Should a real musician be so tormented with music?

Misha Donat

  • Robert Schumann: Herald of a ‘New Poetic Age’ by John Daverio
    Oxford, 618 pp, £30.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 19 509180 9
  • The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by E.T.A. Hoffman, translated by Anthea Bell
    Penguin, 350 pp, £7.99, April 1999, ISBN 0 14 044631 1

When the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim visited Schumann in the asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, in May 1855, he discovered that the composer – by this time in the tertiary stage of syphilis – had been spending his time compiling an alphabetical list of cities. Nearly a year later, Brahms found Schumann doing almost the same thing: ‘I looked again at his reading matter,’ he reported back to Joachim. ‘It was an atlas and he was occupied with making excerpts, childish ones, of course. Towns, rivers, etc. whose names begin with Aab, Ab, Aba, etc., gathering together the many St Juans, etc. He showed me a whole lot of paper completely covered with such writing.’

Four years before that, while still at home, and in a much happier frame of mind, Schumann had begun to put together a catalogue of references to music in the works of Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe and other great literary figures, and had also made a detailed inventory of the contents of his own music library. Throughout his adult life Schumann kept a diary chronicling both inner thoughts and external events (the joint diary the Schumanns kept during the first three years or so of their marriage even contains encoded references to their sexual activity), and for much of it had maintained a household book into which he entered meticulous details of his daily expenses. No doubt the psychiatric fraternity would see in such orderliness Schumann’s means of counteracting a fear of mental disintegration. Certainly, that fear remained with him through much of his life. When he was in his early twenties his brother Julius and his favourite sister-in-law, Rosalie, both died of tuberculosis. Schumann noted in his diary:

The night of 17-18 October [1833] – the most frightful of my life – Rosalie’s death just before. At this point, a crucial segment of my life begins. The torture, of the most dreadful melancholy from October until December – I was seized by an idée fixe: the fear of going mad.

The punctiliousness with which Schumann catalogued his life and his possessions extended also to his creative work. No other great composer so assiduously compartmentalised his output, setting out systematically to master and exhaust one form of composition before embarking on the next. Until 1840, the year of his marriage to Clara Wieck, Schumann had concentrated almost exclusively on piano music. After abandoning his law studies, he had trained as a pianist, but his ambitions to become a virtuoso performer were thwarted by a permanent injury to one of the fingers of his right hand. Various theories have been put forward as to the cause of the disability: that it resulted from the use of a mechanical device for strengthening the fingers, or that it was brought about by the mercury commonly administered to sufferers from syphilis, or that it was entirely psychosomatic, the result of Schumann’s guilt over excessive masturbation in his youth.

Even within a single genre, Schumann’s output shows evidence of methodical orderliness. The early part of his piano decade found him determined to write music of a decidedly virtuoso bent: the Toccata op. 7, and the Paganini studies op. 3. Then came a concentration on variation form, in such works as the ‘Impromptus on a Theme of Clara Wieck’ of 1833, and the Etudes Symphoniques which were begun in the following year. (Schumann’s famous Carnaval, whose seeds were sown in a projected set of variations on a waltz by Schubert, also dates from this period.) In the mid-1830s he confronted the problem of the post-Beethovenian piano sonata: all three of his sonatas, together with the C major Fantasie op. 17 were first drafted at this time. And at the end of the decade came those highly original cycles of shorter pieces, including Kreisleriana, Kinderscenen and the Humoreske.

The systematic expansion of Schumann’s creative activities which began in 1840 was signalled by an astonishing outpouring of song. Some 250 were written in that year alone, including most of those for which Schumann has remained famous. In a sense the Lieder of 1840 are the vocal equivalents of the cycles of piano pieces he had written earlier. In the tragic Dichterliebe, to poems by Heine, the voice seems like an extension of the piano: in every one of the 16 songs the vocal part tails off in midstream, and it is left to the piano to utter what the voice can no longer express. At the end, the singer stands by while the piano plays a long postlude that sums up the entire cycle.

Also from 1840 is another Heine cycle, as well as Frauenliebe und Leben, set to poems by Adelbert von Chamisso conveying the idea of marriage as seen through the eyes of a woman, and an extended series of Eichendorff settings. Behind these cycles lies the influence of Beethoven’s proto-Romantic An die ferne Geliebte, whose title – ‘To the Distant Beloved’ – was clearly significant for Robert and Clara during the years of enforced separation that preceded their marriage. Schumann had quoted a phrase from Beethoven’s cycle in the opening movement of the Fantasie.

Once he had mastered the art of the Lied, making what many consider the greatest contribution to the repertoire after Schubert, Schumann turned his attention in 1841 to orchestral music. His first two symphonies (the second of them later revised, and published as no.4) date from this time, as do the Ouverture, Scherzo und Finale, and the first movement of what would eventually become his famous Piano Concerto in A minor. The following year, having made a thorough study of the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Schumann turned to chamber music; and in 1843, to the oratorio, with a setting of sections from Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, under the title of Das Paradies und die Peri. After this there was a hiatus, caused partly by a bout of severe depression, and partly by the emergence of a new style; and it was not until 1847 that Schumann managed to concentrate on what for any self-respecting composer was the ultimate goal – the creation of an opera. But Genoveva, based on tragedies by Friedrich Hebbel and Ludwig Tieck recounting the life of St Geneviève, was hardly a success in Schumann’s own lifetime, and it has entirely disappeared from the repertoire today.

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