Our book today is Schumann, Eric Frederick Jensen’s 2001 entry in the “Master Musicians” series from Oxford University Press, and it has some fairly thankless work to do. The divide between an artist’s life and work is always pitiless to those poor ink-stained wretches who feel called upon to bridge it for the elucidation of others, but Schumann takes that problem to a more frightening level than most, because the divide in his case was so wide it forms a chasm (a poet might say that Schumann eventually fell headlong into that chasm at the end of his life, but thankfully, I’m no poet).
Of all the musicians of his era (he was born in 1801, the same year as Chopin – Liszt, Wagner, and Verdi would all be born within the next few years), he is biggest enigma and, despite the completely compulsive journal-keeping and letter-writing in which he indulged for the whole of his life, the least knowable. Jensen makes good and industrious use of his subject’s endless diaries and household books (what he bought, where he bought it, what he needs to buy, what he’s likely to be overcharged for it, etc.), and his account does all the things a standard musical-life is supposed to do. There are good solid analyses of the major musical works, brief and well-done potted descriptions of the musical and social institutions of the time, and a month-by-month account of the composer’s famous – and famously troubled – courtship with the celebrated pianist Clara Wieck.
At every turn, Jensen is ready with precise details of what took place, to whom, and where. And yet, Schumann isn’t there. Or rather, two Schumanns are – the Schumann of the life, and the Schumann of the music. And they’re so different it’s doubtful they’d even have recognized each other if they’d met on a crowded Dresden street.
The Schumann of the life was a solid, boring, plodding, workaday fellow, a lowbrow German who liked his endless cigars, his beer in the afternoon, his leisurely flip through a flimsy newspaper of entirely subservient political adherence. That Schumann became quite well known for the strong, steady stream of musical criticism he wrote for the Zeitshrift and other German periodicals. That Schumann could spend whole days worrying about money or fame, and purr like an engine when he had some (in 1849 he said “I am completely content with the recognition which has come my way in ever greater measure” – impossible even to imagine Chopin saying something similar, or Berlioz, or Liszt).
That Schumann was the predictable Teutonic catastrophe in his lovemaking, at one point writing to poor Clara, “I often think of you, not as a brother thinks of a sister, nor as a boyfriend thinks of a girlfriend, but as a pilgrim before a distant shrine.” And whenever that Schumann completed a work – especially the work of the late 1830s and 1840s, he unfailingly sent copies to every major German music critic, as faithful and insistent as a Hollywood publicity hack. And ‘hack’ is the word – his output during those 15 years equaled or surpassed what many other composers produce in a lifetime, and productivity at that level exacted its usual price: nine-tenths of those countless productions are stiff, formalistic, completely unoriginal (if there was major composer who recycled himself more often than Schumann, I don’t know who he is) and instantly forgettable.
Ironic, then, that so much of it was inspired by its own exact opposite: Jensen reports the famous encounter:
On the day before Easter Sunday 1830, [Schumann] traveled to Frankfurt to hear the violinist Niccolo Paganini. Paganini, without question the most flamboyant virtuoso of his day, was then at the height of his success. His technique dazzled and astounded those who heard him, including seasoned musicians. For Schumann, Paganini’s performance on 11 April was a revelation. Although disturbed by Paganini’s showmanship – the beginning of Schumann’s questioning of the role of virtuosity – he was enthralled by his artistry and musicianship. Paganini’s performance had a profound effect on him.
Unfortunately, some of the very same defects the worldly-life Schumann so often displayed have been picked up by his impressionable biographer, and so passages like that one abound in bloated redundancies. “Dazzled and astounded,” “artistry and showmanship,” “revelation” and “profound effect” … all jostling to tell an exciting story boringly.
Partly this is just Jensen’s writing – the prose of his book won’t remind you very strongly of any great musical life you might have read – but part of it also is his determination to do his full biographer’s duty by his subject. To this end he naturally – if regrettably – over-praises pretty much everything Schumann ever wrote. Great locust-clouds of compositions come flying at him, and he admires them all:
Given the many pieces Schumann sketched or contemplated writing (and taking into consideration the tribulations of his personal life), the actual number of pieces completed to his satisfaction during the years 1830 to 1833 is impressive: The Abegg Variations op. 1, Papillions op. 2, two sets of Paganini etudes (op. 3 and op. 10), the Intermezzi op. 4, the Allegro op. 8, the Toccata op. 7, and the Impromptus op. 5.
That the composer of some of these pieces might have been ham-handedly trying to ape the loonier Romantic excesses of his time seems not to be on Jensen’s mind, and even when he comes across hints of the other Schumann, the art-Schumann, he just beetles forward, neatly folding into his narrative some contradictions that might have given a more poetical biographer pause. The syncopation, the weird, rattling tonal constrasts, the hemiola of the Intermezzi, for instance, sidled cheek-to-cheek with so much bland recycling, bespeaks a mind at the brink of a chasm.
And even in such a buttoned down programmatic biography as this one, that other Schumann – the vaguely dangerous one, the strange one, the terminally sad one – peeks through all the time. Yes, he send fawning copies of all his work to music critics and chortled over his bank balance a little more often than was good for the Romantic public image, but as often as he did those things, he also did things like compose his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, a work, as Jensen points out, that’s as flat-out weird today as it was 150 years ago:
Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust is not an opera: there is no recognizable dramatic flow, and a staging of the work would make little sense. But neither is it an oratorio in the conventional manner. What Schumann produced were musical setting of excerpts from Faust, settings that assume the listener’s familiarity with Goethe’s two Faust dramas.
(To make matters worse, the majority of its scenes are taken from Faust II, Goethe’s far less popular self-indulgently wandering extended coda to his world-famous Faust I).
At least as much as the fairly commonplace ‘domestic turmoil’ to which Jensen always alludes, the tension between those two different Schumanns took an enormous toll on the artist. He was always going through one neurasthenic complaint or another, and in 1844 he suffered a so-called nervous breakdown. There were suicide attempts, and another, far more serious breakdown in 1854, after which Schumann was confined to an asylum (Jensen is particularly good at evoking the horror of such incarcerations during this period) for the rest of his life.
I myself have a personal illustration of the divide between the two Schumanns. In 1986, I was lucky enough to hear the world’s greatest pianist give a wide-ranging concert of powerful works to a packed house. If that pianist had announced beforehand that his entire program would consist of Schumann, there would have been plenty of empty seats, and that’s part of the enduring mystery of Schumann that I’m trying to describe here. He’s there, in the canon, unhummable, incapable of being referenced or synopsized – a terror in large doses because we still don’t know what to think about him.
But after the riot of applause for that pianist had died down, he laid his enormous hands on the keyboard and slowly released the sweetest, most delicately melancholy little piece into the suddenly total silence. In an instant, the eyes of bored matrons became almost girlish with wistfulness; Brezhnev-faced businessmen wept openly; the melody twisted and gently flowed up and down aisles like strong fog, and none of us could remember where it has started, and even though it wasn’t really a happy sound, nobody wanted it to end. And it was Schumann, new and strange again despite everything fourteen decades could do.
“My entire life has been a twenty-year struggle between poetry and prose,” Schumann once wrote (to his mother, naturally – Germans!). Pity poor Jensen trying to mediate that struggle. He does a creditable job – we have yet to see a biographer who could do it perfectly.