Life and Death of a Musician
New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press. 2007. 496 pp.
ISBN 13: 978-0300111606
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
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.
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