for permission to marry Clara. The case wound its way slowly through the courts, but it was finally resolved in Schumann’s and Clara’s favor, and the two wed on 12 September 1840, the day before her 21st birthday.
The Schumanns began their married life with a joint “Marriage Diary,” a practice shared by numerous bourgeois couples of their time. They were to alternate entries, take turns reading it, and so on. The diary was, in many ways, an extension of their years-long correspondence, and of course meant that the channels of communication remained open between the two. They studied great music together (e.g., Bach WTC), and in their compositions (Clara was also a composer) they borrowed themes and motives from each other (something they had been doing before the marriage as well). And their intimate life led to nine pregnancies for Clara (one miscarriage and eight live births, in 1841, 1843, 1845, 1846, 1848, 1849, 1851, and 1854).
Because this was a marriage of a two-career couple, there were also tensions, inevitable given Schumann’s fragile ego. Clara was an internationally renowned artist of the first rank, living the life of a traveling virtuoso that Schumann himself had sought at one point. Meanwhile, he had difficulty getting his works performed, and they were not always well received when performances did arise. He required silence in order to compose, which meant that her practice time was curtailed (their Leipzig home has been preserved as a museum, and it’s not that large; the biggest room is, quite naturally, the music room; the same is true for Mendelssohn’s house). Schumann was perceptive enough in relation to Clara’s creative work to recognize that “children and a continually day-dreaming husband just aren’t conducive to composing,” yet he also made the patently false statement that “Clara...recognizes motherhood as her primary vocation.” And it’s telling that, just a few months before his marriage, he wrote the song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben (Woman’s Love and Life), in which said life is defined exclusively by marriage and motherhood. Just so you know, Adalbert von Chamisso, the poet, was 38 when he married his 19-year old bride. So there’s probably a certain amount of wishful thinking going on here. The song cycle, by the way, is stunning.
When Mendelssohn became director of the new Leipzig Conservatory in 1843, he asked Schumann to serve as professor of piano, score-reading and composition. This position was short lived, however, because the Schumanns moved to Dresden the following year, anticipating greater professional opportunities.
During his time in Dresden Schumann became deeply involved with choral music. From November 1847 to October 1848 he was conductor of the Dresden Liedertafel (a male chorus), and beginning in January 1848 he also directed a mixed-voice ensemble that he co-founded with Clara, the Verein für Chorgesang. Not surprisingly, this prompted much writing for chorus. Schumann’s attention to choral music continued in his next position, as municipal music director in Düsseldorf. Here he was responsible for the Allgemeiner Musikverein orchestra and chorus, which gave a series of eight to ten subscription concerts per year. He was also in charge of music for the most important feasts of the two main Catholic churches.
With the Musikverein chorus, Clara was the assistant director and rehearsal pianist, which is a little bit like having Lang Lang or Yuhe Wang as the rehearsal pianist. Yes, she was a very supportive spouse. Schumann also founded a smaller choir (Singekränzchen) of the better vocalists so that he could explore sacred music from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. But there were problems right from the start that only intensified with Schumann’s deteriorating mental condition. Probably the last good event in his life was meeting Brahms in September 1853, which prompted Schumann to return briefly to journalism to praise him and mark him as the great hope for music’s future (Schumann titled his article “Neue Bahnen,” new ways).
By November Schumann had resigned his conducting position; his conducting was so erratic that in one concert he continued beating time “long after” the music ended. Things only got worse thereafter, and in the new year Schumann asked to be institutionalized; he heard voices and was afraid that he would unintentionally harm Clara. On February 27 he tried to end it all by diving into the river from a bridge over the Rhine, but he was saved by nearby fisherman. He was then whisked off to a private sanatorium near Bonn. Clara was not permitted to say goodbye to him, and more than two years passed before she saw him again. Although the sanatorium was (for its time) fairly progressive, it was thought that Clara’s presence would be too unnerving for Schumann, and she was thus kept away from her husband, against her wishes. She finally managed to get to him just two days before he passed away, at which point the dying Schumann recognized and embraced her.
If that scene doesn’t move you, I don’t know what will.
If you do more reading on Schumann, you will probably come across the ideas of Eva Weissweiler and Eric Jensen. By their account, Clara forces the still sane Schumann into the asylum so that she can resume her concert career and cavort with Brahms; it was treatment in the asylum drove him mad; and Schumann was the “hapless pawn of a conniving wife and the defenseless victim of sadistic doctors.” No serious scholar believes what Schumann expert John Daverio has called “a noxious brew of innuendo, distorted facts and out-and-out fiction,” but unfortunately this farrago of nonsense is out there. Just don’t fall for it.
