Among the Immortals - Robert Schumann

What are we to make of Robert Schumann? Living in a century of unbalanced geniuses—Poe, Nietzsche, Maupassant, van Gogh—Schumann ranks as one of the most complex. Airing his bipolar nature publicly in the form of the fictional figures Florestan, the extroverted idealist, and Eusebius, the introverted dreamer, and writing music heavily coded with people and events, Schumann lived his art to such a degree that his anxious personal life and his mercurial compositions became one and the same. Bravely balancing domestic tranquility with inner torment, he wrote works that have become staples of the Western repertoire. At the same time, he composed pieces that continue to produce universal head-scratching. Schumann fought for the cause of good music, but what was truly at stake, it seems, was his own sanity: He eventually threw himself into the Rhine in a failed suicide attempt and ended up in a straitjacket in an asylum. Here is a figure troubled enough for the 21st century!

Schumann’s life and work receive close scrutiny in this new biography by a senior German music scholar and author of more than a dozen books, including a widely admired study of Bach. Presented here in a deft, finely nuanced translation, Martin Geck’s volume first appeared in German three years ago as part of the bicentennial celebration of Schumann’s birth. The timing was propitious, for a host of new documents and insights made a reappraisal of Schumann’s complicated career most appropriate.

Geck takes the unusual approach of supplementing the 12 chapters of his book with 9 short intermezzi. The chapters cover the obligatory biographical bases and take the reader through Schumann’s life phase-by-phase. In the intermezzi, Geck pauses to explore special aspects of the composer and his work, such as the influence of Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre (The Awkward Age, from which Schumann claimed to have learned more counterpoint than anywhere else); Genoveva (Schumann’s well-intentioned but ill-fated opera); and the magic of allusions, or narrative elements, in Schumann’s music. The succinct, whimsical intermezzi are not unlike the flittering digressions in Schumann’s works, where forward motion is commonly interrupted by episodic detours. In addition, Geck analyzes Schumann’s music more by metaphor than by traditional theory. This allows him to address individual pieces on their own psychological terms.

Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau, a small town some 50 miles south of Leipzig. His father published and sold books, and Schumann demonstrated both literary and musical gifts at an early age. From adolescence onward, he consciously strove to become an “artist of genius,” writing his first curriculum vitae at age 14 and starting the lifelong habit of documenting the intimate details of his day-to-day activities through journals, travel logs, housekeeping books, marriage diaries, and hundreds of letters. (As an adult, Schumann even noted intercourse on his personal calendar.)

In high school, he formed a literary society with his school chums that fostered heady discussions of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Ludwig Tieck, Jean Paul, and other Romantic writers. As Geck points out, the young Schumann was deeply impressed by Flegeljahre’s contrasting twins Vult and Walt, who would become models for his own soon-to-be-born characters. It is hard to imagine Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven indulging in such literary fantasies. The suicide of Schumann’s older sister Emilie in 1825 foreshadowed dark things to come.

Following the death of his father, in 1826, Schumann enrolled at the university in Leipzig. Pushed by his mother to pursue law, he focused instead on literature. In his spare time, he drank and smoked with his fellow students and studied piano with the well-known pedagogue Friedrich Wieck, whose 12-year-old daughter Clara, a budding piano prodigy, would later become Schumann’s wife. In his 20th year, Schumann presented a magnificent piano recital, but shortly thereafter wrote in his diary of finger problems, which soon became full-blown paralysis. Splints, alcohol baths, and herbal treatments provided no relief, and for the rest of his life Schumann avoided the use of the index finger in his right hand when playing the piano. This precluded the life of a virtuoso, leaving writing and composing as his best alternatives.

Two years later, Schumann experienced his first serious bouts of “melancholia.” He chose to fight off depression by immersing himself in work, in this case launching a semiweekly music journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), filled with reviews, essays, chronicles, and reports from correspondents. This allowed him to create his own imaginary world, reporting the latest developments in music through the characters of Florestan, Eusebius, Master Raro (a thinly veiled portrait of Friedrich Wieck), and Zilia-Chiara-Chiarina (a composite portrait of Clara Wieck) from the “League of David”—a fictional band of solders engaged in battle with musical philistines.

The Neue Zeitschrift was a remarkable undertaking for a 23-year-old, and for the next 12 years Schumann ran it mostly as a one-man show, singlehandedly ushering in a “new poetic age” through the imaginative magic of his pen. As Geck nicely expresses it, Schumann succeeded by fusing reality and fiction, poetry and politics, public and private reports, artistic ideals and self-promotion. He wrote more than 2,500 letters to correspondents and fielded more than 5,500 in return. The Neue Zeitschrift became the musical forum for tracking the development of German Romanticism. Its passionate, highly personal accounts still make for lively reading today.

At the same time, Schumann began to publish the piano pieces that made him famous, suites of vividly painted character pieces that appeared in steady succession after 1831: the Abegg Variations, Papillons, Faschingsschwank aus Wien (“Carnival Prank from Vienna”), Carnaval, Kinderscenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), and Kreisleriana (Hoffmann’s tales of the mad Kapellmeister Kreisler). Written in a narrative style, the works dwell on memories and thoughts without following traditional models. Masquerade balls, carnival pranks, and youthful memories fly by in whimsical processions. When listening to the pieces, one has the impression of Schumann improvising on the piano in his parlor, brandy and cigar in hand. As he wrote in his diary: “Notes in themselves cannot really paint what the emotions have not already portrayed.”

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