Flashes of ge­nius from depths of dark­ness

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gil­lian Wills

WHAT an event­ful life we’ve led: to me it of­ten sounds like a novel,’’ Robert Schu­mann said as he reread his own and his wife Clara’s di­aries. His fam­ily tragedies, crushed dreams, alert sex­u­al­ity’’, mu­si­cal tri­umphs and no­to­ri­ous at­tempted sui­cide by leap­ing from a bridge into the icy wa­ters of the Rhine in his py­ja­mas make Schu­mann an in­trigu­ing bi­o­graph­i­cal prospect.

John Worthen is nei­ther a mu­sic nor a med­i­cal spe­cial­ist but his skill as a lit­er­ary scholar ( and no­table bi­og­ra­pher of D. H. Lawrence) is ap­par­ent as he suc­cess­fully trans­forms his read­ers into voyeuris­tic eaves­drop­pers, hun­gry to hear more from the colour­ful theatre of this hot- headed artist’s com­plex private world.

The com­poser’s var­i­ous in­car­na­tions as an un­mo­ti­vated stu­dent of law, wannabe con­cert pi­anist ( stymied by a crip­pled fin­ger), mu­sic jour­nal­ist and ed­i­tor are all sur­veyed.

Schu­mann’s lov­ing part­ner­ship with Clara nev­er­the­less rep­re­sented some of the ten­sions as­so­ci­ated with a two- ca­reer fam­ily. She was an ac­claimed pi­anist whose earn­ings from con­cert tours of­ten saved the cou­ple from debt. They were able to marry only af­ter an al­most fiveyear le­gal wran­gle with her fa­ther, Friedrich Wieck. Dur­ing this stress­ful time, Schu­mann en­dured pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion as Wieck voiced ac­cu­sa­tions against his for­mer pi­ano stu­dent that in­cluded binge drink­ing and fi­nan­cial lim­i­ta­tion. Their ro­mance was sus­tained by end­less cor­re­spon­dence, chance en­coun­ters on stair­wells and in­fre­quent furtive meet­ings.

The por­trayal of Schu­mann’s self- im­posed in­car­cer­a­tion in the En­denich asy­lum for the last two years of his life is har­row­ing. It was con­sid­ered to be an en­light­ened in­sti­tu­tion, yet sanc­tions for Schu­mann’s non- com­pli­ance in­volved with­draw­ing the priv­i­leges of com­pos­ing and im­pro­vis­ing.

The au­thor doesn’t shy away from the less palat­able as­pects of Schu­mann’s char­ac­ter, in­clud­ing anti- Semitic at­ti­tudes and an ex­ploita­tive sex­ual re­la­tion­ship of which he was ashamed. Also ex­posed are his more lack­lus­tre ven­tures into con­duct­ing and his foray into teach­ing at the Leipzig Con­ser­va­tory. His pen­chant for enig­matic feed­back was no­to­ri­ous. He once told a stu­dent who had just fin­ished per­form­ing: It’s odd, when­ever you strike a high E- flat, that win­dow­pane rat­tles.’’

He was so­cially tac­i­turn; Wag­ner once griz­zled that he was ex­hausted af­ter an hour­long con­ver­sa­tion with Schu­mann, who had not ut­tered a word.

The nexus be­tween bipo­lar­ity and the creative mind con­tin­ues to prompt spec­u­la­tion. In the mu­si­cal world, El­gar, Han­del, Rach­mani­nov and Beethoven are but a few of the big names be­lieved to have suf­fered from this con­di­tion. Al­though this com­pelling bi­og­ra­phy springs from what is clearly a fash­ion­able de­bate, there is an un­ex­pected twist. Worthen mar­shals ev­i­dence to dis­pel the mythol­ogy that has cat­e­gorised his sub­ject as a ge­nius blighted by men­tal ill­ness, his mu­si­cal out­put a man­i­fes­ta­tion of mad­ness.

Schu­mann claimed two al­ter egos, the mas­cu­line ex­tro­vert Florestan and the dreamy, fem­i­nine Euse­bius. Af­ter he broke new ground as the ed­i­tor of Die Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik and mu­sic critic, Schu­mann’s con­cert re­views were at­trib­uted to Florestan or Euse­bius. Sim­i­larly, his com­po­si­tions such as Car­naval, a col­lec­tion of minia­ture pi­ano cap­sules, cel­e­brate th­ese char­ac­ters. Worthen plau­si­bly af­firms that the adop­tion of th­ese pseu­do­nyms does not con­firm bipo­lar­ity but that Schu­mann, torn be­tween his strong lit­er­ary and mu­si­cal lean­ings, was merely in­flu­enced by his favourite writer, John Paul ( Richter), who pro­moted the con­cept of the du­al­ity of the self.

An­other the­ory is that Schu­mann’s litany of de­bil­i­tat­ing headaches, dizzi­ness, cramps, chronic weak­ness, men­tal de­cline and ul­ti­mate ema­ci­a­tion all stemmed from the rav­ages of ter­tiary syphilis. He had been sup­pos­edly cured in his 20s. The idea has mer­its, but Worthen floun­ders when rein­ter­pret­ing glean­ings from the com­poser’s writ­ings in his de­sire to dis­credit the di­ag­no­sis of bipo­lar­ity. Ex­treme highs and lows, ex­ces­sive guilt, hy­per­ac­tiv­ity, in­som­nia, au­di­tory hal­lu­ci­na­tions and vis­i­ta­tions by oth­er­worldly crea­tures are re­vealed, but their sig­nif­i­cance is ig­nored. The coun­ter­ing logic is slight: the de­pressed don’t con­sult doc­tors, but Schu­mann did.

Schu­mann is said to have had his first break­down in 1833 dur­ing which he ex­pe­ri­enced

the tor­tures of the most ter­ri­ble melan­choly’’ and un­speak­able anx­i­ety’’. In a grim se­quence, his brothers Julius and Carl and his sis­ter- in- law Ros­alie died. Here, Worthen rea­son­ably ar­gues that any­one fac­ing this de­gree of loss would be spir­i­tu­ally flat­tened. How true, but th­ese over­whelm­ing tragedies could equally have trig­gered a far more se­ri­ous clin­i­cal de­pres­sion.

Lurk­ing be­hind Worthen’s well- in­ten­tioned re- eval­u­a­tion of Schu­mann’s ex­ten­sive di­aries, let­ters and es­says is an as­sump­tion that the man­tle of men­tal ill­ness com­pro­mised a mu­si­cal rep­u­ta­tion. This misses the point. Schu­mann’s in­sta­bil­ity and the chaotic night­mare of his in­ner world fired his cre­ativ­ity. It is a pity, then, that this au­thor does not at­tempt to in­ter­weave and il­lu­mi­nate the vi­tal links be­tween the man and his out­stand­ing cul­tural legacy.

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