A postscript to the Schumann review:
It’s been interesting to read some comments about this book from reviewers out there both professional and amateur, and the one that really sticks with me is the contention that Schumann’s exceptional productivity in certain phases of his life in indicative of some sort of mania. That would put John Worthen’s contention that the composer essentially was a stable personality in question.
I was inclined to agree that he probably was some sort of bipolar — he sketched the whole First Symphony in four days — but now that I think about it, I wonder whether that’s right. If someone today were cranking the music out that fast, and certainly there are some candidates, you’d have to think they were driven by something extraordinary that made them exceed the bounds of normal creative activity.
But now I think that in this case today’s audiences are too influenced by our contemporary lives to understand how people lived in the first half of the 19th century. Alex Ross, in writing about Leonard Bernstein’s taking of a leaf from the life of Gustav Mahler in thinking that he could write music and be a conductor at the same time, made the excellent point that Mahler didn’t do talk shows and that sort of thing. He had far less pressure from technology bringing the world right to him, which allowed him to shut himself up in his composing house and write. Bernstein wasn’t so lucky.
And by the same token, Schumann was living in the first decades of his life in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and his life ended in 1856, 20 years before the invention of the telephone. He had no technological distractions of the kind that make our lives seem so crowded, and it takes a feat of imagination to put yourself back in a time like that, when all that was required of you through the day as city dweller and not a farmer was to get to the work at hand.
So you could work, with no television in the background, no radio, no video games being played by the kids, no cars demanding constant attention, no lawnmowers to drag over the grass, no cellphones ringtoning endlessly throughout the day. You could really concentrate, and Schumann’s disciplined work habits, some learned at the feet of his successful bookselling father, made it that much easier to get the work done.
It’s an open question whether the literary and musical work of today’s writers is fatally compromised by the technological onslaught. I know when I need to finish something — and I’ve just completed the draft of a short work for organ — I don’t answer the phone or look at my e-mail. I make sure my workspace is silent and I try hard to concentrate on the task at hand.
And just as our post-penicillin mindset makes it difficult to understand a time when syphilis was endemic and leading experts could declare that it was possible to be cured, so is it very difficult to understand a time when there wasn’t anything going on except the day, and the time to be filled by creative work, or a stroll through the lindens, or an afternoon at the pub.
We have lost touch, I think, with how conducive that time was to artistic creation, and probably this, more than mania, helps explain Schumann’s remarkable creativity.