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Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician Paperback – May 18, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (May 18, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300163983
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300163988
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #897,777 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a very well written and nicely paced account of Schumann's life that draws heavily on his and Clara Schumann's diaries. Schumann's private personality emerges very nicely, and goes a long way towards dispelling the myths that were created by a tradition of biography in which the observations of those that did not know Schumann well took center stage and exaggerated the pathological elements of his personality and his eccentricities. Schumann was of course still a very unusual and unique man, but this is revealed in the context of the arc his entire life and in the context of his relationship with Clara.

This book is also a very good choice for those that are uncomfortable with the technical language of music and music notation. Schumann's music is not dealt with in these terms, but rather in the context of his life and musical development. This treatment is thorough enough, however, that those who are more familiar with music will gain much in reading it.

One quibble I have with the book is that I find Worthen's concept of manic-depressive disorder (bipolar I) very narrow, if not outright wrong at times. For example, he mentions times in which Schumann was particularly agitated and hyper-sensitive for periods of weeks or months. In doing so, he stresses that Schumann is not depressed since he is not showing the classic signs of depression that would characterize the depressive state of manic-depressive disorder, and that he was still able to work effectively through these periods. As someone who is familiar with this subject, my own thoughts are that these periods sound in fact, VERY much like dysphoric MANIC states or mixed states, which are often seen in patients with bipolar disorder and often misinterpreted by non-specialists.
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Format: Hardcover
Solidly researched, splendidly argued, John Worthen's Schumann biography takes an untraditional approach. Every biography of the composer I've read stresses a schizophrenic or bipolar personality leading to madness and death in an asylum. Worthen strenuously argues for a physiological cause for Schumann's end. Even if Worthen turns out to be wrong, I find this the most nuanced account of Schumann's personality, and the prose is tremendous, besides. Worthen does not set out to give us an account of Schumann's music, but of the man. This might be frustrating for people who want to explore the music, but Schumann -- unlike many composers -- had a personality that justifies this kind of approach.
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Format: Paperback
Pros:
Very well written, easy to read. Rather thouroughly documented. Sufficiently illustrated. Academic in the sense that year-long accepted "truths" about Schumann's (mental) health are questioned and challenged. After reading this book I think you have a good picture of the life (and death) of Robert Schumann.

Cons:
It's a tricky business to "diagnose" people deceased centuries ago, only based on diaries, doctor's comments, etc. (what was the level of medical expertise in Leipzig in the first half of the nineteenth century? Some of remarks by several doctor's seem to have been taken at face-value) Although Worthen makes well documented assumptions about Schumann's health, there remains an element of uncertainty and doubt. After all, you never saw the "patient"...
At times I find the book too apologetic towards Schumann. His social skills seem to have been under-developed(creating, on a personal level, problems with visitors, but also on a professional level with choirs and orchestras). Some of his works were not that great, especially some larger-scale works. For these, and other, aspects of Schumann (and his works) Worthen tries hard, but in my view not always very convincing, to find reason's and excuses. And why? Even if he wrote some lesser works, even if he wasn't very social, he is still a great composer of eternally beautiful music.

Also, at some points there are some odd remaks in this book, e.g. when Clara had a miscarriage it is stated that she was not too sad about it (at this point I would have appreciated supporting documentation). Also, the statement that Schumann was the first composer to compose for his children struck me as strange: J.S. Bach e.g.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is extremely detailed. Many, many pages, for instance, cover the enmity of Clara's father toward Robert Schumann and then toward his own daughter. That the three of them were eventually reconciled to some degree is carefully detailed, and astonishingly it is clear that Clara herself never entirely lost her affection for the wrathful old man.

Of course the tragedy of Schumann's life was his early infection with syphilis. He was never completely well after that and he was often very sick. In the end it took his mind and his life.

Nevertheless, he pursued his career in music with determination despite the want of adequate income and the early indifference of the public. And despite the arrival of so many children, Clara continued her appearances as a piano virtuoso. Among the most interesting episodes is their long, arduous trip to Russia where she gave a performance even for the Royal Family.

For the rest of this long biography I proceeded to do much skipping. The financial difficulties of the growing family, for instance, consume many pages that become tediously repetitive.

Moreover for a reader like myself, who knows nothing about music, there are a great many discussions of Schumann's works which I chose to avoid. Those who understand music, however, will no doubt relish those portions.

Especially interesting to me are the relationships between Schumann and various other leading composers such as Liszt and Wagner.

This biography generally flows easily and logically; I found virtually no place where one must pause to figure out what the author is saying.
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