Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius

Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius
By Peter Ostwald with Lise Deschamps Ostwald
Northeastern University Press; 416 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

To most classical music lovers, Robert Schumann will always be a prominent 19th century romantic composer who happened to be mentally ill. To Peter Ostwald, however, in his recently updated biography Schumann: the Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, Schumann is a sufferer of mental illness who happened to be a prominent composer. Originally published in 1985, this book contains an additional chapter (by Ostwald’s wife Lise Deschamps Ostwald) which sheds light on Schumann’s stay at a mental hospital before his death; little was known of this stay until now.

This comprehensive work primarily chronicles Schumann’s tragic mental illness. Ostwald, a physician himself, takes seriously any of the man’s ailments or complaints no matter how trivial and attempts to fit them into the broader picture of Schumann as psychiatric patient. So, headaches, earaches, insomnia, rheumatism, STDs, the problematic third finger of his right hand, and other medical problems get mentioned, often repeatedly. Of course, so do psychiatric symptoms such as depression and hallucinations, of which Schumann had many.

Schumann in this case is as much patient as he is biographical subject. Ostwald provides a clear distinction between psychoanalysis and psychobiography, and clearly this work is an example of the latter. Nevertheless, Ostwald offers much Freudian psychoanalysis of Schumann, delving into oedipal relationships, unconscious desires, father/mother figures, and repressed sexuality. Ostwald even supposes that Schumann’s suicidal leap into the Rhine “symbolized rebirth and the wish for magical reunion with an all-powerful parent.” The chapter on Schumann’s most glorious and fruitful period as a composer is called “Plateau, 1845–1849.” The penultimate chapter focuses on “the problem of diagnosis.”

Of course, Schumann’s music, voluminous writings, and friends and loved ones play crucial roles. His major works, such as Piano Concerto in A Minor, get approximately a paragraph each. Ostwald also explores how music either tempered or was a symptom of Schumann’s madness. Schumann’s wife Clara is portrayed as a beautiful, loyal, tough, and sometimes difficult person as she divides the burdens of motherhood and the concert hall onto each shoulder. Clara is everywhere in this book, as well she should be. Schumann’s own family gets more mention than many of his famous colleagues such as Chopin, Wagner, and Liszt. Only Felix Mendelssohn rises above the minor players, first as a kindly rival of Schumann’s and later as a dear friend and benefactor. The author describes how devastating his and his sister Fanny’s deaths were to both the Schumanns, more so than the death of one of their children.

Ostwald also does justice to Johannes Brahms, who befriended the Schumanns during Robert’s last years of life. Brahms is described as dashing and handsome and full of love for both Robert and Clara. When Clara was forbidden to visit Robert in the hospital (because the doctors feared it would agitate him), it was Brahms who kept the older man company and relayed messages between the spouses.

As we all know, Robert Schumann was hospitalized for insanity in 1854 and died two and a half years later. What we didn’t know until recently was what exactly happened during this period. Notes belonging to the physician running the asylum had curiously disappeared. Since Ostwald’s death in 1996, however, they have reappeared and now shine light on not only Schumann’s tragic decline but also the psychiatric practices of the day.

One is struck by the near-clinical approach taken in this biography. At times it reads like a medical report, as the most personal and painful details of this great artist are placed under the stark light of scientific scrutiny. It is an interesting approach to studying Robert Schumann, the passionate and hyper-emotional genius who typified the Romantic era of Classical music.

This book review appeared in the winter 2010 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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