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Schumann's Early Loves.


Schumann’s love for Clara Wieck, his long struggle for her hand, and the nobility of their married life have justly laid tribute upon the eloquence of his biographers. These facts occupied a large space in his life, and exerted a potent influence on his musical activity. But Clara Wieck was not the first comer in Schumann’s affections. That high-strung, sensitive young artist had passed through a number of experiences with affairs of the heart before he entered upon the great passion of his life. At least one of them was of a serious nature, and went so far as to result in an engagement of marriage. It is not without its value in the study of Schumann’s natural disposition and character and the various forces that made them what they were, to consider these earlier and transitory love affairs.

It would be unfair to inquire minutely into the inevitable boyish passions of the young Schumann, were it not that his uncommon candor in describing them to his friends, the fullness of his confidences, and the rapid shifting of the objects of his devotion give amusing glimpses into the cloud-land of romance in which his youth was spent. His earliest disclosures reveal him in the most acute stage of his Jean Paul period, as students of his career know it, when all that he thought, wrote, spoke, and felt was steeped in the romance of that writer. Thus in July, 1827,—he was then seventeen years old,—Schumann writes to his schoolmate Flechsig:

“Now only do I feel that purest, highest love, which is not forever sipping the intoxicating cup of enjoyment, but finds happiness only in tender contemplation and reverence. Oh, friend! were I but a smile, how would I flit about her eyes; were I but a joy, how gently would I throb in all her pulses! Yea, might I be but a tear, I would weep with her, and then, if she smiled again, how gladly would I die on her eyelash, and gladly be no more!”

We are not informed as to the object of this impassioned romance; but we do gain a good deal of information as to the mental posture of the adolescent Schumann. In fact, this letter leaves a racking doubt as to whether it is not the love of love, rather than of any particular object, that raises all this ecstasy; for twice in it he observes that he “has no sweetheart now,” and two flames are spoken of in the past tense. Liddy is a narrow-minded soul, albeit the perfection of female beauty; and Nanni was—note the “was”—truly a most glorious girl, although the fire of an absorbing passion for her has gradually subsided, and Schumann’s “whole life now revels in the sweet flower garden of Memory.”

Nevertheless, a month later he reports the bitter disappointment of not seeing her on a visit he made to Dresden; for he “went over and over again all the hours that he dreamed away so joyfully in her embraces and in her love.” Later on the same journey he met Liddy, the other, and could only be polite to her—though the contemplation of certain mountain scenery in her company came near finding him his ideal again; but “the lofty image of the ideal vanishes when I think of the speeches she made about Jean Paul!” All in all, he concludes, a few pages later, Nanni was his guardian angel, whom he could drop down and worship like a Madonna.

This ideal vanished without leaving a trace, however, and by another year, in 1828, we find another occupying its place—the pretty daughter, Clara, of Dr. Kurrer, in Augsburg. There Schumann had tarried on his way to Munich with a fellow-student, Gisbert Rosen, presenting letters of introduction that were honored with a hearty hospitality. With Clara Kurrer, Schumann fell promptly in love, notwithstanding the fact that she was already practically engaged to be married; his passion was of the sort that looks for no outcome,—we have seen his tendency to be enamored more of love than of a mistress,—and the betrothed lover seems to have been cognizant of the affair without disquietude. Even after his return to Leipzig, where he was then a university student, Schumann dwells on the picture of the lovely Clara that “sweeps before his eyes in his waking and sleeping moments”; and one of his biographers observes that it occupied him “a considerable time.”

By the next year, however, it had been so far effaced that after his journey to Italy, in the autumn of 1829, he expatiated in a letter to Rosen as to the oppression of his heart by the memory of a certain unnamed English girl whom he met in Venice—she gave him a branch of cypress as a parting memento—cursed memories they are! Even a month later the cypress memories would not down.

The letters and biographers are silent as to the subject of the present inquiry for the next five years. Then comes an episode in Schumann’s life that was of much more serious import than any similar affair he had hitherto passed through—his engagement to Ernestine von Fricken.

