Biographies of Robert Schumann began appearing in print in 1858, the year after his death. He is now, as he was then, a biographer's dream--clearly a genius, brilliant but uneven, highly literary both in his talents and in the shape taken by his life. He lived under a shadow of doom, in an environment of constant struggle. His youth was marked by a bitter battle--finally settled in court--to win the hand of the woman he loved against the determined and scurrilous opposition of her possessive father.
He won this struggle, and the prize was worth it. Clara Wieck, who became Clara Schumann, was an extraordinary woman, a child prodigy who matured into one of the great pianists of her time, a notable composer and wife and mother (eight children!) who bore extraordinary difficulties with indomitable spirit. For years, her own work was sacrificed to that of her husband; she gave up her own ambitions as a composer to help Robert's career, and her skills as a performer, besides helping to support the large family, were used to keep his music in the public eye.
At its happiest and most productive, Schumann's life had a feverish taint. He had a way of concentrating on one kind of music to the exclusion of all others for prolonged periods--most happily in the amazing production of piano miniatures in the late 1830s and then the even more remarkable production of his "Lieder year," 1840, when he composed some of the world's greatest song cycles as well as many individual songs of extraordinary quality. He was haunted by aspirations slightly beyond his reach--sometimes reinforced by Clara's encouragement--as in his unfulfilled ambition to compose a great opera and his imperfectly fulfilled ambitions as a symphonist.
His end was tragic--even more so because he could clearly see it coming. He tried to commit suicide before being confined--at his own imperious request--to an insane asylum, where his life ebbed away a few years later. His last years were a time of disintegration, physical and mental, clearly traceable today not only in letters, diaries and medical reports, but in the music he continued to compose.
In spite of the uncommonly thorough documentation of his life, there are traces of mystery that probably never will be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. What were the causes of the strange (and probably to some degree self-induced) disability that incapacitated his right hand, making it impossible to become a virtuoso pianist? Apparently some kind of mechananism was involved, very likely one invented by Schumann to strengthen his fingers. But there are question marks everywhere. Even the number of fingers incapacitated is uncertain.
Similarly, the disease that destroyed his life still is treated as a sort of mystery. The available evidence seems compatible with the theory that Schumann died of syphilis, but there often seems to be a reluctance to say so flatly--perhaps because it introduces a jarring note into one of the world's great love stories but also because his wife and numerous children showed no sign of the disease. Whatever it was, it was devastating, and full details are available from the report of Dr. Franz Richarz who performed the autopsy:
"The blood vessels were dilated, especially at the base of the brain, there was ossification at the base of the skull, and a considerable atrophy of the brain as a whole, which weighed almost seven ounces less than it should have done in a man of Schumann's age. The serious disease that these features betray had its roots," Richarz continued, "in his early life, gradually infected his entire being and ultimately brought about his madness. His intense mental activity during the periods when his state of health had permitted it had increased the strain and accelerated the progress of his disintegration."
This sad, clinical paragraph sums up a life that seems to come right out of a 19th-century novel. Add the elements of genius and the vivid events in his courtship and winning of Clara, and the material becomes too strong for most novelists--ideal, in short, for a biographer who does not demand suspension of disbelief and can nail skeptics with footnotes.
The disadvantage of approaching this rich material is that one has little chance of startling the world with originality. The basic material has been known for nearly a century and a half to anyone who had an interest. Those who knew Schumann were voluminous writers, as he was himself, not only in his role as founder and editor of the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, one of the most distinguished music periodicals of his time, but also in the diary that he and Clara kept assiduously. A new biographer's competition begins with J.W. von Wasielewski, a musical colleague of his later years, whose pioneering biography was reprinted repeatedly throughout the 19th century. It includes his daughter Eugenie who wrote several memoirs, his wife and his protege Brahms, whose published letters impinge on his story as well as spinning out their own.
Against such competition, Ronald Taylor, who is both a pianist and a literary scholar, has not tried to produce a definitive study but rather a fresh, readable one, based on a new examination of the abundant source material and distinguished primarily by the focus of his particular background and interests, not by startling new material. It is a modest goal and one that he achieves. His particular strength lies in two areas--a specially acute awareness of the literary dimensions in Schumann's musical talent, and a systematic correlation of the music with the life. He returns again and again to the composer's state of mind as a key to understanding the structures in his music, and examines the music as an index to his state of mind at a particular period. This has to be done largely by assertion rather than detailed analysis--otherwise the book would require many volumes--but his assertions are generally credible. Schumann's biography is, in fact, reflected in his music to a remarkable degree--far more than one could find in Bach or Mozart or all but a small fraction of Beethoven's work. Taylor's biographical approach would not do for many composers, but it does quite well for the one he has chosen.