Schumann: The Faces and the Masks by Judith Chernaik

Schumann: The Faces and the Masks
By Judith Chernaik
Knopf, 2018

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The great composer Robert Schumann receives a sharp, knowing, and complicatedly sympathetic treatment in his latest biography, Schumann: The Faces and the Masks by Judith Chernaik, who fills her book (a heavy, handsomely-designed thing from Knopf) with Schumann’s music but keeps her focus always on the man. Schumann hasn’t lacked for biographers since his death in 1856, although in the 21st century outside of classical music circles there’s certainly an argument to be made that his music lacks for devoted fans. Chernaik does everything she can to change this; not only does her book feature some of the most passionate appreciations of Schumann’s music ever written in English, but she leaves her readers very specific and very encouraging instructions on how to find every last note of that music for free online (YouTube alone provides countless hours of such listening, in recordings new and old, legendary and reprehensible).

It may be for naught; it’s entirely possible that the price Schumann’s music pays for speaking so electrically to his original Romantic era audience is that it will speak in increasingly muffled tones to all subsequent times. But in Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, the story of the music, whether it be the criminally underrated symphonies or the interminable Leider, is expertly intertwined with the well-known details of the weird broken-field obstacle-course that was the man’s life, the dramatic highlight of course was Schumann’s marriage to Clara Wieck, the daughter of his revered music teacher. Chernaik pays generous attention to Schumann the writer, and she makes extensive use of Robert and Clara’s notes and correspondence to illustrate their relationships with the other great artists of their day, even when, as in the case of Felix Mendelssohn, the illustration is anything but flattering to her hero:

Schumann admired Mendelssohn above all other musicians, but there were recurrent tensions. An entry in the marriage diary reveals his ambivalence, tinged with the anti-Semitism that was endemic at the time, an insidious mixture of envy and resentment. “Clara told me that I seemed to have changed toward Mendelssohn: surely not toward him as an artist, as you know - for years I have contributed so much to promoting him, more than almost anyone else. In the meantime - let us not neglect ourselves too much. Jews remain Jews; first they take a seat ten times for themselves, then come the Christians. The stones we have helped gather for their Temple of Glory they occasionally throw at us ... We must also work for ourselves.” Clara responded in kind. Perhaps they should not be as friendly to Mendelssohn as before.

And of course the shadow surrounding any life of Schumann is the tragic end of that life, a protracted process of deterioration and thwarted hope that Chernaik follows every step of the way in brutal detail. For most of his adulthood, Schumann was plagued by dark moods and strange obsessions, eventually reaching a point of such despair that he feared for the safety of the people around him and wanted himself committed to an asylum. In these crises, Clara’s own accounts are heartbreaking:

He often had moments at night when he begged me to go from him, because he might do me harm! To calm him I went out of his sight, then returned to him ... Often he lamented that his mind wasn’t right, and he feared it would soon be over with him - then he bade me farewell, and put all his money and compositions in order, etc. ... Then suddenly at 9:30 pm he rose from the sofa and wanted to have his clothes, for he said he must go to an asylum, for his senses were no longer working, and he had no idea what he might do during the night ... Robert put everything in order that he wanted to take with him, watch, money, note paper, pens, cigars, in short everything with the clearest care, and when I asked him, “Robert, will you leave your wife and children?” he answered, “It will not be for long, I shall soon be cured ...”

He wasn’t cured, and Chernaik joins the ranks of biographers and experts who diagnose the problem as tertiary syphilis. It makes for a melancholy end to every Schumann biography, but even so, Schumann: The Faces and the Masks leaves a mostly joyful lasting impression, an emphasis on the boggling variety and genius of the composer’s music. That emphasis is wise, and it yields a tremendously persuasive portrait.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Spectator, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.