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Book Review


Schumann by Jensen
Eric Frederick Jensen
Second edition
(The Master Musicians)
Oxford University Press, 2012. 361 pp.
Illustrations, musical examples, calendar, list of works, "Personalia," select bibliography, index.
ISBN-10: 0199737355
ISBN-13: 978-0199737352
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Aside from a lifelong interest in Schumann's music and his life, my reason for requesting a review copy of this book was the quality of Jensen's recent book about Debussy, recently published in this same series and which I reviewed here. Jensen, who has a doctorate in musicology from the Eastman School of Music, has in both instances produced insightful works about composers as innovative musicians as well as interesting human beings. In this case he intersperses five chapters about Schumann's music with chapters on the life of this composer. He also shows us how Schumann's literary interests had direct influence on his music.

The son of a publisher who was also an author, Robert Schumann was extremely well read from an early age and seriously considered a literary rather than a musical career. (What he did not want was a legal career, which he was sent to university to pursue.) He wrote some poetry, some drama, and some fiction in his youth, and in his maturity was to become a major music critic. His literary taste was romantic, but he read the Greek and Roman classics, Shakespeare and major other authors from the Renaissance to his own time, such as Shelley and Scott. German authors included Heine, Eichendorff, Kleist, Hölderlin and, especially, E.T.A. Hoffman and Jean Paul Richter. Jensen shows how some of Schumann's musical practices can best be understood with reference to some of Jean Paul's stories, notably concealed meanings and puzzles, quotations from previous works in new ones, and "the often abrupt juxtaposition of grotesque humor with elements of profound sentiment."

Among Schumann's concealed meanings were some with practical import: communications to his future wife Clara during extended periods when the two were separated and forbidden by her father to communicate. A particularly notable instance is his including a quote from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) in his Fantasie, op. 17, as well as quotation in his works of music written by Clara. At one point Clara was forbidden to accept a dedication to her of one of his works. Wieck was so hostile to the courtship of his daughter that he threatened to shoot him if he showed up at his home. When it came to a lawsuit, Wieck unsuccessfully tried to claim that Schumann was a drunkard.

Friedrich Wieck's main motives behind his hostility to the proposed marriage between Clara and Robert were his concern about her future career prospects and Robert's financial prospects. Clara was, after all, one of the great pianists of the nineteenth century, and Robert had destroyed his own performing career prospects by permanently injuring a finger. Wieck's concerns were not totally unfounded. After their marriage, Schumann tried for a time to make Clara into a housewife, and lost no time in producing many children with her. (He did love the children enormously and paid them a great deal of attention.) He also restricted Clara's practicing time in favor of his own composing needs for undistracted time. But of course, Clara went on to have a brilliant performing career anyway. And Schumann eventually went on to achieve financial success though his compositions.

It was not his piano music, which he focused on for the decade of his twenties, the ten years before he married, that was successful. It was so innovative in style that those pieces were neither appreciated nor understood. After he married in 1840 Schumann turned to writing Lieder, which were simpler, more melodic, and intended for home performance. Sales were good. But they were not good for his piano music. In fact Breitkopf und Härtel, stopped publishing him after losing money on his works – until he produced his Album for the Young, a substantial set of easy pieces for children, starting with his own, to play. That sold so well that Breitkopf und Härtel took him back. Schumann followed that success with a songbook for the young, which was successful also.

Early in his marriage, in January 1841, Schumann also completed his first symphony, in a spectacularly short period of time – this after previously abandoned attempts at symphony writing. Two months later he completed his Overture, Scherzo and Finale, as well as a version of what would be his Symphony #4, and the first movement of his Piano Concerto in A, his second attempt at writing a concerto. Two years later he completed his oratorio, Paradise and the Peri. His Symphony #2 in C was written in 1846 and, incidentally used a theme from An die ferne Geliebte again in the finale of that work He also used that theme in his Frauenliebe und Leben.

Jensen writes dispassionately about Schumann's symphonies, to a fault in my opinion. Here is a composer at the height of what Jacques Barzun called the "romantic century," whose whole life can be called s a romantic tragedy, and who wrote four great symphonies. Jensen says nothing about their expressivity. He tells us that the C major symphony was written following Schumann's recovery from a severe depression. I had not known that, but I was not surprised to learn it. The Adagio espressivo in that symphony is one of the most enormous, heart rending outpouring of sadness ever set down in notes, right up there with the Adagio sostenuto in Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata. The Allegro molto vivace finale which immediately follows the third movement placement in both these works (as well as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) is firmly upbeat and resolute. It is impossible – or perverse – to ignore Schumann's expressive intent. Again, late in the book, Jensen mentions Schumann's revision of what became Symphony #4. and specifically mentions the transition to the finale. This became something I consider perhaps the most successful re-writing in music history. The transition is attacca, meaning no pause, but it is vastly more than a clever transition. It is a pregnant and portentous suspension of motion, a holding of breath. Schumann may have used Beethoven's bridge to the finale of his Fifth Symphony as a model, I don't know, but the effect is thrilling, and I use the emotive word deliberately.

All biographies end with the demise of the subject, of course. As is well known, Schumann's last couple of years were particularly dreadful (though his final productive decade was the most prolific of his life.) As everyone surely knows, after attempting suicide in the Rhine at Dusseldorf, he was taken to an asylum near Bonn, several hours further down the river. Like John Warthen's Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician, and unlike Peter Ostwald's Schumann: Music and Madness, this is not a psycho-biography, but like Warthen, Jensen does examine the available medical record of Schumann's condition, and concludes that it was a matter of third stage syphilis, caught before he was married from a particular named woman. Schumann was not promiscuous, though he did drink too much when young. Schumann had a dreadful sense of guilt at the time of his mental "catastrophe" Besides his affair with the young woman, Jensen speculates about the possibility of an affair with a sister-in-law also – mentioned by him only to try to account for Schumann's overwhelming sense of guilt. Ostwald speculated without evidence about the possibility of latent homosexuality on Schumann's part, which seems more than unlikely to me. What does appear to me on the basis of Jensen's account of reports by some of Schumann's visitors to the asylum, including Bettina von Arnim, Brahms, and Joachim, is that Schumann should not have been confined all that time – without his wife being allowed to visit him until he was actually dying. His doctors clearly did not understand what Schumann was like – his habitual absence of volubility was taken as a symptom, for instance,and he was clearly lucid much of the time. The doctors' sense that creativity was not to be encouraged was enough to make a modern reader scream. Schumann did not even have paper for writing letters, he said.

All in all, this is an excellent musical biography, notwithstanding my vigorous disagreement with some of the author's aesthetics – a personal matter. Strongly recommended.

Copyright © 2015, R. James Tobin