Born in Zwickau, Germany in 1810, Robert Schumann started his musical education on the piano. The son of a bookseller, he began to experiment with composition at an early age, and also cultivated a passion for poetry and literature. Although richly talented, he was never considered a prodigy, especially by the standards of the time. At sixteen, after the tragic deaths of his sister and father, he entered the University of Leipzig to study the law; but this didn't last long, and soon he had left the school to pursue music with all his energies.
At the age of twenty, Schumann was studying the piano with Friedrich Wieck in Leipzig; he also boarded with the Wieck family. Although a hand injury prevented him from pursuing a career as a keyboard virtuoso, he found a niche writing music criticism - and composing, an activity which was starting to focus his considerable talents. In the early 1830s, he published several piano pieces to critical acclaim. In 1834, he founded the New Journal for Music and served as its editor for the next nine years; the publication attacked what Schumann felt were the shallow and inconsequential musical practices of the day. On the positive side, he recognized the brilliance of Chopin and Brahms.
Meanwhile, Schumann continued to compose. In 1835 he fell in love with his former piano teacher's daughter, Clara Wieck - who was only sixteen at the time. Her father, although he liked Schumann, wanted more financial security for his daughter, and opposed the union hotly. But the couple persevered, and they were married in 1840. That year was Schumann's happiest as a composer. He wrote over 130 songs, including the gorgeous Widmung, and threw himself into his first symphonic projects. The next year, his first two symphonies were performed; after that, he delved into chamber music writing.
But the happiness and creative fire was not to last. In the early 1840s, Schumann began to suffer from mental illness; even while accepting a position at Mendelssohn's conservatory in Leipzig, his brain was beginning to deteriorate. He attempted suicide, and was committed to an asylum in Bonn. There he died, aged 46, in 1856.
Schumann was a master of piano music, both in minor settings and in fully-developed sonatas and a Concerto. As a symphonist, he is regarded as a talented, but not masterful, creator of large orchestral forms; nor was he successful as a composer of operas. It is in his piano music and his songs - Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und Leben in particular - that he accomplished his greatest work, and this music takes its rightful place among the greatest achievements of the early Romantic period.