7 of the most beautiful Schumann works to play on the piano
In this article, we have selected seven of the most beautiful works by Schumann for you to play on the piano. From Papillons to his Album for the Young, via his unforgettable Piano Concerto in A Minor, immerse yourself in the history of the greatest Schumann piano masterpieces. You can, of course, find all this sheet music with fingering in the Tomplay apps!
The life and work of Robert Schumann have two things in common: romanticism and passion. His torments and love for Clara Wieck are the beating heart of his compositions. The constant dichotomy of his personality, illustrated by the co-existence of his two characters Florestan and Eusebius, can also be interpreted in his penchant for literature as much as for music.
Little Robert was born on 8 June 1810 in Zwickau, Germany. He was the fifth child of the family and his father was a bookseller, publisher and writer.
While still very young, Robert Schumann was passionate about literature and dreamed of becoming a poet. At the same time, he had piano lessons with the organist at the Cathedral and nourished a second passion for music. He had already begun to compose.
Following the suicide of his sister Emilie in 1828 and the death of his father shortly after, his mother decided he should go to study law in Leipzig. He was little interested in his studies, however, and spent more time frequenting the town's musical and philosophical societies than studying the law.
He met the piano maker and teacher Friedrich Wieck during these events and decided to move into his home to take advantage of his skills. Schumann was 18 years old, lodging with his new piano teacher and met the latter’s daughter, Clara Wieck, nine years younger than him and already a child prodigy.
1. 1829-1831: Papillons, Opus 2, VII. Waltz. Semplice
At this time, between 1829 and 1831, Schumann wrote Papillons, Opus 2, one of his first accomplished compositions. This Suite of pieces for the piano is dedicated to his three sisters-in-law, Thérèse, Rosalie and Emilie, and is contemporary with his Variations on the name “Abegg”.
The work, which depicts a masked ball, was directly inspired by the novel The Awkward Age (Flegeljahre) by the German writer Jean Paul. This is what Schumann wrote in 1832 regarding his Suite:
“Take Papillons to Thérèse, Rosalie and Emilie [...]. Then, ask them to read the final scene of The Awkward Age by Jean Paul as soon as possible and tell them that Papillons is in fact meant to be a translation in sound of the fancy dress ball and ask them if perhaps something of the angelic love of Wina, the poetic nature of Walt and the lively spirit of Vult is well transcribed in Papillons.”
A lovely representation of the close link which literature and music have for Robert Schumann, who directly associated the passages from The Awkward Age to his Papillons.
Let’s have a look at No. 7, the exquisite Waltz Semplice. The composer likened the following passage to a “scorching drought in the desert or the dry heat of a fever”. It is a gentle interlude which gracefully takes us away towards a dream...
Classified at intermediate level in our Tomplay app, the Waltz Semplice from Papillons, Opus 2 by Schumann is accessible to amateur pianists with several years’ practice behind them! The Tomplay sheet music contains the fingering, as well as a studio recording by a professional pianist to make the learning process easier for you.
2. 1834-1835: Carnaval, Opus 9 – XII. Chopin
At the beginning of the 1830s, Schumann was suffering from excruciating pain in his arms. The causes were uncertain: tendonitis owing to working too hard? Paralysis of his right hand arising from the use of one of his inventions which should have allowed him to gain greater dexterity? A venereal disease? Syphilis? Whatever it was, being unable to use his hand meant that he had to abandon forever a potential career as a concert pianist. It was now certain: Schumann would be a composer and only a composer.
Schumann’s hypochondriac and depressive tendencies were intensified with the death of his sister-in-law Rosalie, then the death of his brother Julius and, finally, with the cholera epidemic which raged in Germany during the year 1833.
Subtitled Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes, they comprise 21 pieces interlinked by the same pattern constructed by one or two series of four notes and decomposable in German notation to form words, like a puzzle (another demonstration of the complementarity of the two art forms in Schumann’s work!).
His Carnaval is musically more accomplished than his Papillons. He created the story around his work, its musical illustration and the collusion between his music and the words himself. Globally, the work is a musical representation of an elaborate, imaginative masked ball during the carnival season. Just like his growing interior dichotomy, Schumann makes charming harmonies and sombre, powerful chords on the piano follow on one after the other.
Although he dedicated the twelfth movement of this Suite, Chopin, to Frédéric Chopin, the latter apparently said that Carnaval was not music at all. Schumann met Chopin on two occasions, but was not warmly welcomed by him and Chopin also had a low opinion of his work. He apparently also had access to Schumann’s notes on Papillons and widely mocked his vivid imagination and his inspiration, as though straight out of a book.
