Schumann's discordant strains

Mental illness and a ruined hand slowed the19th-century composer

Few composers have ever offered as much compelling biographical or autobiographical material as Robert Schumann (1810-1856). An influential music journalist who championed Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms, Schumann is now recognized as one of the most important German Romantic composers.

He is perhaps best known for his courtship, marriage, and extraordinary musical partnership with Clara Wieck, one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century. Notorious for having injured his hand during his teenage years in a botched attempt to strengthen certain fingers, Schumann is also remembered for his mental breakdowns and for having been insane the last few years of his life.

Eric Jensen's rather dry and dispassionate biography attempts to demystify Schumann and his music, and to correct what he feels are misperceptions, particularly about Schumann's last two years when he was a patient at Endenich, a German asylum.

Part of the generally excellent Oxford Master Musician series, Jensen's book is divided into 16 chapters, five of which are devoted to descriptions and analyses of Schumann's compositions. But the segregated discussions of Schumann's life and music often have the unfortunate effect of breaking up the narrative thread and divorcing the music from the man, who believed many of his compositions to be musical records of his turbulent emotional life.

Jensen makes extensive use of sources unavailable to previous biographers - Schumann's diaries, household books, and letters, which he feels "bring him to life as no other source can." (Jan Swafford used many of these several years ago in his magisterial Brahms biography). Yet Schumann seems to have concealed as much as he revealed, and many questions, particularly the cause of his death, remain unanswered.

One matter Jensen is able to resolve from Schumann's diary is that his hand injury was caused by a homemade mechanical contraption. Schumann's teacher, Friedrich Wieck (Clara's father), was appalled at this device, which he referred to as "the finger torturer thought up by a famous pupil of mine to the just outrage of his third and fourth fingers, which he fashioned against my wishes and used behind my back." The longterm effect of his right-hand damage was his abandonment of a career as a virtuoso pianist, and, Jensen believes, Schumann's difficulty in holding a baton while conducting (most considered him a dreadful conductor).

Jensen generally plays down the musician's insanity, and feels it might have been reversible. He posits that Schumann might have emerged from his madness had a less punitive type of treatment been employed, or had a more sympathetic team of doctors been on the scene who would not have discouraged his creative attempts. Most important, Jensen feels that being held against his will led inexorably to Schumann's mental and physical deterioration.

Clara's plight as an often frustrated concert pianist and caretaker of Robert and their many children is handled with little sympathy. Swafford's Brahms biography (in relatively few pages) does a far better job describing the important relationship between the young Brahms and both Clara and Robert.

Jensen presents a sound analysis of Schumann's piano music, but he fails to mention the weaknesses of Schumann's wind and string writing or his awkward orchestrations.

The author tries to dispel the notion that Schumann's muse, or even his manic-depression, directed his pen when, after a period of maniacal activity, he would suddenly abandon one genre for another. He explains this that "systematic approach" was caused by a desire for money, recognition, and popularity. Oddly, Jensen is better at describing Schumann's interest in the world of childhood, literature, concealed meanings, number symbolism, and puzzles than he is at describing Schumann as a musician.

Susan Miron is a freelance writer and harpist in Newton, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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