A, E♭, C, B

Paul Driver

  • Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician by John Worthen
    Yale, 496 pp, £25.00, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 300 11160 6
  • The Cambridge Companion to Schumann edited by Beate Perrey
    Cambridge, 302 pp, £19.99, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 78950 9
  • Schumann’s Late Style by Laura Tunbridge
    Cambridge, 246 pp, £50.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 87168 6

Robert Schumann died in an asylum near Bonn in 1856, having committed himself there two years before, following a suicidal plunge into the Rhine near his home in Düsseldorf. He had had many periods of depression and anxiety before that, and biographers have tended to regard his life as a continuous fight against the congenital mental instability to which the deaths of his sister and father when he was in his teens have also been attributed. The black cloud at the end of Schumann’s life has been seen as overshadowing everything on the way, but John Worthen’s biography refuses idle teleology. An emeritus professor of English at the University of Nottingham, Worthen has written about D.H. Lawrence and the Wordsworth circle and makes no claim to musical expertise; but he has been seized by the Schumann case. Paying fierce attention to original sources, among them Schumann’s autopsy report (printed as an appendix) and the domestic diaries that he kept jointly with his pianist wife, Clara, he shows that Schumann’s problems can be explained without a theory of inherited madness. What Schumann faced was the purely physical nemesis of syphilis.

This isn’t news, but Worthen’s single-mindedness is salutary. Until tertiary syphilis destroyed Schumann’s mind, he was pretty much sane. Worthen claims that only in the 1931 biography by his daughter Eugenie is his final collapse not seen as the consequence of chronic mental illness – and her account was liable to seem like special pleading. Yet the evidence Worthen marshals strongly suggests that neither Schumann nor his contemporaries saw his many troubles as the result of mental disturbance. It is striking, for instance, that when Clara’s father, the relentlessly hostile Friedrich Wieck, was preparing a legal case against Schumann in an attempt to prevent their marriage, he adduced every kind of vice and failing other than mental instability. Or, needless to say, syphilis. An early chapter makes clear that, at the time Schumann contracted syphilis, the lingering nature of the ‘pox’ and its hereditary transmission were unknown. Schumann thought himself cured. He didn’t pass it on either to Clara or to their many children, but it set him up for a life of ever greater derangement and a dreadful end.

Schumann may not have been insane, but he was certainly odd. His taciturnity was bafflingly extreme. He would let people talk on at embarrassing length before responding with a blunt or irrelevant few words. With the garrulous, self-absorbed Wagner, he ‘stayed as good as dumb for almost an hour’, so Wagner complained, deciding that Schumann was ‘a highly gifted musician, but an impossible person’. This reticence made teaching difficult. A student at the Leipzig Conservatory, waiting for a reaction to the piece he had played, was finally told: ‘It’s odd; whenever you strike a high E flat, that windowpane rattles.’ Nor was conducting made easier by his uncommunicative manner. He had a small pursed mouth – Worthen doubts that contemporary artists dared show it as it really was – and was disinclined to open it. Yet his articulacy as a writer is outstanding among composers. He was the editor of a music newspaper and a music critic whose judgments remain canonical (he praised Berlioz, Chopin and Brahms); as Reinhard Kapp puts it in The Cambridge Companion to Schumann, he ‘made music itself a subject for reflection but never reduced it to the merely aesthetic or technical’. ‘The Poet Speaks’, for instance, the title of the affectingly musing movement at the end of the piano sequence Kinderszenen, might seem ironic, but is one of many magical passages in Schumann when music really does seem to be breaking into speech, and meanings tremble on the edge of the specific. Not only one of the most literary of composers (he responded to words when setting them and wrote his own), Schumann was able to take literary ideas over into music.

Worthen makes clear the assiduousness with which he made himself a musician. He was a late starter as a pianist and composer, having concentrated on literature in his teens, but under the tutelage of Wieck, a formidable piano teacher, and with rigorous self-discipline, he became a professional musician able to stand beside the fabulously gifted Mendelssohn. He once said that had he grown up like Mendelssohn, ‘destined to music from childhood, I would have surpassed the lot of you’. ‘I always feel as if I hadn’t in fact achieved enough in the world (e.g. compared with Mendelssohn),’ he wrote to Clara in 1840, his ‘year of song’, during which he produced, among other things, Myrthen, Frauenliebe und -leben, Dichterliebe and the two Liederkreis. In January 1841, he sketched his Symphony No. 1 in four days. In 1842, his three string quartets took him respectively a week, three and a half weeks, and half a week to write. In 1850, Symphony No. 3, the Rhenish, took a month, and the lyrical Cello Concerto 13 days.

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