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Robert Schumann's life was a roller coaster of success and plight. See how his music mirros his personal life during the Houston Symphony's Schumann Festival: Angels and Demons.
Robert Schumann's life was a roller coaster of success and plight. See how his music mirros his personal life during the Houston Symphony's Schumann Festival: Angels and Demons.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Houston Symphony's Schumann Festival Dives Into The Musician's Mind

The Bayou City is about to get up close and personal with famed composer Robert Schumann. The Houston Symphony will explore the trials, triumphs, love and madness of the artist during its Schumann Festival: Angels and Demons. The celebration features a comprehensive exploration of the Schumann oeuvre in all its breadth and depth, delving into every facet of his legacy.

The festival runs February 3-16 at various locations including the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts’ Zilkha Hall, Jones Hall, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Rice University’s Duncan Recital Hall. Everything from art, music, prose and lectures will shed light on the inner workings of Schumann during this two week extravaganza.

“Schumann is such an interesting character. If there was reality TV in Schumann’s day, he would have had the highest ratings; there was so much going on,” said Rebecca Zabinski, director of artistic planning for the Houston Symphony. “He’s a complex person. There’s Robert Schumann the musician, and then Robert Schumann the person. If it were a Venn diagram, so much would overlap. You can’t talk about him as a person without talking about his music, and you can’t talk about his music without talking about his life.”

The festival intends to show the many layers of the man behind the music, and the music that is so clearly influenced by the ups and downs of his life.

Before he was a composer, Schumann was first a talented pianist. He went to study under Friedrich Wieck, who Schmann thought would turn him into the next great piano superstar. He did whatever it took to excel, including wearing a device to stretch out his hand for a greater span on the piano. As fate would have it, Schumann ended up damaging his hand, probably as a result of the device. With his career halted as a performer, he switched directions and took the route of composition instead.

There's also the story of his love life. He fancied the hand of his teacher’s daughter, Clara, but her father shunned the engagement.

”He met the person he would fall in love with, but in such a Schumann way. Clara’s father was opposed to the marriage. It was that timeless tale — a father thinking his daughter’s boyfriend wasn’t good enough for her,” Zabinski said, noting that the only way for couples to marry at the time without the blessing of the father was to go through the court system. “They went through an arduous legal process to marry, but they eventually did and then had children. The tale becomes sadder, though, because he wrestled with mental illness through his entire life. He had what modern doctors suspect was syphilis and bipolar disorder.”

During his mania, he would produce compositions at nearly superhuman speed. On the flip side, he suffered bouts of severe depression that compromised his mental stability.

“You can see it in his music. He was composing hundreds and hundreds of pieces of work. It’s amazing one person could do this much. He had highs and lows, and he was very self critical and had self doubt. Clara stayed by him and encouraged him to write for orchestra. She thought his imagination would be shackled if he limited himself to just piano.”

He had a robust life with Clara and his children. He became an editor at a music magazine. He also became friends with Felix Mendelhsson, and he became a mentor to a budding Johannes Brahms.

Tragically, his mental illness deepened. He suffered from aural delusions, often hearing voices or animal noises, and he hallucinated visions of angels and demons. After years plagued with thoughts of suicide, he eventually acted upon them and attempted to take his own life by jumping into a river. For the safety of his wife, he committed himself to an asylum, where he remained for more than two years before his death. During that time, Clara wasn’t allowed to see him until a few days before his death.

Afterward, Clara, a piano virtuoso in her own right, dedicated her life to playing his music. She didn’t want people to forget his music, instead playing where she could in order to champion Robert's music and legacy.

Nearly 175 years after his death, one artifact of their relationship remains preserved, which will also be a part of the Schumann Festival.

“At this period in time, everyone communicated through letters, so all the correspondences still exist,” Zabinski said. “These letters are from when they were in love, engaged and trying to find a way to get married. It’s absolutely amazing. It feels voyeuristic because the letters were meant only for each other, but it’s still so current.”

