R Schumann: The Escape (1/3)

Robert Schumann composes the Romances for oboe and piano in 1849, shortly after his escape from the May Uprising in Dresden and during the revolution’s turmoil. How did the family experience these seismic events that should remain formative for his artistic work?

“It was my most dreadful year – as if the outer storms forced man more into his interior, so, only this proved to be a counterbalance to this which so awfully befalls from outside.” (Mein fruchtbarstes Jahr war es – als ob die äußern Stürme den Menschen mehr in sein Inneres trieben, so fand ich nur darin ein Gegengewicht gegen das von Außen so furchtbar hereinbrechende.)
– Robert Schumann to composer Ferdinand Hiller on 10 April 1849

In December 1849 and at the end of his two most productive years as a composer, Robert Schumann composes the Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94. A lot has already been written on this piece: one tells of domestic idyll and of Christmas 1849 when Robert gifted his wife Clara the Romances as “hundredth opusculum”. Moreover, it often is presented as “praline” in a context of harmless elegance in concert programmes, although the Romances originate from a time when Schumann had just recently lived through traumatising events in the revolution. In the three following articles, I want to illustrate why, in my opinion, this highly condensed composition’s core is a completely different one: A musical retreat from the time’s turmoil into compositional depth.


Dresden 1840. source: wikimedia.org

What did the Schumanns experience in Dresden in the years of 1848/1849? The city, in which the German revolutions of 1848-49, which lastly were defeated by military force, became civil war-like for several days, was a focal point for this movement. From the beginning of 1848 onwards, one can read more and more frequently of “direful events”, “monstrous political commotion” or “riots in town” in the Schumanns’ “book of household accounts”. From the start, Clara takes sites: she is a fierce advocate of freedom of the press and remarks in her diary: “It is sad to see how few truly liberal people there are among the educated class”. Also, she states: “more than 1000 people are said to have fallen, what is on such a king’s conscience!”

By nature, Robert was a republican and he paid close attention to the events. In the book of household accounts, he talks of “great times” or of “spring of the people”. Numerous of his closest friends were active in political associations. However, he himself did not directly participate. This is completely different for Richard Wagner, who was Kapellmeister (i.e. Royal Saxon Court Conductor) at the Dresden Hofoper: in the years of 1848/1849, he published his politically highly controversial writings “Revolution” (German: “Die Revolution”) or rather “Art and Revolution” (German: “Die Kunst und die Revolution”) in Dresden “Volksblättern” (i.e. “People’s Journals”). Despite these differences, Schumann must have been his preferred interlocutor during the first months; they met on a regular basis to discuss political approaches and ideas.
In the spring of 1849, the events came thick and fast in Dresden. The city was to experience the biggest shocks since the Napoleonic Wars: On 30 April, the king of Saxony caused the Dresden uprising by dissolving the chambers of parliament. Soon, Prussian troops advanced in order to violently quell it. Clara notes down after a walk with Robert: “On Friday, 4 [May], we found all streets to be barricaded when walking into town. Sensenmänner [(i.e. Polish peasants with war scythes)] and republicans stood on the barricades while having them built ever greater. The highest degree of lawlessness was everywhere to be found. […] The democrats were sitting together on the town hall and voting a provisional government (since the king had fled to Königstein in the night). […] During our promenade through town, we encountered the gruesome sight of 14 dead, who had fallen the day before and who, having been horribly mangled, were at display for the public in the clinical centre’s yard.”

The May Uprising in Dresden 1849. Aussault on the revolutionary barricades at the Neumarkt. Sächsische Landesbibliothek, source: wikimedia.org

Already two days later, the Schumanns decide to flee, so that Robert could not be forced to join the insurgents’ troops: “In our street, a security watch was being formed and Robert was supposed be part of it. After I had renounced him twice and the people, however, threatened to look for him, we fled with Marie through the garden gate.” Together with their daughter Marie, the couple, using detours, resorts to a manor in Maxen, which was 20 kilometres away. Thence, the day after tomorrow, Clara, who was seven months pregnant at the time, is en route back to Dresden to go get the smaller children, among which was 15-month-old Ludwig, as well as the wet nurse. Under adventurous circumstances, she reached the city and awoke the little ones in the middle of the night in their beds and brought them back to Maxen, where Robert had remained. After a short stay in devastated Dresden, the family opted for nearby Kreischa for asylum.


The children of Clara and Robert Schumann in 1854. source: wikimedia.org

In marked contrast to Wagner, who fought on the uprising’s front line, Schumann did not want to associate himself with the insurgents. It was not until the stay in Kreischa that Robert rekindles. He visualises the situation through the press and does not stop reading the newspapers anymore at all. On the side, he composes, too, among others, the Liederalbum für die Jugend, Op. 79. The rebellion is quelled after a few days and, eventually, the Schumanns return to the city in mid-June. Robert is downright euphoric: At a time in which the revolution completely collapsed, he will transfer it into an area in which he will finally be able to process it: the mental interior (→ confirm R Schumann: Retreat und Revolution (2/3) ).

sources / further reading
Martin Geck. Robert Schumann. Mensch und Musiker der Romantik. Munich: Siedler Verlag 2010
Peter Gülke. Neuaufbruch und Enklave – Schumann und der Maiaufstand. in: Dresdner Hefte. Herausgegeben durch den Dresdner Geschichtsverein e.V., Heft 102, 2/2010
Wolfgang Mende. “[…] nie hätte ich den Sachsen so viel Mut zugetraut” – Robert und Clara Schumann und die Revolution. in: Clara und Robert Schumann in Dresden – Eine Spurensuche. Cologne: Verlag Dohr 2014