By Sabby Sagall
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1810: The Year of Chopin and Schumann

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Music is the most abstract of the arts yet it tells us truths about the world through its impact on our emotional life.
Issue 348

The human experience which the composers convey is not simply the product of past musical influences but is shaped by the historical context. This is borne out by the strange coincidence that Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann, the two greatest composers of romantic piano music, were born in the same year.

The Romantic Movement in the arts was one of protest against capitalism. Romanticism expressed the desolation of the generation caught up in the new society and the ceaseless change, individualism, anonymity and materialism that flowed from the dislocation and breakup of the old community. The individual, torn from traditional village and extended family life, atomised by the intensifying division of labour, faced the industrial juggernaut alone, isolated in an unfamiliar, cold and inhospitable world.

But romanticism was also backward looking, idealising the community of medieval feudalism, with its imagined harmony and security. This led to a growing preoccupation with the culture of “the people” and the glorification of folk art. Thus many romantic composers cultivated the folk song which they saw as coming from the “womb” of the nation. This was against the background of capitalist-led movements for national liberation or unification.

So we see clear affinities between Chopin and Polish nationalism, Wagner and German nationalism, Verdi and Italian nationalism, and so on. Romantic music broke the mould of classical form, the emphasis now on the music’s expressive content.

Chopin, born near Warsaw of a Polish mother and French father, and the poet Adam Mickiewicz were the artists who most fully expressed the yearning for Polish national independence. European classical music and Polish folk music both contributed to the formation of Chopin’s style, despite the fact that he spent the second half of his life in Paris (1831-1849) having a turbulent ten-year relationship with the female writer George Sand.

Most of Chopin’s music was composed for solo piano. It is both personal and dramatic, combining the intense lyricism of romantic music and the more rugged elements of Polish folkloric music. His powerful revolutionary study was inspired by the Polish nationalist uprising of 1830-1831. Chopin was both the musical incarnation of the Polish national spirit and a universal artist expressing the range of emotions that arose with the tensions and fragmentation of early industrial capitalism.

Schumann was born into a German middle class family in Saxony. The son of a bookseller, he was the first romantic with a profound knowledge of literature and philosophy. His music, like that of Chopin, represents a fusion of the modern and the traditional. Schumann broke away from classical forms, creating music that has been described as pages from a diary ranging over the whole gamut of emotions.

But as with Chopin, it is for his piano solo music that Schumann is most loved and it is in this work that we hear his full complexity and inventiveness. His romantic style bears a close affinity to that of Chopin. As with Chopin, there was a famous relationship at the heart of Schumann’s personal life – his marriage to Clara Wieck, a composer and accomplished pianist in her own right. In 1854 Schumann began to show signs of serious manic depression and was eventually committed to a mental institution where he died in 1856. The two greatest composers of romantic piano music became romantic legends themselves.

Chopin and Schumann were revolutionary artists who completed the transition from classical to romantic music begun by Beethoven and Schubert.

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