Requiem for Mignon, Op. 98b
Schumann felt that young composers should write for chorus and orchestra as much as possible, saying that such music enabled “the highest expression possible.” He composed plenty of choral music himself, with and without orchestral accompaniment, for women’s voices, men’s voices, and mixed voices. Many of the choral/orchestral works are ambiguous in genre, and not much of anything gets performed today, even though the oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri was one of Schumann’s most popular pieces during his lifetime. The Requiem for Mignon is one of the few choral works that gets attention these days, and is probably the best-known.
1849 was the centenary of Goethe’s birth, and Schumann acknowledged it in several works. He continued work on his “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust,” a choral/orchestral work already five years in the making, and he completed the two components of his Op. 98: the song collection “Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister,” Op. 98a, and the Requiem for Mignon, Op. 98b, both based on Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrgang. Schumann sketched the Mignon Requiem on July 2–3 and orchestrated it in July and September. On the 19th of that month the Verein für Chorgesang did a run-through (as they often did for Schumann’s choral music; at that point the membership was between 60 and 70 singers), and the public premiere was the following year on November 21, in a subscription concert for Düsseldorf Allgemeiner Musikverein.
Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice Years) was published in 1795–1796 and was hugely successful. A sequel, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years), followed some time later. The first book is considered by many to be the first example of a “Bildungsroman,” a novel that tells of the coming of age of the protagonist. In it, Wilhelm Meister turns his back on the world of commerce, encounters Mignon, follows a theatrical life, and finally joins a secret society (these were big in Goethe’s day).
I am an avid reader, unfazed by length or complexity (War and Peace, Tale of Genji, Orlando Furioso, Dream of the Red Chamber, Remembrance of Things Past, etc.) but honestly? I found Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre a slog, and only finished it by forcing myself to read X number of pages per night before bed. And I skipped the sequel. Nonetheless, the book has inspired some good music.
In the novel, Mignon is a mysterious young girl, a somewhat androgynous child of incest who is kidnapped from Italy by wandering acrobats, abused, and rescued by Wilhelm Meister. They travel about giving plays; she falls in love with him, but he loves her only as a daughter. She saves his life, but has a heart attack and dies. She sings various songs throughout the novel, of which the most famous is “Kennst du das Land,” where she expresses her yearning for her native land. Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, and others set this text.
Schumann uses only a portion of the funeral scene from the book, which takes place in Chapter 8 of Book 8. He breaks off before Mignon’s identity is discovered and before she is laid to rest; he thus ends on a positive note and omits the (for his purposes, extraneous) solution of Mignon’s origin.
The work has six sections that essentially run seamlessly from one to the next; this is a standard procedure for Schumann. The scene Schumann sets presents a dialogue between “four boys clad in heavenly blue with silver” (sung by SSAA soloists) and invisible choristers. In section 5, Schumann assigns what would have been a choir part to a bass solo instead.
The following translation is from the Choral Public Domain Library edition, altered slightly.
Section 1 (C meter, begins in c minor and ends in Eb major)
|Chorus||Whom are you bringing to our silent company?|
|The boys (SSAA soloists)||A tired playmate we bring to you; let her rest with you until the rejoicing of the heavenly brotherhood some day awakens her.|
|Chorus||The first of youth in our circle, welcome! Be welcome in mourning! No other boy or girl follows after you! Only old age draws near willingly and composed to our silent hall, and in solemn company the dear, dear child reposes.|
Section 2 (C meter, in c minor)
|Boys (SA soloists)||Ah! How unwillingly did we bring her here! Ah! And she must remain here! Let us also stay! Let us weep by her coffin!|
Section 3 (C meter, in C major and then moving to c minor)
|Chorus||But behold the mighty wings! Behold the light, pure garment! How the golden band shines from her head! Behold the beautiful, dignified repose!|
|Boys (interspersed with chorus interjections of preceding text)|
|Boys (SI solo)||Ah! The wings do not rise;|
|Boys (SII solo)||the garment no longer flutters playfully|
|Boys (SS solo)||as when we crowned her head with roses and she looked at us sweetly and cheerfully.|
|Chorus||Look upward with the eyes of the Spirit!|
Section 4 (cut time, F major)
|Chorus||In you lives the forming power that bears the most beautiful, the highest life over the stars. [the music of the “stars” section nods in the direction of Beethoven’s ninth—über Sternen muß er wohnen]|
|Boys (divided among SSAA soloists, and interspersed with chorus “Look upward with the eyes of the Spirit!” interjections)|
|Boys||But ah! We miss her here; she no longer wanders in the garden, no longer gathers the flowers of the field. Let us weep! We are leaving her here! Let us weep and stay with her!|
Section 5 (C major, twice as slow, then speeding up)
|“Choir” (B solo)||Children, return to life! Let the fresh air, playing by the meandering waters, dry your tears. The night is fleeing! Day and pleasure and continuing onward are the destiny of the living!|
|Boys (SSAA solos)||Arise, we return to life! Let the day grant us work and pleasure, until the evening brings us rest and sleep refreshes us. (chorus interjects with repeat of last phrase).|
Section 6 (cut time, F major)
|Chorus (with SI, SII soloists joining briefly)||Children! Hasten into life! In the pure garment of beauty may love meet you with a heavenly look and the garland of immortality.|
Like many composers, Schumann spent certain periods of his life concentrating (though not exclusively) on specific genres. The following breakdown is usually given:
|1843||oratorio (specifically Das Paradies und die Peri)|
Schumann is best known for his keyboard music and his spectacular songs, with some symphonic and chamber music also recognized as special. In other genres he made fewer lasting contributions, and many feel that the later works are less inspired than the earlier ones. Schumann himself said that his early music (or at least the shorter works) were created “in the heat of inspiration,” essentially at the keyboard, and that he switched to working things out in his head in 1845. One writer has gone so far as to say that Schumann “had begun as a genius but ended up as a talent,” which seems somewhat harsh given the circumstances. Nonetheless, although a small group of enthusiasts have argued for the significance of the late works, most performers and audience members are still most attracted to his earlier creations. It’s worth noting, though, that as late as 1853 Liszt dedicated his brilliant B minor piano sonata to Schumann.