Andrés Orozco-Estrada's vision of hosting a music festival for Robert Schumann comes to fruition this February.EXPAND
Andrés Orozco-Estrada's vision of hosting a music festival for Robert Schumann comes to fruition this February.
Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The symphony is collaborating with performers from the Alley Theatre for readings of the letters on February 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16. Other collaborations include a gallery tour with the Museum of Fine Arts, a talk about the connection between the troubled mind and the creative output from Dr. Richard Kogan and other treats.

The full schedule for the Schumann Festival is as follows:

  • Recital with Houston Symphony Musicians
    February 3, 8 p.m. at Duncan Recital Hall at Shepherd School of Music at Rice University
    Experience the music of Robert Schumann and his wife, composer and pianist Clara Schumann, in an intimate recital featuring Houston Symphony musicians Joan DerHovsepian, associate principal viola, and Mark Nuccio, principal clarinet. Admission is free.

  • Gallery Tour + Performance: Schumann and Romantic Art
    February 6, 6 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
    Discover Romantic art and music with this interactive gallery tour and performance. This fun and informative talk features MFAH collection highlights and a live performance of music by Robert Schumann from Houston Symphony musicians. Admission is free.

  • Presentation & Performance: Music, Mood Swings & Madness
    February 8, 5 p.m. at Jones Hall. This is a free event, but ticket reservations are required.
    Dr. Richard Kogan, a Juilliard-trained concert pianist and Harvard-educated psychiatrist, presents a program that explores the connection between the troubled mind and the creative output of the great German composer Robert Schumann. The presentation includes Houston Symphony musicians’ performance of the Andante Cantabile movement from Schumann’s Piano Quartet.

  • Houston Symphony with Benjamin Grosvenor
    February 8, 8 p.m. and 9, 2:30 p.m. at Jones Hall
    Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor; Benjamin Grosvenor piano
    Program for February 8:
    Schumann: Symphonies 1 & 2, Piano Concerto
    Program for February 9:
    Schumann: Symphonies 3 & 4, Piano Concerto

  • Sky Bar Recital with Benjamin Grosvenor
    February 8, 10:30 p.m. at Kirkland & Ellis
    Enjoy more music in an exclusive post-concert recital! Join Schumann Festival guest artist Benjamin Grosvenor, piano, at a sky bar in the heart of downtown Houston. Grosvenor, “one of the greatest young pianists in the world” (L’Est Républicain), performs Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana.

  • Intimate Songs & Grand Choruses
    February 13 at 8 p.m. at Jones Hall
    Celebrate Valentine’s Day week with romantic ballads and grand choral music.
    Betsy Cook Weber, conductor; Scott Holshouser, piano; Houston Symphony Chorus, Betsy Cook Weber, director
    Schumann: Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love), Pilgrimage of the Rose
    Note: This event does not include the orchestra.

  • Chamber Music with Alisa Weilerstein and Houston Symphony Musicians
    February 14, 7:30 p.m. at Zilkha Hall at Hobby Center
    The program features a small ensemble of Houston Symphony musicians and Alisa Weilerstein (cello) in Schumann’s most romantic works.
    R. Schumann: Three Romances for Oboe and Piano
    C. Schumann: Three Romances for Violin and Piano
    R.Schumann: Piano Quartet

  • Houston Symphony with Alisa Weilerstein
    February 15, 8 p.m. and 16, 2:30 p.m. at Jones Hall
    Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor; Alisa Weilerstein, cello
    Program for February 15:
    Schumann: Symphonies 3 & 4, Cello Concerto
    Program for February 16:
    Schumann: Symphonies 1 & 2, Cello Concerto

Schumann Festival: Angels and Demons runs February 3-16 at various locations including the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts’ Zilkha Hall, 800 Bagby; Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana; Kirkland & Ellis, 609 Main; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet; and Rice University’s Duncan Recital Hall, 6100 Main. For information, call 713-224-7575 or visit houstonsymphony.org. Festival passes are $150 each. Individual events range from free to $119.

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