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Book Review

Robert Schumann

Schumann - Life and Death of a Musician

Life and Death of a Musician

John Worthen
New Haven & London: Yale University Press. 2007. 496 pp
ISBN-10: 0300111606
ISBN-13: 978-0300111606
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Summary for the Busy Executive: English major takes on musician.

John Worthen has previously written a splendid group study of the Wordsworth-Coleridge circle as well as probably the standard one-volume biography of D. H. Lawrence. Worthen falls into the category of literary historian. His books make ample use of primary documentary material. He slogs through a mountain of detail and then shapes a compelling narrative. His experience and skill as an historian in this case produces an extremely persuasive new view of Schumann, one that will likely influence studies of this composer from now on.

That said, Worthen doesn't deal with the music, except to note the circumstances of its composition and early performances. He claims no musical expertise, although he obviously loves Schumann's work. Even so, George Bernard Shaw once remarked that Schumann was as much literary man as musician, and thus a legitimate study for a literary historian. Unlike most composers, Schumann is such a fascinating character and left behind such an extensive record of himself, that much remains to interest a reader.

From the early part of the Twentieth Century, Schumann studies were dominated by a psychological narrative, surely due to the rise of Freudian analysis. This viewed Schumann throughout most of his adult life as either schizophrenic or bipolar. One writer, Peter Ostwald (author as well of books on Nijinsky and Glenn Gould), also posits suppressed homosexuality and hostility toward Clara. Eventually, this led to psychosis, breakdown, attempted suicide, and institutionalization. The facts of that last sentence have colored how scholars have viewed the whole of the composer's life, as well as of his music. Yet Schumann, not only a great musician, was also a great music critic and one of the masters of German prose. He wrote a ton of letters and left diaries and journals. Extremely articulate, he was also penetrating and, for a Romantic, pretty scrupulous about describing his inner life. He kept attitudinizing to a minimum. Even so, every momentary sadness, Worthen argues, has been seized upon by psychoanalytic ghouls as foreshadows of his final breakdown. Worthen himself probably fits into some intellectual historical context. No doubt the lack of vigor in psychiatric studies – evinced by the increasing treatment of major disorders with drugs, which suggests a return to a physiological basis of insanity – at least paved the way for such a book.

Worthen takes four lines of attack. First, he notes that since Nineteenth-Century medicine viewed madness as having a physiological basis, doctors described Schumann's condition with great care. The symptoms they noted – increasing loss of physical coordination, joint pain, headaches, hearing problems, susceptibility to illness – all point to some underlying physical cause. The autopsy (Worthen includes the examining doctors' conclusions in an appendix) even lays out the condition of Schumann's brain. Second, no doctor – and Schumann saw a lot of them over his adult life – ever described him as depressed or "melancholy." Third, although Schumann admitted to occasional sadness, he always seemed to rebound to cheerfulness. Worthen stresses again and again how much sheer stuff Schumann composed, even in times of his so-called depression. It's extremely unlikely he would have had the nerve or the concentration to carry out major works if he were in fact depressed. A personality like Sibelius – with his alcoholism and long periods of creative silence, including the final one – would more likely merit a diagnosis of depression. Schumann's family remembered mainly his good humor, his sense of fun and pleasure with his children, and his enormous capacity for hard work, that is, until the disaster. They referred to it as "the catastrophe," and to them it came suddenly and without warning over a period of about eight days. Fourth – and this is a bit unusual – Clara's father, Friedrich Wieck, never brought up Schumann's "madness" in his many objections to the marriage, either with his friends or in the Saxony court.

Worthen makes a strong case for the tertiary stage of syphilis. The autopsy suggests it (although no doctor in 1856, the year of the composer's death, would have made the link between the brain state and the disease), as do the physical symptoms noted throughout Schumann's life. From his own admission, we know he became infected in the 1830s, although the more horrific symptoms, like defacement, never appeared. Indeed, Schumann himself thought the disease had gone into remission. He too never linked his symptoms to that cause.

All that, however, is the lagniappe of a mystery. In place of the old bipolar Robert, Worthen also delivers a compelling account of the artist day-to-day in society. Robert and Clara Schumann are among the first artists to live as bourgeoises. Clara, when she toured, made far more than Robert (on one tour, she made enough for them to live on for three years), but pregnancies cut into her opportunities and their income. Robert was lucky in that he sold works to publishers, but he sold masterpieces for one-time injections of needed cash. Copyright was primitive anyway, and in any case, then as now, it benefited mainly the publisher. To make up for income (he had a modest inheritance that he nevertheless kept digging into), he wrote journalism and conducted, although his physical problems eventually forced him off the podium. The book is, among other things, the record of a man with vast reserves of energy and, given an admittedly day-dreamy temperament, determination to wrest a living from the world.

Above all, Worthen delivers a view of the composer that seems clear-eyed, a personality you have no trouble imagining before you. He doesn't account for the genius, but he certainly notes the signs. As I say, the book could have sunk from the weight of detail, but Worthen's argument, his ability to construct a figure that seems alive, and the fact that he writes terrifically well combine to make this one of the best Schumann bios around, along with John Daverio's Robert Schumann: Herald of a "New Poetic Age". Daverio is good for relating Schumann to the general background of early-to-mid-century Romanticism. Worthen gives you a new view of the man as he lived his life.

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Schwartz