Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review

Schumann: The Faces and The Masks by Judith Chernaik

Book Review by Larry Ruttman

Publication Date: September 18, 2018. Publisher: Knopf

Can a book about famed 19th Century composer, Robert Schumann, enlighten the reader about the causes of the Holocaust which occurred almost one hundred years later, and lead some of them to conclude that man is capable of anything, that it could happen again and again, and that man, shackled by his nature, is fated to commit such acts forever. Not that the book is not enlightening about the music of this prolific, individual, and romantic composer and his virtuoso wife, pianist and composer, Clara Wieck Schumann, as discussed below. Strikingly, from original sources now available, Judith Chernaik demonstrates the exceedingly close and warm relationship musically and personally between almost exact contemporaries Robert Schumann and his idol, Felix Mendelssohn, who arrived at international stardom well prior to Schumann himself. Understanding this complex relationship is enlightening as to how the Holocaust could have come about in a personal and emotional way that the history books and documentaries cannot. While these two immortal composers collaborated, socialized, and wrote warmly and intimately to each other, dark and ominous secrets lay beneath. Felix came from a converted upper class German Jewish banking family of distinction. His grandfather was the famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn. Felix looked at ordinary German society from a higher vantage point than Robert who sprung from that society which carried in it, almost as a birthright, its broad suspicion, envy, and even hatred of Jews and Jewish culture. This was evident in the secret diaries of Robert and Clara, unknown to Felix. But were Robert and Clara really anti-Semites, surrounded by, working and friends with a plethora of Jewish musicians like Mendelssohn himself, his composer and pianist sister, Fanny, famed violinist Joseph Joachim, and others like violinist Ferdinand David, pianist and composer Ignaz Moscheles, conductor and composer Ferdinand Hiller, and poet, Heinrich Heine, whose poems inspired the poetry loving Schumann to musical composition?

Were Robert and Clara so indoctrinated with that belief that had they lived in the next century they would have joined Hitler's minions? Was Mendelssohn himself right or wrong as he approached death to bitterly disgorge himself of his friendship for Schumann without even telling him, believing him to have been the source of anti-Semitic comments about Felix published in the Leipzig newspapers? “Jews remain Jews,” as Robert Schumann wrote in his secret diary. Seen in this light it becomes clear that the Jews in Germany, converted or not, believing themselves to be German, never were Germans in the eyes of their countrymen, and that no matter how close their friendships with Germans became they were always secondary to anti-Jewish feelings if released.

We know that that release was provided by Adolf Hitler's rise to power and his forming a Reich which saw Robert Schumann as a musical hero and a dedicated anti-Semite, and Mendelssohn as a non-person. Nor did the manifold contributions by German Jews to German society in the arts and other fields alleviate anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it promoted deep envy. Do Jews in America labor under a similar cloud today? Might it be that had Robert and Clara been born later they might have joined Hitler as ‘willing executioners?’ Banish the thought! Could Robert Schumann, the creator of countless sublime compositions have taken such a role? Could Clara Schumann, a creator in her own right, and a superb pianist celebrated all over Europe for over fifty years, have acted similarly? How might we answer, reading what Robert confided to his diary?

“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 always work for ourselves.”

Robert shared this with Clara who, the author tells us, responded in kind, saying, “Perhaps we should not be as friendly to Mendelssohn as before.”

Yet Schumann wrote many unbuttoned warm words before and after that to and about Mendelssohn like, “Love and veneration are the feelings he always inspires.” Ms. Chernaik quite fairly lays out all the evidence for and against the level of virulence of Schumann’s plainly spoken anti-Semitism, but essentially lets him off the hook, a conclusion with which one can disagree for reasons both factual (his statement to his diary above sounds like a Nazi manifesto, and did so to the Nazis), and philosophically, as stated below.

Whatever may be the truth about the relationship of Robert and Clara Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn, these details demonstrate indelibly yet again a long held truth about human nature as opposed to the nature of all other living creatures: that any man is capable of practically any act good or evil at any given time in his life. It teaches that the Holocaust was inescapable given a leader who could and did ignite the fire, a fire which could be ignited again anywhere anytime given the right circumstances.

Does anything in this retelling negate the importance and artistic relevance of these three lives, especially that of the supremely gifted Robert Schumann, as detailed by the author. In no way! All people are an admixture. The world accounts each of them as both good and profoundly productive people, unlike their contemporary, Richard Wagner, generally thought to be an admixture of a very bad man with a supremely original genius. So goes life in all its contradictions for mankind for ever and ever!

