- - Tuesday, December 11, 2018


By Judith Chernaik

Knopf, $30.00, 349 pages

It has long been fashionable for worshippers of “genius” to excuse the thorough nastiness of some of their idols with the all-purpose alibi that, for the truly brilliant, their work must come first with basic standards of decency running, at best, a poor second.

This dispensation is applied to historical characters as different as Napoleon (as military dictator), Lord Byron (as poet) and Richard Wagner (as composer). Each, in his own way, was a great talent and a rather miserable human being. Other than their considerable abilities, the one thing all three of them shared in common was narcissism on a truly monumental scale.

If their kind of greatness could only be achieved by ruthless egotism, the high price might be worth it. But even in their own lifetimes, there were heroic examples of achievement gained without the sacrifice of character and common decency. The upright, down-to-earth Duke of Wellington out-fought — and out-thought — Napoleon at Waterloo. Poets like Goethe and Heine proved that greatness could be attained without Byronic posturing and excess, and musicians like Felix Mendelssohn, Frederic Chopin and Johannes Brahms proved that, in music if not in baseball, good guys can also finish first.

Even a composer like Robert Schumann, whose life ended tragically thanks to what was almost certainly syphilis-induced paralysis and insanity, was an artist of great humanity, a humanity that shines through his musical legacy along with that of his wife, Clara, a brilliant pianist and gifted composer in her own right. Now they have both found a modern biographer, Judith Chernaik, who does them justice with grace and insight.

Because Schumann died relatively young and went into an artistic decline during his last years (he was only 46 at the time of his death in 1856), he tended to be overshadowed by longer-lived, charismatic “celebrity” composers like Franz Liszt and Wagner in the years immediately after his death. But, thanks in large part to the devotion of his dedicated widow, his music never went entirely out of fashion, and was systematically edited, disseminated, and, most importantly, reached audiences throughout Europe in recitals performed by Clara as one of the foremost pianists of her time.

Today, the works of Schumann are a major part of the classical repertoire and he is ranked with — or close to — younger contemporaries like Mendelssohn and Brahms whose talent he recognized early and encouraged generously. He was a wise, kind mentor and was remembered as such even as the shadow of illness overtook and destroyed him.

For this reviewer, it was particularly enjoyable to be introduced to Johannes Brahms as a penniless, aspiring newcomer, “twenty years old, slight of build, beardless, with clear blue eyes and thin fair hair falling to his shoulders,” especially as I had always pictured him as the bearded, occasionally acerbic musical old master of later years, when he actually played his famous “Lullaby” on the family piano in the childhood home of my dear old friend, the Austrian waltz and operetta master Robert Stolz (1880-1975). Maestro Stolz would later describe the scene to me when I collaborated with him on his memoirs.

Schumann was a product of the Romantic era whose music speaks to the heart as much as to the mind of the listener. But, unlike such composers as Liszt and Wagner, he was never an envious iconoclast building himself up by tearing down great composers of the past. Like most of the best Romantic masters, he was able to inject a new depth of feeling and warmth into his music without scrapping the many grace notes of the classical past.

In Judith Chernaik, Robert Schumann has been blessed with a skilled, knowledgeable biographer whose sympathetic eye and ear make Schumann the man and Schumann the artist equally accessible to the modern reader. There is even a helpful “Note on Performances Available on the Internet” to steer readers to some of the best modern — i.e., 20th century filmed and recorded — performances of Schumann’s music.

Ms. Chernaik deserves high applause both for reviving an important chapter in musical history and for giving a truly harmonious account of one of the greatest musical love stories of all time. She sums it up admirably in the closing lines of her afterword:

“The promise of their early love was realized in music of surpassing beauty, reaffirmed passionately in the face of Schumann’s recurrent illness, professional failure, and lack of public recognition. Clara Schumann was largely responsible for restoring her husband’s music to its central place in the lives of music lovers today.”

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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