As I write this, I’m humming the opening bars of Schumann’s Papillons (1829–31), one of his earliest compositions for piano, a piece I haven’t played, let alone heard, in at least six years. I can recall these notes because I remember the visceral pleasure of playing an ascending scale in octaves, the sense of expansiveness—like a butterfly’s wings unfolding—and of flight. Papillons was one of many pieces I learned as a competent (but undisciplined) amateur, yet it was one of the few I returned to again and again, even as I moved on to the Beethoven sonatas and Rachmaninoff preludes that were considered more sophisticated, challenging work.
In the 1830s, it was Schumann’s music that was considered challenging, its structures experimental and fragmented. His wife, Clara Wieck, a virtuoso pianist whose reputation exceeded her husband’s for a good part of their marriage, once urged him, “Couldn’t you just once compose something brilliant, easily understandable, and without inscriptions—a completely coherent piece, not too long and not too short? I’d so much like to have something of yours to play that’s specifically intended for the public.”
Today, Schumann’s work is known for its accessibility (hence the epithet “the children’s composer”). The intimacy and poeticism of his work offer many points of entry, in contrast to his contemporaries Wagner, whose music can exhaust the listener, and Liszt, whose work dazzles but intimidates. Yet following Schumann’s premature death in a mental asylum at the age of forty-six, the critical reception of his music ran counter to—and at times obscured—its popular appeal. To musicians, critics, and biographers, Schumann was the quintessential Romantic artist, the depressive driven to death by his own sadness. This myth dominated the interpretation of his entire creative output, especially the flood of work from the final years of his life. As John Daverio, musicologist and author of an earlier biography that capably links the composer’s life and work, writes in The Cambridge Companion to Schumann, “In the 1880s, to ascribe the stylistic features of Schumann’s ‘late manner’ to a musical work was tantamount to delivering the kiss of death.” More than a century later, this attitude still holds sway, with a reviewer describing the slow movement of the Violin Concerto as music “with so much insanity in its innards that it’s frightening.”
Such a one-dimensional portrayal, argues John Worthen in a new biography, Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician, not only does the man and his music a disservice, it’s flat-out incorrect. According to Worthen, Schumann was not mentally disturbed, but suffered from a nerve disorder caused by tertiary syphilis. Worthen marshals convincing medical evidence to support this diagnosis, but the case he makes for Schumann’s overall mental stability is shakier. The extensive diaries Schumann kept throughout his life document a desperate fear of going mad, no doubt influenced by his sister’s suicide when he was a teenager, as well as by the auditory hallucinations he experienced periodically throughout his thirties and forties. Worthen, however, plays down the mental illness in Schumann’s family and Schumann’s own physical symptoms, instead interpreting his ability to document such feelings as proof that he was, in fact, quite stable. That Worthen goes to great lengths to insist on this stability is perhaps a response to the entrenched nature of the Schumann-asmanic- depressive narrative, but it seriously inhibits his ability to present a nuanced representation of Schumann the man or of Schumann the composer.
When Worthen is not debunking the mental-illness myth, his lively, relaxed prose is a pleasure. Various sketches of Schumann emerge: the youthful drunken dilettante, the self-absorbed hypochondriac, the music journalist, the sociable artist who enjoyed the company of other musicians and writers, the mediocre conductor, the solitary man who desired only the company of his wife, the blazingly fast and prolific composer, the loving if absent-minded father.
One of the most intriguing of these portrayals is that of Schumann the writer and “literary composer.” Unlike Clara, who was groomed to be a professional musician nearly from birth, Schumann did not receive musical training as a child. He grew up in a family of booksellers, and his early passion for the novels of Jean Paul, a prominent Romantic writer, informed much of his later work. In 1834, he began writing and publishing a music newspaper, which he produced until 1844, when he gave it up to focus solely on composing. Some of his most well-regarded works are those linked to literature: his song cycles, and his dramatic overtures based on literary works, one of which, Paradise and the Peri (1843), made his reputation at a time when he was better known as the husband of Clara.