- Abegg Variations, Op. 1
- Papillons, Op. 2
- Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6
- Toccata, Op. 7
- Carnaval, Op. 9
- Fantasiestücke, Op. 12
- Etudes symphoniques, Op. 13
- Kinderscenen, Op. 15; this includes the very popular Träumerei
- Kreisleriana, Op. 16
- Fantasie in C, Op. 17
- Arabesque in C, Op.18
- Humoresque in Bb, Op. 20
- Novelletten, Op. 21
- Piano Sonata #2 in gm, Op. 22
- Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26
- Three Romances, Op. 28
- Album für die Jugend, Op. 68
- Waldscenen Op. 82
- Albumblätter, Op. 124
Schumann was a consummate song composer. The list below presents only the best-known collections and some individual songs. I’m not alone in thinking Dichterliebe is his masterpiece.
- Liederkreis, Op. 24 (Heine)
- Myrthen, Op. 25 (various poets)
- Liederkreis, Op. 39 (Eichendorff)
especially: #5 (Mondnacht), #8 (In der Fremde), #12 (Frühlingsnacht)
- Frauenliebe und -leben, Op.42 (Chamisso)
- Dichterliebe, Op. 48 (Heine)
- Widmung, Op. 25 #1
- Der Nussbaum, Op.25 #3
- Die Lotusblume, Op.25 #7
- Du bist wie eine Blume, Op. 25 #24
- Wanderlust Op. 35 #3
- Der Himmel hat eine Träne geweinet, Op. 37 #1
- Die beiden Grenadiere, Op. 49 #1
- Abendlied Op. 107#6
Lots of scholars complain about Schumann’s four symphonies (odd formal structures! unusual scoring!) but many more people (including me) enjoy them a lot. #3 is my favorite.
- Symphony No. 1 in Bb, Op. 38 (Spring)
- Symphony No. 2 in C, Op. 61
- Symphony No. 3 in Eb, Op. 97 (Rhenish)
- Symphony No. 4 in dm, Op. 120
In terms of concertos, the Piano Concerto in a minor, Op. 54, is fantastic. The Cello Concerto in a minor, Op. 129, is not nearly as good, but cellists have a much smaller concerto repertoire than pianists, so it gets played a lot. And I’m with Clara, Brahms, and Joachim in thinking that the violin concerto is just not very good.
Other orchestral works
- Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52 (once very popular but not played often these days)
- Konzertstück for 4 horns, Op. 86 (a fun piece).
- Manfred Overture, Op. 115
Schumann wrote a fair number of chamber works, but the very best (the string quartets, piano quartet, and piano trio) were all written in his “chamber music” year, 1842. The brilliant piano quintet practically started the genre.
- Piano Trio #1 in dm, Op. 63
- String Quartet #1 in a minor, Op. 41 #1
- String Quartet #2 in F major, Op. 41 #2
- String Quartet #3 in A major, Op. 41 #3
- Piano Quartet in Eb, Op. 47
- Piano Quintet in Eb, Op. 44
Choral (highly selective)
- Das Paradies und die Peri, Op. 50
- Scenen aus Goethes Faust
- Requiem for Mignon, Op. 98b
- Nachtlied, Op. 108 (“beautiful” says Schumann expert Roe-Min Kok)
- Des Sängers Fluch, Op. 139
- Missa sacra, Op. 147
- Requiem, Op. 148
Pieces originally written for solo voices
- Zigeunerleben, Op. 29 #3
- Spanisches Liederspiel, Op. 74, esp. #4
- Minnespiel, Op. 101, esp. #3
- Spanische Liebeslieder, Op.138