Robert Schumann died in an asylum near Bonn in 1856, having committed himself there two years before, following a suicidal plunge into the Rhine near his home in Düsseldorf. He had had many periods of depression and anxiety before that, and biographers have tended to regard his life as a continuous fight against the congenital mental instability to which the deaths of his sister and father when he was in his teens have also been attributed. The black cloud at the end of Schumann's life has been seen as overshadowing everything on the way, but John Worthen's biography refuses idle teleology. An emeritus professor of English at the University of Nottingham, Worthen has written about D.H. Lawrence and the Wordsworth circle and makes no claim to musical expertise; but he has been seized by the Schumann case. Paying fierce attention to original sources, among them Schumann's autopsy report (printed as an appendix) and the domestic diaries that he kept jointly with his pianist wife, Clara, he shows that Schumann's problems can be explained without a theory of inherited madness. What Schumann faced was the purely physical nemesis of syphilis.
LRB 21 February 2008 | PDF Download