Schumann ~ The Faces and the Masks

Schumann ~ The Faces and the Masks by Judith Chernaik
New York, Vintage Books, 2019
349 pages, paperback, English language

Judith Chernaik's book provides a review of sources from Schumann's life that we had not previously seen. She examines his boyhood journals, as well as some newly available correspondence from late in his life, when he was confined at the Endenich asylum. In addition, she has conducted a thorough review of the detailed records kept by the founder and director of the asylum, Dr. Franz Richarz, which were not published until 2006. Her book provides a broad overview of Schumann's life that extends beyond his most productive years as an artist and critic.

Another notable feature of Chernaik's book is the very thorough examination of Schumann's compositions, including those which have remained undeservedly obscure. We corresponded with the author, and she told us that her two publishers asked her not to include musical examples, so in their place she provides vivid descriptions of each piece, including some programmatic scenarios that the pieces suggest to her. On the one hand, we think Schumann would approve, since he did much the same thing himself, with the evocative titles he assigned to many of his works. On the other hand, we unfortunately can have no idea whether Chernaik's imagery actually corresponds to what was in the composer's mind, or whether they are simply conjured up in the same way that Haydn's marketing-minded publishers assigned nicknames to his many works. Occasionally we disagreed with some of her more subjective comments, such as her description of the first movement of the C major symphony as "distraught." At other times, we were entirely in accord with her descriptive language.

Schumann incorporated many extra-musical ideas into his compositional process, including his affairs of the heart, word games with the names of the notes in his themes, thematic quotations from other composers (especially those of his fiancee, Clara Wieck), and allusions to literary works. Ultimately, however, he wrote what is called absolute music, music that stands on its own and requires no external program to complete it. Chernaik acknowledges this in her book.

Chernaik's account of Schumann's life is lively and affectionate, and also paints a picture of the age in which he lived, frequently mentioning the literature of the time, and some of political developments in which Schumann was keenly interested. We would have liked to see some of the personalities in the milieu of Robert and Clara Schumann explored in more detail; for example, Clara's friend Emilie List was the daughter of Friedrich List, the economist who brought American methods to Germany and inspired an economic revolution there under the leadership of Bismarck. The circle of the Mendelssohn family included not only some of the great artists of the day, but great scientific minds as well, such as the mathematician Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet who married Felix' sister Rebecka.

The Golden Renaissance which began in Andalusia and Florence gradually travelled through Europe, and Germany was its final stop. It was this great intellectual ferment which nurtured the careers of Robert Schumann and his colleagues and friends, and the spirit of it is well captured in Judith Chernaik's book.

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