Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf


At the end of 1849, Robert Schumann, who at the time had been living with his family in Dresden for years (from December 1844), received an offer to become the new Municipal Director of Music in Düsseldorf as the successor to his friend Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885), a position which he accepted after some hesitation and encouragement from Hiller. Departure from Dresden was on 1st September 1850, and the Schumanns (Clara and Robert, along with the children Marie, Elise, Julie, Ludwig and Ferdinand, who were born in Leipzig and Dresden) arrived in Düsseldorf in the evening of the next day. The duties of the Director of Music in Düsseldorf included the direction of the Choral Society and the presentation of ten concerts with the Municipal Orchestra annually, as well as another four performances of church music. The position of Director of Music was and remained Robert Schumann’s first and only public appointment. 

Robert Schumann’s welcome in Düsseldorf was very warm but also associated with high expectations. On the very next day of their arrival, the Schumanns went to make some courtesy calls, amongst others, on Wilhelm von Schadow, Director of the Art Academy, and Carl Ferdinand Sohn, Professor at the Art Academy, who became good and sustained contacts.

Despite some difficulties in acclimatising to the Rhenish way of life and further problems when trying to find accommodationincluding domestic staff, who seemed very defiant to Clara Schumann, the Schumanns were impressed by the audience’s enthusiasm for music. The first concert conducted by Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf on 24th October 1850, in which Clara Schumann played the Piano Concerto in G minor by her late friend Felix Mendelssohn, was very well received, particularly for Clara Schumann’s performance, and gave hope for a promising future of Schumann as Municipal Director of Music. In that very same month, he completed the composition of his Concerto for Violoncello, Op. 125, and, as early as November, influenced by impressions from the Rhenish landscape and his new environment, of Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major Op. 97, the so-called Rhenish, to the fourth movement of which PyotrTchaikovsky would later pay homage by saying it was “[as brilliant a monument to the greatness of the human spirit … as [Cologne] Cathedral itself. The short, beautiful theme of this part of the Symphony, which, in a way, represents a musical imitation of the Gothic lines, permeates the whole movement, either in the form of the basic motif or as minute adornments,thus giving the work that infinite diversity in unity which is a peculiar feature of Gothic architecture.]” In quick succession, Schumann’s “Rhenish Symphony” was performed with great success in Düsseldorf on 6th February 1851, under Schumann’s own direction, and in Cologne with Ferdinand Hiller as the conductor. However, the audience’s unadulterated enthusiasm did not last long and the performance of the Overture to “The Bride of Messina”, completed in December 1850, was poorly received.

Nonetheless, the following months produced an abundance of new compositions, whilst Schumann’s authority as Director of Music declined more and more with the beginning of the 1851 winter concert season in front of the very heterogeneously composed orchestra and choir, which also had to do with his unstable health and lack of assertiveness. Yet the encounter with the barely twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms, who had entered the life of the Schumanns on 30th September 1853, on the recommendation of their mutual friend Joseph Joachim, gave him new strength. According to Schumann “a genius” and according to Clara “as if sent by God Himself”, Johannes Brahms, hardly known in the world of music, experienced, after less than three weeks after his arrival in Düsseldorf, an enthusiastic appreciation by Robert Schumann in “NeueZeitschrift für Musik [New Journal of Music]” (Volume 29, No. 18, 23.10.1853) under the title “Neue Bahnen [New Paths]”, which presented Brahms to the public as an “[appointee]”.

Only a few weeks after Brahms had left Düsseldorf (2ndNovember 1853), it was suggested to Schumann that he stepdown from his position as Director of Music, a humiliation for which, thankfully, the Schumanns were compensated by a very successful concert trip to the Netherlands and thereafter by spending a merry Christmas with their family. However, at the beginning of 1854, Schumann’s auditory hallucinations andstates of anxiety and distress became more and more frequent and eventually led to an attempted suicide: In the early afternoon of 27th February 1854, Robert Schumann, in an unobserved moment, left the flat at Bilkerstraße street 15, wearing only a dressing gown and slippers, and set off to the nearby Rhine bridge, a low pontoon bridge, from which he let himself fall into the water, icy at this time of year. He was promptly pulled into aboat by “river master” Jüngermann, who had been alerted by the bridge tax collectors to whom Schumann had just before left a silk handkerchief as a pledge, in lieu of the bridge toll. For this, Jüngermann received a dated lifesaver medal, now kept at the Robert Schumann House in Zwickau. Ironically, as 27.02.1854 was a Carnival Monday, the main day of the Rhenish street carnival, Schumann’s return home, according to an account by the violinist Ruppert Becker, was apparently accompanied by a merry crowd who, of course, was not aware of these tragic events at all.

On 4th March 1854, Robert Schumann, who, even prior to taking up his position, had been troubled by the existence of a lunatic asylum in Düsseldorf, which had come to his knowledge in a book (cf. Schumann’s letter dated 3rd December 1849 in the “Treasure trove”), was admitted to a mental hospital at his own request and upon the advice of his physicians. The choice fell on a progressive institution established by the Bonn physician Dr Richarz in a former country house in Endenichnear Bonn in 1844. After his admission to Endenich, Robert Schumann would still receive his emoluments as Director of Music in Düsseldorf for another six months, which were, however, almost entirely used up for his accommodation at the Endenich institution. From the autumn of 1854, it was solely up to Clara Schumann to generate the financial means for the maintenance of the whole family. 

(Ingrid Bodsch, translated by Thomas Henninger)

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