A guided tour through the life and work of Robert Schumann (1810-1956), a musical genius who viewed the sublime before a decline into a syphilitic madness.
Chernaik (Mab’s Daughters, 1991, etc.), who has taught at Columbia, Tufts, and elsewhere, has clearly devoted years of research to this lush life. Although she asserts in the introduction that she is aiming her work at “the general reader,” there are many places—especially in her analyses of individual works—where general readers will require some fairly sophisticated understandings of music. That caveat aside, Chernaik rewards those who do journey through these pages with insights and conclusions that make the reading experience both enjoyable and educative. She teaches us a lot about Schumann’s world and life, including details about his boyhood and his early love for Clara Wieck (the gifted pianist whom he would later marry), whose father’s angry opposition to their relationship courses throughout the early sections. (They had to go to court to obtain legal permission to marry.) Throughout, the author shows us a complicated composer. Fond of drink and of women, he had difficulty settling down; in later sections, we see his inability to conduct less-than-gifted musicians during a stint in Düsseldorf. Chernaik also chronicles his friendships with numerous other musical luminaries and legends, including Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Brahms also developed a crush on the older Clara Schumann, but nothing ensued. The author escorts us through Schumann’s most noteworthy works, and we see his frustration about not being able to compose a successful opera. She lets us know which works are still performed, and in agonizing detail, she rehearses Schumann’s descent into darkness in a chapter aptly titled, “The Mind Stripped Bare.”
A sturdy foundation of research and musical knowledge (and love) underlies this inspiring and wrenching account of a man who pursued, captured, and lost.