The wonderful “Chopin” movement from the Carnaval Suite, Opus 9 is written in the manner of the Polish composer’s Nocturnes. Classified at easy-intermediate level in the Tomplay app, it is an accessible piece. In Tomplay, we offer you the sheet music with fingering and synchronised with the performance by the world-renowned pianist Wilhelm Kempff. This exquisite performance will help you to make the piece your own and will make your learning process easier.
3. 1838: Scenes from Childhood, Opus 15 - No. 1 “Of foreign lands and peoples”
In 1835, Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck exchanged their first kiss, began their love affair and wanted to marry, after years of exchange and mutual admiration.
Friedrich Wieck, Clara’s father and Schumann’s former piano teacher, was vehemently opposed to their marriage and organised a concert tour for Clara in order to keep her away from her beau. He had not counted on the all-consuming passion of the two lovers, however, who continued to write to each other and, above all, to send each other their respective compositions.
It was thus, for months on end, that Schumann adapted the compositions he received from Clara and she played in public the works which her lover had sent to her. A real novel of musical love was born from their passion and, for once in Schumann’s life, the language of sound took precedence over literature.
Through his Scenes from Childhood, Robert Schumann unveils his interest for the romantic cult of childhood. Are they pieces inspired by his own childhood, that of Clara whom he knew from nine years of age or a clever mixture of the two?
On 17 March 1838, he wrote to Clara: “Is it a response to what you wrote to me one day, that “you make me think of a child sometimes”? If it is, you will see that this child has grown wings, as I have written more than thirty short pieces and have chosen a dozen of them which I will bring together under the name Scenes of Childhood. You will doubtless enjoy playing them, but you will have to forget that you are a virtuoso. You will have to restrain from effects, but let yourself go with their very simple, natural and unadorned grace”.
That year, he also composed several masterpieces for the piano, including his Kreisleriana, contrasting by their tormented character more appropriate to the troubled period the composer was going through at this time.
The first piece in this Cycle and one of the most well-known, “Of foreign lands and peoples” invites the player to work on the technique of the left hand and to understand the two voices which it brings together, in addition to the joyful melody of the right hand. It is a very good exercise for working on the independence of the fingers. You will find the sheet music with fingering in the Tomplay app. It also contains a performance by the pianist Vladimir Horowitz which you can listen to as you like and which will make the process of learning the piece easier.
Here is another very well-known piece of sheet music, even more well-known than the piece before, taken from the Scenes from Childhood Cycle, “Dreaming” (Träumerei”), the central piece of the work.
In spite of the simplicity of the writing, it was an immediate success, illustrating a serene and dreamy introspection. During the 1890s, “Dreaming” appeared in more publications than any other work by any other composer in German-speaking countries.
The comments by the Austrian composer Alban Berg echoed the feelings of music lovers listening to the piece and have become famous in themselves: “in the presence of a melody such as this, you completely lose your footing. We can recognise its value, but we cannot demonstrate it. Intelligence will not be of any help in order to agree on this subject; one is sensitive to its charm or one is not. No argument is capable of converting someone who refuses to be delighted by it and there is nothing to say to anyone who attacks it, except to play it for him and make him cry: “How beautiful!”.
Incidentally, “Träumerei” has given its name to a rose from the company Kordes, a German family company with an international reputation, specialists in rose-growing and the breeding of new cultivars.
In the Tomplay app, you will also find the sheet music of Schumann’s Dreaming to play on the piano. The sheet music contains fingerings, as well as a famous performance by the pianist Jan Lisiecki, which will help you with learning the piece.
5. 1839: Carnival scenes from Vienna, Opus 26 - II. Romanze
In 1839, Schumann went to Vienna, the cradle of the greatest romantic composers, where he attempted unsuccessfully to set up his musical review and continued his exchange of letters and music with Clara. Although her father was still refusing to give her hand to a man he described as a drunkard, their passion was only growing stronger. Friedrich Wieck went as far as slandering his daughter to the directors of the concert halls where she was playing.
Schumann was inspired to compose the Carnival Scenes from Vienna by his trip to the city. He wrote the first four movements there and the last on his return to Leipzig the following year.
We witness here a transformation of Schumann’s work, up to that time faithful to the musical forms of the time, which contributed to finalising the metamorphosis of classicism to romanticism initiated by Beethoven and Schubert.