In April, 1834, this young girl took up her abode, as Schumann himself had done three years and a half before, in the house of Friedrich Wieck, in Leipzig, to study the pianoforte with that distinguished and original teacher. Schumann had left his quarters there in 1832, for a long stay with his family in Zwickau, and on his return in 1833 had gone to other lodgings; but he still kept up his intimacy with the Wieck family and with the stimulating musical circle of friends that surrounded it. Of course, he speedily made the acquaintance of the new member of his teacher’s household. Fräulein von Fricken was the adopted daughter of Captain von Fricken, a nobleman, and a man of large wealth, living in the little town of Asch, on the border line between Saxony and Bohemia. He was a musical amateur of high cultivation, with ambitions both for himself and his daughter in the way of music. He wrote a series of variations on a theme of his own—the theme upon which Schumann based his immortal “Études Symphoniques”; and Captain von Fricken’s work Schumann took the trouble to criticize in detail in a long letter. The daughter was at that time sixteen years old, and was already highly skilled as a pianist. Schumann himself was twenty-four years old. The two young people speedily discovered a liking for each other. They were thrown frequently into each other’s company, and their romantic interest was doubtless stimulated by the fact that they stood as god-parents together for one of Wieck’s children.

Schumann, in a letter to his mother dated July 2, 1834, candidly expresses his feeling toward Fräulein von Fricken. She is one of the two “glorious beings of the fair sex who have lately appeared in our set,” he writes. He celebrates her delightfully pure, childlike mind, her delicacy, and thoughtfulness. She is deeply attached to him, and to everything artistic, and is uncommonly musical—in short, 44 just such a one as I might wish to have for a wife.” Indeed, he goes further with a hint to prepare his mother for what might be coming, and avows that “if the Future were to ask me whom I should choose, I would answer, unhesitatingly, this one.” But “it is all in the dim future,” and he explicitly renounces the prospect of a more intimate connection, although he has no doubt that he “would find it easy enough.” And so, indeed, he did, and in a much more expeditious manner than his reassuring words would give reason to believe.

Friedrich Wieck saw the progress of events with undoubted satisfaction. Whether or not Schumann had already begun to look on his fifteen-year-old daughter with any tenderer feelings than those of an older brother and companion in art, there was now no danger of its continuance. In August, 1834, Wieck answers the inquiries of Captain von Fricken as to the relations between Schumann and Fräulein von Fricken with undisguised satisfaction, disclosing the true state of affairs with a somewhat clumsy archness. In the autumn the two young people became engaged. On September 5th they met at the house of Schumann’s mother in Zwickau for the formal betrothal, after the German fashion; but this ceremony apparently did not take place until later, for not until November does it seem that Captain von Fricken’s consent was obtained. Ernestine had finished her studies with Wieck, and had returned to Asch, keeping up a correspondence with her lover. On November 7th Schumann writes rapturously to his intimate friend and confidante, Frau Henriette Voigt:  “Ernestine has written to me in great happiness. Through her mother she has sounded her father, and he gives her to me. Henriette, he gives her to me!”

The engagement was of short duration. It was broken early in the year 1836 by Schumann, and under unpleasant circumstances that have not been disclosed. Wasielewski says that their relations grew gradually cooler; a circumstance brought about not only by Ernestine’s absence after her return home to Asch, but by a certain reason “that can not be stated,” and that made Schumann’s withdrawal desirable. And so, according to Schumann’s biographer, the engagement was broken in January, 1836 , “by a friendly agreement on both sides.” It appears, however, to have been a much easier operation for Schumann than for Ernestine. A curious series of eight letters given in Dr. Kohut’s life of Wieck, that seem never to have engaged the attention of Schumann’s biographers, put a somewhat different aspect on the case from that presented by Wasielewski. These letters are written to Clara Wieck in terms of the greatest endearment and confidential intimacy, though they indicate that Fräulein von Fricken knew that Clara Wieck had supplanted her in her lover’s affections. They are dated from July to September, 1836, and give a clear view of a brokenhearted maiden’s grief, alternating between a clinging sorrow and wounded self-esteem. Here are a few passages from them:

“All was only a dream and what a terrible awakening…. I have suffered much, much, since I left you. I would like to tell you all but you would not believe it possible. Much of it is of so delicate a nature that one is glad that nobody else knows it; but you I can tell…. I have become calmer in the last six months; and in the last three, contented. I yield myself to my fate, and pray God daily for courage and strength to bear my sorrow…. I can say that I loved this man (Schumann) very, very much, as perhaps I shall never love again. Since I left Leipzig many men have sought my love; but never again can I feel in the least as I felt for Schumann…. I was promised to him, quite definitely, though none of you thought it… . Schumann once loved me dearly, that I know for certain. Once he was cross to me for a long time, and this hurt me deeply… . How many tears have I wept to-day over my hard fate! Not exactly about Schumann, no: he has gone down a great deal in my eyes… . Oh if I had only never met this Schumann ! … He certainly treated me very badly, but I have forgiven him all he has done to me… . I feel quite abandoned and unhappy and pray God that he (Schumann) may not abandon you… . I have only good wishes for him from the bottom of my heart, and if I can do anything for him it shall be done with pleasure: for he will never be a stranger to me; but I will never see him again in this world.”

