Flashes of genius from depths of darkness
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.