Programmatic vs. Absolute Music: The Schumanns

After our week in Russia, we’ve returned to Western Europe to resume our discussion of programmatic versus absolute music. Last time we talked about this topic we saw some highly programmatic examples, so this week we will look at the other side of the debate. As a reminder, absolute music adheres strictly to rules of form, such as sonata form, and does not depict a specific story, place or person. Its beauty comes from a talented composer’s ability to stay true to “the rules” and simultaneously create something emotionally compelling. The audience is inspired to think in a narrative manner despite the music being “above” a sense of one person’s personal narrative. It is, some say, “music for music’s sake.”

One of the most musically interesting couples to have lived, Robert (1810-1856) and Clara (1819-1896) Schumann were dynamic duo of both virtuoso piano playing and composing. Their marriage was evidently one not only of love but also of artistic vision. They kept a joint diary of their artistic goals, performed each other’s music, gave criticism for each other’s compositions, and held each other to incredibly high standards of artistic merit.

Clara was one of the most respected virtuoso pianists of her time and was also a great composer, but few people know her name as well as her husband’s. The demands of 19th-century society on women, especially one such as her who eventually had several children to raise, a mentally unstable husband to support and a household to keep functional, limited her opportunities to shine as an artist.

Robert struggled with mental health for his entire life, a good example being his self-made “hand-stretching” apparatus to help him play larger intervals on the piano that eventually destroyed his hands and stopped his playing career entirely. He was eventually institutionalized with what may well have been syphilis, and died young. Clara continued performing, writing, and forging deep relationships with other now-famous names in music, such as Brahms, Joseph Jochim and others, for decades afterward.

Here we will explore the different approaches each member of the Schumann partnership had to composing music. Both composers experimented with programmatic, even nationalistic, writing too, but most of their writing was un-linked to any particular place, person or story. This will be this category of works we discuss today.

Robert Schumann: String Quartet in A Major, op. 41 no. 3

Robert Schumann wrote three string quartets, but my favorite is the third string quartet, which is light and uplifting. It’s a wonderful example of how emotionally distinct a piece of “absolute music” can be.

The first movement begins with a slow introduction that presents the main themes in a melancholy fashion. When the sonata form starts properly (the faster section), these two themes gain a two warmer, optimistic tone which persists throughout not just the movement but the piece as a whole. The sonata form of the first movement is relatively simple, but even the choice to make both themes tuneful and optimistic is interesting. The “heartbeat” rhythmic accompaniment (to the second theme) is the epitome of a romantic sound, literally depicting the most romantic of organs. This heartbeat appears in all movements; can you find it in each one?

The second movement is a scherzo, we think, but we realize soon that it’s actually a theme and variations. The “off-beat” first theme is interesting in that it’s difficult to dance along to it! The variations are vastly contrasting in character to each other. Some are romantic and melancholic, some are heavy-handed, and some are even mini-forms in themselves, such as the fugue variation. The third movement is a tender, romantic ballad. The harmony is rich with suspensions and there are clear melody/harmony roles in the voices so that the tune is always heard. Many performers will add slides, lots of vibrato, and other “romantic” sounding ornaments to this movement in particular. The fourth movement is a “Hungarian” style dance, rhythmically folklike and driven. Hungarian dances were already a popular tradition as last movements; Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all used them often. Schumann knew this and built on that with his own compositional voice.

You can tell Schumann was deeply influenced by Beethoven (and therefore Mozart and Haydn before him), since there are dark moments and they sound similar to something Beethoven might have written a generation before. Try listening to this work alongside one of Beethoven’s string quartets and see how they sound similar, but also how Schumann’s quartet never gets quite as dark or stormy as one of Beethoven’s.

Clara Schumann: 3 Romances, op. 11

While most classical music fans have heard of her husband Robert, Clara Schumann’s music deserves as much attention if not more. Clara was in the highest circles of music alongside her husband, and long after he died. I hope you enjoy listening to her music and discovering a new composer you may not have known before!

Clara’s three romances for piano are in a similar style to that of her husband, but only in that they lived at the same time and learned from similar teachers. Other than that, she has a unique and compelling voice all her own. All of these Romances are in AB form, and do not depict a particular event or story, but the mood they create is vivid and imaginative. Enjoy them!

Romance 1 in E Flat Minor is already in a dark key seldom used by composers even today. This key requires six accidentals, or black keys, on the piano, and mellows the sound significantly. It is brooding, emotionally mature and grand. The second Romance in g minor is slightly more upbeat but still dark and emotionally compelling. The harmonies are beautifully in step with the rhythmic walking created by the accompaniment. Romance 3 in A Flat major is the only one of the three in a Major key, yet still it feels dark, searching and sombre.

What is particularly interesting is that such emotionally serious writing came out of someone, woman or man, who was only 20 years old. When Clara wrote these Romances she was under heavy pressure as a performer and in her personal life. She was in the middle of a performing tour in France and on her return she would be married to Robert, who had been arguing with her father for permission to marry her for a long time already. Clara must have been fully aware of what marriage meant for her already sparkling career as a pianist, composer and artist.

These Romances were one of the last compositions she completed before marrying. They are already gorgeous works, and the potential they show for her talent is, in a way, heartbreaking. Though she managed (somehow) to continue writing and performing after marrying, her energy was split, and it’s hard not to wonder how much more she could have written if she had the time.

Our entry next week will be about Johannes Brahms, who had a fascinating and mysterious relationship with the Schumanns. There are too many compositions by Brahms that I would like to explore here for me to include him in one post alongside the Schumanns, but you’ll want to keep the Schumanns in mind while reading about Brahms.

In the mean time, here are a couple more works by both Schumanns that I enjoy. Their instrumentation is exactly the same (piano, violin and cello), and they are both in a minor key. Therefore, we can appreciate how both composers approached writing differently with minimal variables. Which do you prefer?

Robert Schumann’s beautiful piano trio no. 1.
And Clara Schumann’s equally beautiful but very different piano trio.

2 thoughts on “Programmatic vs. Absolute Music: The Schumanns

  1. […] wrote many works for him, which we will hear later in this entry. Brahms was also close with both Robert Schumann, who he considered a mentor, and Clara Schumann. When Robert was institutionalized, Brahms visited […]


  2. […] discussed recently. For me, the harmonies are less dense than in music written by Brahms or the Schumanns, and the cadence of some of the phrases is, similar to with the Slavic composers from last week, […]


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