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CLASSICAL  September 2008

CLASSICAL September 2008

Subject:

Worthen's Schumann Biography

From:

James Tobin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 23 Sep 2008 17:03:07 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Robert Schumann - Life and Death of a Musician
John Worthen
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. 496 pp.

Earlier this year Steve Schwartz wrote an excellent review of this
book and I have no issues with anything he said there.  In further
recommendation of Worthen's superb biography, there are a few things
I would like to add.

The view of Schumann as bipolar or manic-depressive goes way back
and, in addition to presenting a distorted view of the composer, has
tended to support a distorted view of artistic creativity in general
as a product of 'mad genius' going back as far as Plato and at least
as recently as a Bard Music Festival discussion in 1994 (related in
Jean Tobin's Creativity and the Poetic Mind, p232 and following.)
In challenging this view of Schumann, especially elaborated in Peter
Ostwald's 1985 psycho-biography, Robert Schumann, Music and Madness,
Worthen very refreshingly and convincingly notes that much of the
speculative interpretation of Schumann's life along these lines is simply
not supported by a sensible and straightforward reading of the evidence.
Schumann did have many physical ailments and occasional bouts of panic
attacks.

There is a huge quantity of documentation for Schumann's life, notably
his own journals and household records, as well as medical records from
his final years.  (Clara Schumann and her heirs, more private than Robert,
destroyed many of her letters and some of her journals.) Worthen is able
to relate details of Robert and Clara's very first kisses and what they
meant to this quintessentially Romantic couple.  Not so Romantic are
vivid accounts of Schumann's youthful dissipation, his efforts to control
his heavy drinking, and details of the treatment he received for the
syphilis which later maddened and killed him.  Worthen even communicates
the name and probable identity of the woman who presumably gave it to
him.

Worthen gives a lengthy account of the generally well known struggle,
personal and legal, of Robert and Clara to marry in the face of the
implacable opposition of Clara's father, Friedrich Wieck.  One point not
so well known, even to Robert Schumann who had studied law, is that in
Saxony at that time a woman could not marry without parental consent
even after she had reached the age of majority.

Although Robert and Clara's love may have been one of the most famous
in history, their married life was not an idyll and included the down
to earth frictions and difficulties of any relationship and more than
one contretemps was recorded for posterity to learn about.  In common
with Bach, Schumann had to be much concerned with the family income
needed to support the household and exact detail is known about the
incomes of both composers - and Clara's.  Clara's career suffered from
Robert's desire for a traditional and large family - her many pregnancies
made it difficult for her to travel, for one thing.  Robert may have
been a better father than a husband; he clearly loved his children and
enjoyed spending time with them.  His need in the early years to compose
at the piano in a thin-walled apartment made difficulties.  Even though
Clara had her own piano, her playing became a distraction to him.  Later,
Schumann composed without the need for a piano until he had finished
works he completed in his head.

Schumann's creativity also evolved over time from an outpouring from
inspiration to what Worthen calls a more professional ability simply
to write music.  Very many works, such as the Spring Symphony and many
songs, were composed with amazing rapidity - one thinks of Mozart.  By
way of exception, the C Major Symphony took him a long time to complete
and orchestrate to his satisfaction, even though the work was mostly set
down in a couple of months.  He kept revising it following performances.
The D Minor Symphony, composed second but numbered 4, as is well known,
failed to attract a publisher simply because the first performance was
not successful.  Schumann never heard a concert performance of his Cello
Concerto, from his late period in the Rhineland.  He was enormously
prolific in that period, though, until his sudden mental 'catastrophe,'
which put him in an asylum.

This is simply one of the best and most satisfying musical biographies
- of anyone - that I have ever read.  Even though it does not include
analysis of Schumann's music as such it does place just about all of his
works in the context of what Schumann was doing at the time and indicates
what many of them meant to him and to Clara.  One thing I did miss was
an account of Schumann's literary interests.  But that is available
elsewhere.

Copyright 2008 by R. James Tobin

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