Double act: Robert Schumann with his wife, Clara, one of the leading pianists of the day, who acted as his gatekeeper (c.1850)
What's the matter with Schumann? A quarter of the way through what should be Schumann Year, I've scarcely heard a note of the man's music. It's only because I choose to that rarely does a week go by when I don't enjoy a good wallow in a work such as the Dichterliebe, the Piano Quintet or Kreisleriana. But the Chopin bicentenary steamroller is thundering along, clearing away everything in its path. Poor Schumann, born the same year, is barely getting a look-in.
The problem is that Schumann is not straightforward. To explore the issues underlying why he is neglected in this supposedly crucial year, we can allow the fun part to lead us into the jungle. First, an enjoyable DVD, The Schumann Experience: a drama in which Sir Roger Norrington, preparing to conduct the Second Symphony, dreams that he is Meister Raro, a figure from E. T. A. Hoffmann, trying to reconcile Schumann's contrasting imaginary alter-egos Florestan and Eusebius — both wonderfully acted by Simon Callow. Another DVD, Twin Spirits, comes from Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, based on Schumann and his wife Clara's letters and diaries: it's a real tearjerker. And a German movie, Geliebte Clara, starring Martina Gedeck (of The Lives of Others fame), has been praised by those I know who've seen it, but so far seems to have eluded UK distribution.
Why are there so many dramatic adaptations? First, a mass of source material exists in Schumann's own words: he wrote prolifically, edited a magazine, cultivated an erudite style and nearly became an author instead of a composer. Next, his romance with Clara Wieck, whom he married after fierce opposition from her father, has enchanted generations of music lovers. So has his championship of the young Johannes Brahms, who himself fell madly in love with Clara. Last but not least, Schumann was nuts.
Steering well clear of the "madness and genius" chestnut, the most fascinating thing is that while all the biographies of Schumann, studies of his music, critical essays, academic papers, novels and stage presentations could probably fill a mansion, few seem to agree on exactly what was wrong with him.
I recently invested in a fascinating book, Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician by John Worthen (Yale, 2007), which propounds that Schumann's mental malady was caused entirely by tertiary syphilis. All other possibilities are swept aside, and the author scarcely mentions the word "Brahms". Meanwhile, other studies have posited that Schumann was bipolar, instead of, or as well as, syphilitic. There's even a theory that he was bisexual and in love with Brahms (it was only five months after meeting Brahms that Schumann attempted suicide). Above all, we are still arguing about exactly what effect Schumann's malady had on his music.
Schumann was a far more progressive composer than many of us are conditioned to imagine. We usually hear — in a drastic oversimplification — that in approximately the second half of the 19th century, some composers championed "pure music", while others sought extra-musical associations, personal "programmes" (stories) leading to experimentation with structure and content; ultimately a stylistic rift occurred in which Brahms is seen as representative of one side and Liszt of the other. Schumann precedes this — sort of. Yet in one way, it was his madness, if madness it was, that changed the course of musical history.