There can be no doubt about the intensity, sincerity, and uninterrupted quality of the passionately physical and intellectual love affair between Robert and Clara Schumann, starting when Robert was an adult living as a student in the Wieck house when Clara was a child, but not consummated until their marriage several years later against the long, unreasoning, and cruel opposition of Clara's father, Friedrich Wieck, an early teacher and advocate of Schumann, who bitterly turned against him when Robert and Clara planned marriage. Wieck went so far as to enlist the aid of more courts than one to attempt to block a union which ultimately produced eight children in little over a decade of married life. It was a love affair to remember, as movie makers on both sides of the Atlantic depicted several times. The author reprints many letters exchanged between the two, perhaps more of them than are required, to bring home to the reader the love of each for the other through the early years of their friendship, the years they lived together, the years of Schumann's institutionalization following his suicide attempt plunging himself into the Rhine after leaving his house in a February rain dressed only in his dressing gown and slippers, and the many years after his death when Clara guarded his papers, compositions, and legacy, claiming and reclaiming for him his position now as perhaps the foremost composer of the mid-nineteenth Century Romantic explosion in music, even including Mendelssohn.

Ms. Chernaik's skills at carefully reading and analyzing the medical records left behind at Endenich, the mental hospital where Schumann was confined after his suicide attempt and loss of sanity, allow the reader to see Schumann’s mind and body dissolving by quoting his letters to Clara, recounting the observations of his visiting friends, Johannes Brahms (the last of several great musicians he championed) and violinist, Joseph Joachim, while trying desperately to reclaim his previous life. The account clearly answers the old question of what the cause of his death was: tertiary syphilis, contracted in his early years by the incautious indulgence of his powerful sexual drive with ladies of the night.

In this book the richness of detail about Robert Schumann’s fascinating and interesting personal and musical life whets one’s appetite to hear more of his very original and individual music beyond the often heard symphonies, concertos, certain familiar orchestral and chamber works, songs, and dramatic works. And how rewarding this is! How well Schumann’s music reflects his life at any given moment. How truly his music deserves the description, Romantic. How easily his gift for melody and feeling reaches the heart. It will be rewarding for one to listen closely for the first time to certain of the composers' songs, oratorios, religious, and other works such as his arresting late violin concerto, dismissed shockingly for many years until the 20th Century as the product of a diseased mind, and his fourth symphony written in 1841, revised substantially by Schumann in 1851, played sparingly in either form until recently, both of which are uniformly arresting.

It may be that Ms. Chernaik’s musically knowing and illuminating remarks about technical details in many of Schumann's compositions will baffle non-musicians, although reading them through offers any reader here and there insights to help make the master's idiosyncratic music come alive. In short, this is a book for both musicians and lay people about a composer who is highly regarded for sure, but who may deserve and attain even greater recognition and status moving forward.

This estimable book answers in detail questions about Schumann’s life and persona which before had only existed in outline for most music lovers: his many masks, created by him as doubles for himself, named for the impetuous Florestan and the sensitive Eusubius, and employed by him as the composers of his works or as the occasion required, behind which he hid his true self, as the author puts it, and which Schumann seemed to be able to put largely aside as his life went on, his fame spread, and his self-esteem grew; the many faces he presented to family, even Clara, friends, and acquaintances, shown most typically in selective and differing biographies he wrote from time to time, leaving his heartfelt music as the one close to accurate barometer of who Robert Schumann really was; his early love affairs; his contraction of syphilis; his deep sexuality, sprayed promiscuously in his youth, and shared lovingly with Clara as a loving husband; his fathering of an illegitimate child; his overuse of alcohol; his literary, critical, and writing interests and abilities; his founding of, editing, and writing for a musical journal widely read all over Europe; his liberal political views; his social clumsiness; his inability as a conductor; his struggles to get his music accepted; his legal struggles; his contacts and relationships with a dizzying array of great composers and instrumentalists such as Mendelssohn, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz, Joachim, Wagner, Clara herself, and many others; how Clara set aside her composing to advance Robert’s career as a composer; and the true facts of his descent into illness, institutionalization, and an early death. If the foregoing account sounds like a man you would want to know more about, then you should read this book!

Indeed, this fast moving and economically stated book is for music lovers and musicians both, balancing biography with musical analysis by the author, a musician herself, of many of Schumann’s works. It is recommended for its literary and musical qualities and its ability to open the mind to historical existential issues inherent in the study of the life of Robert Schumann.