Robert Schumann ~ Life and Death of a Musician

Robert Schumann ~ Life and Death of a Musician by John Worthen
London, Yale University Press, 2007
496 pages, hardbound, English language

This biography of Robert Schumann is the most meticulously documented one that we have seen. The author sets out to debunk the suggestion that he suffered from life-long mental illness. This particular slant on Schumann is unfortunately typical of 20th Century scholarship, in which it became fashionable to link artistic creativity to psychopathology; we have seen a lot of half-baked faux-Freudianism in certain other biographies. At the conclusion of the book, Worthen proclaims that "this is the first biography of Schumann not to consign him to Romantic lunacy."

Worthen argues persuasively that the way Schumann dealt with adversity, such as the hand injury that ended his aspirations to be a performing virtuoso, or the bitter struggle with Clara Wieck's father over Schumann's desire to marry her, demonstrated that Schumann was a vigorous and resourceful individual, not a melancholic, simpering Romantic. Interestingly, Worthen cites the excellent book by Schumann's daughter Eugenie, entitled The Schumanns and Johannes Brahms, as being the sole exception to the 20th Century tendency to interpret every facet of Schumann's life as some expression of an underlying mental illness. Eugenie, who speaks for Clara (Eugenie was only three years old when her father lost his sanity,) reports that Schumann's madness was sudden and wholly unexpected. Worthen suggests that it is best explained as a consequence of tertiary syphilis, and documents that Schumann was treated for syphilis as a young man (although what passed for treatment at the time was ineffectual.) Worthen takes great pains to overthrow the 20th Century prejudices which have dominated Schumann's biographers.

Worthen does acknowledge that Schumann had a certain morbid fear of asylums and insanity, and in his epilogue, he analyzes a song by Schumann entitled "Der Spielmann," which he regards as a remarkable and terrifying psychological portrait of a musician gone mad. Nonetheless, we are impressed by the way he argues his central thesis. 20th Century biographers construe all of Schumann's physical health problems as psychosomatic manifestations of mental illness, whereas Worthen argues that they were just health problems. some of which can be explained by syphilis. Given the primitive state of medicine in those days, both sides of the debate are forced to speculate from insufficient evidence. But we favor Worthen's side, because we despise the Romantic notion that artistic creativity itself is a bit unwholesome. We don't for a moment believe Freud when he claims that Da Vinci's prodigous output was all repressed homosexuality, for example; the passion for creative production is a manifestation of mental health, a fundamental human drive, not the sublimation of some other drive.

The downside to Worthen's effort is that it often has a plodding, "just the facts, Ma'am" quality to it. Worthen refers over and over to Clara's life-long friendship with Emilie List, without ever taking note of the fact that Emilie's father was Friedrich List, one of Germany's most fertile minds. List was an economist who travelled to the United States and collaborated with Abraham Lincoln to produce one of the most astonishing economic revolutions in history, and then returned to Germany to apply the same methods there.

Worthen also sheds some light on the question of Friedrich Wieck. Wieck is remembered primarily for his deranged vindictiveness in trying to prevent the marriage of Robert and Clara, but Worthen reveals aspects of his musical philosophy and teaching methods that demonstrate that he was an important influence on the development of both Clara and Robert as great artists. He communicated to them his disdain for mere technical facility, and his insistence that the musician must communicate an idea. Schumann clearly appreciated Wieck as a kindred spirit, and made this known by incorporating Wieck into the cast of his Davidsbündler. Worthen repeats some of Wieck's Musical Peasant Proverbs, which may have been the model for some of the aphorisms that appear in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik:

When technique is its own aim
Art goes down the drain.

Just wanting to get to the end is a kind of illness,
Even at full tilt there has to be stillness.

Worthen does not represent himself as an authority on music, although he comments on a wide range of Schumann's compositions. For some reason he discounts the importance of Das Paradies und Die Peri, which Schumann himself regarded as his most important work. But the dominant theme in Worthen's book is his quest to refute the prevailing theory that, as Eugenie Schumann put it, Schumann lived his life in the shadow of his final illness. Worthen has succeeded in this objective.

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