The second movement, Romance, is probably the least virtuoso and is just one page long. It is without doubt the saddest piece of the Suite, but it is nevertheless the most exquisite. Play the sheet music of Romance from Schumann's Carnival Scenes from Vienna in the Tomplay app. The sheet music is available with fingering. The many available features, such as the possibility of recording yourself and listening back or annotating the sheet music and printing it, will make the learning process easier for you.
6. 1845: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 54
In 1840, Robert and Clara went to court in order to obtain authorisation to marry, without the blessing of the Wieck patriarch. What is more, Schumann won his case for slander against him. They obtained official authorisation to marry and the marriage ceremony took place in Schönefeld, in the suburbs of Leipzig, on 12 September 1840.
Schumann’s marriage to Clara inspired many masterpieces and he met Franz Liszt that same year. At that time, the complementarity between Robert and Clara was at its height, as the composer could no longer play and she was a virtuoso performer who was unable to compose openly as the composition of music by women was looked on very poorly at the time.
Schumann lived in Clara’s shadow, who was a real star in Europe. She spearheaded her career as a pianist and her life as a wife and mother, bearing eight children of whom six survived. Thereafter, the tension between the couple and Friedrich Wieck eased.
Schumann composed his Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 54, in 1845 for his wife - like the great majority of his works - and with her encouragement. She played it in concert for the first time in Leipzig on 13 August 1841 with their friend Felix Mendelssohn conducting the ensemble.
The first Allegro affettuoso movement presents a fiercely powerful opening theme which contrasts elegantly with a lyrical piano and clarinet duet. The composer really did like to reconcile very different atmospheres! The second Intermezzo movement is gentle and lyrical and moves on without a pause to the final Allegro vivace movement, reprising the previous themes to end in a vibrant finale.
At Tomplay, we’re offering you a unique experience: play Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor accompanied by a real orchestra! The Tomplay interactive sheet music is synchronised with the orchestral accompaniment and you can even adjust the tempo of the music to suit your level!
7. 1848: Album for the Young, Opus 68, Book I - No. 16, First Loss
The finalising of the Concerto in mid-July 1845 was followed by the composer’s total physical breakdown and growing feelings of anxiety.
In September 1848, the composer put together in his collection Album for the Young the various miniature pieces written over several years designed to be a teaching aid for his daughter Marie’s 7th birthday. As in Scenes of Childhood, he was inspired by the world of childhood, but contrary to the latter, the pieces in the Album for the Young are directed more towards a young audience.
The sixteenth piece in this Cycle, “First Loss”, presents an interplay between the voices of the left hand and the right hand throughout the piece and creates a fluid dialogue and nostalgic atmosphere. You will find the sheet music of First Loss with fingering in the Tomplay app!
1849-1856: From light to darkness
1849 saw the birth of a new creative outburst for Schumann: lieder, music for the piano, chamber music, vocal ensembles and choirs - it was a very prolific period. He also undertook a tour with his wife. It was a hit!
However, some time later, he tried his hand at teaching and orchestral conducting, which were not successful and were poorly received by the critics. It was the beginning of a descent into hell for Robert Schumann, who saw his physical and mental health deteriorate day by day.
In 1854, Schumann suffered from auditory hallucinations which made him hear a theme which he put down on paper. Unsatisfied with the result, however, he interpreted it as a divine warning. Several days later, he crossed the city (Düsseldorf) in the rain in his slippers and threw himself into the Rhine. He was dragged out and taken to a psychiatric hospital which he would never leave.
He never saw Clara again during this long period of confinement and neither did she inform him of the birth of their son Felix. She wrote him several belated, rare letters. Nevertheless, Schumann’s condition improved and he was visited by Brahms and their friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Doctors talked of a potential return home, which Clara opposed, not wanting to welcome her “half-cured” husband.
The composer lost all hope. He wrote his last letter to Clara, burnt her letters and refused to eat. Clara finally visited him on his deathbed. Robert Schumann died during the afternoon of 29 July 1856. Clara wrote: “He smiled at me and with a great effort enfolded me in his arms. And I would not give this embrace away for all the treasure in the world”.
Robert Schumann left behind him his own distinctive music: sometimes bathed in euphoria and love, sometimes tormented and sombre, but always imaginative, declamatory and mysterious.
To your keyboards! Play some Schumann with Tomplay
Tomplay has a catalogue of more than 20,000 pieces for all instruments and levels. Each piece of sheet music is synchronised with a professional audio recording which you can listen to or use as a backing track accompaniment. The other available functions, such as the possibility of slowing down the tempo of the accompaniment, recording yourself and listening back or working on a specific passage in a loop, will also make learning the piece much easier.