In his biography of Robert Schumann, John Worthen has reset the terms of understanding the life and times of this great German composer. (This book came out last summer, but I’ve only now gotten around to reading it cover to cover, so I offer this review now.)
And unless other persuasive information comes to light, I’m inclined to go with his conclusion: That Robert Schumann was not in fact mentally ill in any way; he was instead the victim of syphilis, as so many urbanites were in the 19th century. He was infected as a young man, suffered strange nerve problems over the years until the tertiary stage asserted itself in 1854 with his would-be suicidal plunge into the Rhine.
The key factor that Worthen has noted in his thorough and beautifully written biography of Schumann (Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician ) is the one that it’s easy for later scholars to overlook, and that is the conventional wisdom of the past. In the 1830s, for example, it was commonly believed that you could be cured of syphilis, and not until decades later was the truth of its deadly nature known.
And so it was that Schumann believed that the syphilitic infection he acquired in 1831 from a woman known only to us as Christel had dissipated, and neither he nor the physicians of the day knew that spirochetes were steadily at work on his nervous system from that point forward. It can’t be known for certain whether the illnesses he suffered after that point were attributable to his underlying syphilis, but the potency of the disease makes the idea more likely.
I am spending a lot of time on this point because if we understand Schumann as the unfortunate victim of a sexually transmitted disease in the pre-penicillin era, his whole life takes on a different coloration. Instead of the creator who cranked out an astonishing amount of music in a very short time because of his manic-depressive mindset, we instead see him as a creator trying his best to get as much money as he could for his wife and family as possible in order to make ends meet and justify the faith his wife had in him when she risked the estrangement of her father to be with the man she loved.
Instead of a man haunted by mental illness, we have a composer who suffered repeated bouts of unexplained illness that depressed him, but never critically impeded his work until 1853, when his hearing started to go seriously amiss.
Worthen, a British academic and expert on D.H. Lawrence, has here given us the biography of a hero, a man who worked extremely hard to be a success, sustained a loving marriage with seven children, and managed to turn out an exceptional amount of fine music, as well as important musical journalism, in a relatively brief life. He was undone by a disease no one understood properly until at least 30 years after his death, and given that he meticulously documented his illnesses, one must concur with Worthen’s frequent observation that Schumann’s ability to carry on with his composing in the midst of it is “amazing.”
This is a biography of Schumann’s life, not his music, as Worthen asserts in a prologue. Worthen has drawn the details from the extensive personal records of Robert and Clara Schumann, which provide an intimate, detailed picture of the lives of two of Germany’s most prominent 19th-century musicians.
Worthen divides his book into three main parts: His early life, his relationship with Clara, and his marriage and career. A brief fourth part describes Schumann’s two years in the asylum at Endenich where he died in July 1856, and an appendix includes the autopsy the asylum’s attending physician sent to Clara.
Throughout, Worthen’s tone is erudite but not suffocatingly scholarly. He writes with exceptional clarity about his subject, and he makes good use of his overall thesis by testing conventional wisdom against it:
Biographies of Clara have sometimes presented Schumann as a selfish male happy to ignore his wife’s talents and to pursue his own ambitions ….This is not a good way of thinking about a complex marriage. It was a peculiarly modern relationship: that of a couple who both wanted — and needed — to work, who both needed to spend time pursuing their own careers, who wanted to have children, too — and who also loved each other and desired to spend all the time they could together. Schumann would write about it, in March 1842, as ‘our singularly difficult situation.’
Worthen is able to back up this contention by simply looking at the record: Clara does complain about not having time to practice because Schumann was using the piano, and he quotes her remonstrations with him (in their marriage diary) about allowing her to go on tour to earn some more money for their growing household. But following the whole story shows how much give-and-take there was in the relationship.
The reader gets the sense that here were two ambitious artists who wanted to make their mark on the world, and they found a way to do so. Clara was pregnant 10 times during their 14 years of marriage (Schumann was past the infectious stage of his syphilis), and there’s no doubt her pianism suffered while she attended to her children, but then again, when touring opportunities came along, as they did in 1844 when the Schumanns traveled to Russia, she made a triumph of it: “…wherever she had gone, Clara had been acclaimed as a major pianist.”
Worthen also handles other Schumann shibboleths, many of which he contends are affected by retrospective knowledge of the end of the story. A good case in point is that of Ernestine von Fricken, to whom Schumann was engaged in 1835. He correctly notes that she has been given short shrift by other writers who considered her just a temporary way station on the road to Clara:
To put it as strongly as possible, had it not been for a small matter of legitimacy we might we have found ourselves celebrating 8 August 1835 as the day when Schumann married Ernestine von Fricken and settled down with her as his beloved, necessary companion. In which case Clara Wieck would have been no more than a very important early friend of his — not his woman of a lifetime.
Ernestine remained loyal to Schumann even after their engagement fell apart. When Clara’s father, trying to stop the union of his daughter with the composer, asked Ernestine to declare she had been engaged to Schumann, and she lied for him, saying no, “she had never had a relationship with Schumann which would allow her to ‘demand her rights.’ ” It is a mark of the thoroughness of this biography that Worthen makes even people who prove ancillary to the main story memorable.
Overall, Schumann is revealed to us as a man who worked hard and prodigiously all the years he could, despite mysterious illnesses that blighted his life. Worthen does not gloss over the blemishes, either. Although he reminds us that Schumann was considered a competent conductor when he first took over his music directorship in Dusseldorf, by the end of his tenure there his inadequacies as a leader, to say nothing of mounting illness, had taken their toll.
Schumann’s end was deeply sad, as he tried to play music in the asylum but had lost his motor coordination, which is typical with the tertiary stage of syphilis, and kept trying to write music even when his attendants denied him paper or the piano. But his life overall was a triumph, and he created a body of music that is indelibly associated with the Romantic movement and that continues to move its listeners today.
John Worthen’s biography clears away the misconception of basic mental illness and allows us to see Schumann for the impressive creator he was, no matter how lamentable and unavoidable his end.
Here’s Claudio Arrau playing the first movement of the Schumann Piano Concerto in a 1963 performance (this is one of four parts on YouTube):
(Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician, was published by Yale University Press in August 2007, runs 496 pages and retails for $40. It’s an absorbing read, and an essential one for devotees of composer biography.)