To these expressions of a hysteric grief—which hardly suggest a “friendly understanding” in the parting from Schumann—is to be added a letter to Friedrich Wieck, dated less than a month thereafter, in which the young woman unblushingly hastens to assure him that she had known Schumann merely as an intellectual young man; that she never was engaged to him;—she gives the most positive assurance of this;—how could she have done such a thing without her parents’ knowledge? All the letters she had from Schumann were on the most indifferent subjects, for neither he nor she ever thought of a permanent connection. She herself was soon to be married, and this fact ought to be proof enough that there was never anything between Schumann and herself!

Truly an amazing exhibition of a woman’s injured pride, and of feminine logic. The letters, on the whole, do not speak well for Fräulein von Fricken’s strength of character; and, indeed, it seems clear, from such few glimpses of that young lady’s nature and personality as it is possible now to obtain, that she was far from being a suitable woman for Robert Schumann’s wife. Fortunately, the world was spared the spectacle of such a mésalliance as that of Wagner and Minna Planer.

Like many other circumstances in Schumann’s life, his love for Ernestine von Fricken found an enduring record in his music. As the great passion of his life lies revealed to us in pages of the most eloquent outpourings of his creative activity, so this transient attachment found its expression in terms that are cherished as among the precious outgivings of his genius. Schumann’s “Carnaval,” opus 9, was the outcome of his love for Ernestine von Fricken. As every student of Schumann’s works knows, this series of musical pictures is based on the notes representing, according to their German names, the word Asch,—her home,—that is, As (A-flat) C, H (B); or A, S (Es—that is, E-flat) C, H; or S (Es) C, H, A. He writes to his inamorata:

“I have just found that Asch is a very musical name; that my name contains the same letters, and that they are the only musical ones in it.”

And he adds a measure of music, giving one of the melodic phrases he derived from these musical letters, and says “that sounds very sad.” The “Estrella” of the piece, he afterward observed, is Ernestine. To her also he dedicated the “Allegro,” opus 8, published in March, 1835, though composed four years before, and by no means one of the characteristic products of Schumann’s genius; he himself said of it that there was little in it but good intentions. Later, after it was all over, when Schumann was already betrothed to Clara Wieck, and in the midst of his long struggle for her hand, and after Ernestine von Fricken had married, he inscribed to her the set of three ballads, opus 31, to verses by Chamisso, at least one of which, “Die Löwenbraut,” belongs to his most vigorous and vital productions in the song form.

Fräulein von Fricken married a Count von Zedwitz, and lived only a few years thereafter. That she kept up in some way her acquaintance with Schumann is evidenced by the later dedication to her, six years after her engagement was broken.

It was probably by no means merely a coincidence that Schumann’s short-lived passion for Ernestine von Fricken had its origin soon after Clara Wieck had left Leipzig for a period of study in Dresden, and that its end came soon after her return to her father’s house, and the renewal of her intercourse with Schumann. Just when the composer’s regard for the young artist begin to be tinctured with a warmer feeling than friendship can not be definitely pointed out. Many of his letters of the period under discussion seem to show such a feeling. Yet there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Schumann’s intentions toward Fräulein von Fricken, while it lasted, though he appears to have had sometimes a certain searching of heart. What else could have prompted that curious remark in a letter to his mother, dated September 5, 1834, otherwise brimming over with the excitement of his intended betrothal on that very day, “this midsummer romance is probably the most extraordinary episode of my life”? And whatever may have been the nominal reason for his severance of his relations with his fiancée, we may be sure that be saw his real and inevitable destiny ahead of him with the return of Clara Wieck to Leipzig.

It took a very short time for Schumann to be off with the old love and on with the new. In January his engagement was broken. In March Clara Wieck started with her father on a long concert tour, and on the first of that month, or within six weeks after his parting from Ernestine, we find him writing to a friend in Breslau to act as dispatching agent and intermediary for his love-letters to Clara, that her father refused to permit her to receive from him. Then begins the story of Schumann’s long and grievous struggle to bring his destiny to pass, to effect his union with Clara Wieck. That is another story, and likewise one that has never been fully told,—for all the biographers’ eloquence.


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