In private life, however, Schumann’s composing took priority over Clara’s performing. Their complicated marriage, preceded by a period of years during which Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck, took Schumann to court to prevent the wedding, nearly didn’t happen. As Worthen chronicles with exquisite care, the couple could communicate only by letter because Wieck—Schumann’s former teacher— blocked Clara from seeing Schumann. Worthen captures Clara’s battle between loyalty to her father and love for Schumann with artistry and demonstrates how the forced separation allowed Clara and Schumann to deepen their relationship, learning each other’s moods and how to fight and make up in writing.
Worthen, unfortunately, devotes as much attention to the Schumann ledgers as to the letters between the couple. He is forever cataloguing how many talers Schumann earned from his music journalism, from various compositions, or from Clara’s tour of Russia. Clara certainly influenced Schumann’s greater productivity after their marriage, and money was a constant source of concern for the family, but Worthen leans on it excessively to propel and color his narrative. From mid-1848 until mid-1849, Schumann composed an extraordinary amount of music. Some biographers see this creative fertility as a foreshadowing of illness to come. Worthen puts forth the theory that Schumann was composing at this pace to pay his bills. Yes, perhaps, but could this output not also have been the product of inspiration?
This causal link between volume of compositions and economic circumstances points to Worthen’s weakness for tangential details. At times, they allow him subtly to expose personality, as when he writes of the young Clara that her “only passion outside music was for cherries”—conjuring, in just a few words, the narrowness of Clara’s world, her na´vetÚ, and the loneliness of a life devoted to music. But as when Worthen informs us that a printer misspelled a word on the title page of one of Schumann’s publications, his dalliances with minutiae seem like the asides of a writer uncomfortable with more interesting territory, such as analysis of Schumann’s music.
A literary scholar, Worthen prefaces his tome by noting that he will “leave analysis of Schumann’s music to those qualified to undertake it. This is a book about the lives Schumann led, not about the music he wrote.” Is it possible—or even desirable— to separate a musician from his music? Leon Edel has argued that “the secret of biography resides in finding the link between talent and achievement. A biography seems irrelevant if it doesn’t discover the overlap between what the individual did and the life that made this possible.” By failing to plumb that connection, Worthen leaves many questions unconsidered, including the genesis and evolution of Schumann’s style and the relationship between his work and that of other Romantic composers. It’s particularly disappointing that Worthen fails to engage these questions, because when he does grapple with Schumann’s music at the very end of the biography, he manages a moving and evocative description of one of Schumann’s songs. It is, in fact, a more satisfying read than some of the essays in The Cambridge Companion to Schumann, in which musicologists wrestle with Schumann’s compositions only to be, more often than not, pinned to the mat by their own verbal convolutions.
The Cambridge Companion does help illuminate Schumann’s style, particularly his interest in altering traditional compositional forms and creating new ones. This penchant for unconventional structures placed him between the cracks of a debate raging during the Romantic era, that of absolute versus program music. Absolutists charged that music is nonrepresentational and thus constitutes an art form superior to all others. Adherents of the programmatic, on the other hand, argued that music is meant to evoke ideas or images through the representation of a scene or mood. Much to the detriment of his posthumous reputation, Schumann fell into neither camp. Yet his compositions—often concerned with the interaction of words and music—eloquently sidestep the entire debate. As Schumann wrote:
Many people worry too much about the difficult question of how far instrumental music can be allowed to go in representing thoughts and events. . . . Let us leave open the question of whether there are many poetic moments in the programme of Berlioz’s symphony. The central concern remains, whether the music amounts to anything in itself, with or without text and explication, and, more importantly, whether spirit dwells within.
The literary composer understood that music can be enhanced by text or narrative but also, more important, that such questions should remain just that, questions. During his time, this open-ended, fragmented aesthetic upset listeners. Now, audiences appreciate this unfinished quality for the imaginative interaction it allows them to have with the music. If Schumann’s compositions can be considered “mosaics,” as the British musicologist Donald Francis Tovey once called the large instrumental forms, then the project of understanding Schumann’s work, and his life, becomes less one of interpretation or of dispelling myths and more one of attention—looking at and listening to fragments— and appreciation.
Stephanie Hanson is news editor at CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, for which she covers Africa and Latin America.