Magazine article Musical Times

Sense & Sensibility

Magazine article Musical Times

Sense & Sensibility

Article excerpt

Sense & sensibility The life of Schumann Michael Musgrave Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 201 1); x, 224pp; £50, $85. ISBN 978 o 521 80248 2.

Cambridge university press's series Lives of the Composers necessarily varies from volume to volume, but most authors, I imagine, feel compelled to deal with the weight of their predecessors' work, one way or the other. David Wyn Jones's Beethoven, for instance, makes a point of cutting through the undergrowth of the many later books on the composer and goes back to consider the early documentation anew. For The Ufe of Bach I thought it useful to look again at the earliest biography, the Obituary, and 'deconstruct' its 'agenda'. For Schumann Michael Musgrave was in a very different situation, for so many stages in this biography can be backed by a huge number of personal letters and other accounts typical of that prolix age. Full and generous reference to these is usually assembled at the end of a paragraph, which is not always convenient for checking a particular point but avoids tiresome footnote-hiatuses and establishes Musgrave 's authority. Quite why CUP charges so much for a book with no music examples and no typesetting challenges I don't know, but a paperback must be in the offing?

This is a useful summary of a complicated man's life in a period when Great Artists Grosse Künstler) recorded sentiments and indulged their feelings which, it seems to have been thought, would alone help them write masterly compositions. The Romantics, in short. The music itself enters the picture as a sort of chronological checklist - what Schumann is working on and when - but is not a major concern. Some readers might find that limiting, although there are enough studies already relating this often exquisitely touching music to the composer's states of mind, from proud early self-knowledge through blissful marriage to unravelling mental capacities, and Musgrave 's summary is useful in its own way. There is some temptation to see the man in the music, as in the idea that 'the intense struggle of [certain] minorkey works' suggests 'a musical equivalent of physical struggle', and few people can resist connecting the famous burst of activity to the blossoming relations with Clara. Musgrave is discreet and well-informed on such matters, including the relevance of Schumann's putative bipolarity and/or syphilis, soberly reminding the reader that 'the causes of his health problems will always remain open'. (I remember a certain pianist years ago seeing Schumann's sometimes puzzling notation in the Piano Concerto as a sign of incipient lunacy. There's none of that nonsense here. …

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