Robert Schumann: Life and death of a musician
Yale University Press, $75 hb, 496 pp
Does it matter whether Robert Schumann suffered a slow, passive and continuous decline towards the madness of his last two years or, as John Worthen strongly affirms, a sudden descent into psychosis after a creative lifetime marked by personal resilience and determination? Many people would argue that it is particularly important in music not to let biography get in the way of hearing what the composer has created in sound, if for no other reason than that it could hinder music’s special freedom to mean quite different things to different listeners.
Very few people with an interest in concert-hall music, however, can approach the works of a composer like Schumann (1810–56) without some knowledge of his life. Worthen believes – and I think there is warrant for his belief – that many listeners have been encouraged by both scholarly biography and the snippets of information derived from it to think of Schumann as a sad case of genius dragged down by more or less continuous mental and physical degeneration after his dazzling achievements in the years leading up to, and immediately following, his marriage to the superlatively gifted young pianist Clara Wieck. This has resulted, he plausibly claims, in a damaging undervaluation of the music written by Schumann in the late 1840s and early 1850s, and a reluctance to acknowledge that the composer continued to develop his creative range and his stamina for large-scale structure until the onset of the final catastrophe.