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Schumann being: madness, music and marriage

A new biography of Robert Schumann by Poetry on the Underground’s Judith Chernaik has sent Gerald Isaaman in search of Alexa

13 December, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman

German composer Robert Schumann, aged 39

POETS going back centuries were the first reporters of the past. And in some ways that remains true amid today’s outpouring of fake news thanks to Poetry on the Underground, launched more than 30 years ago and still maintained by Judith Chernaik.

The joy of words read by those squeezed into London’s rush-hour tube trains has hopefully helped subdue the stink of anger felt by the concern over the increasing knife deaths in the capital, let alone the fears of Brexit or crashing out of the EU.

Yet there is one other calming influence in our tumultuous world – and that surely must be music of all kinds which, thanks to Alexa and earphone devices you can switch on at any time, whether it be from the classics, musicals, pop or, like me, the joys of jazz.

And thanks to Judith’s latest enterprise, a much-praised biography of the genius of the German composer Robert Schumann, Alexa has given me an introduction to the romantic magic of his music.

More than that Judith has been able to study at her home in Mansfield Road, Hampstead, unpublished archive material that reveals new information on his controversial life, in particular his sexual escapades, including becoming the father of an illegitimate child.

She also sheds new light on Schumann’s courtship of his wife, Clara, the brilliant pianist who performed his works, despite the monstrous objections of her father, and the mystery too of the illness from which he died in July, 1856, aged just 47.

Judith Chernaik. Photo: Andy Aitcheson

If music makes the world go round, then Judith is a supreme example of genuine understanding of – and devotion to – the arts since she is a New Yorker who made her home in London long ago but, in fact, learned to play the piano in her native New York.

“My French piano teacher, Mme Honore, had me work my way first through Schumann’s Papillons, which I disliked intensely, then through his Piano Concerto, which I loved,” she told me.

“And I actually performed this for a very small audience at my music school, in Brooklyn, with another teacher playing the orchestral part on a second piano. I must have been about 14 at the time.”

Other composers became favourites as Judith grew up. She adored Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and even Irving Berlin during her teens.

“Now it’s Bach I turn to most often, also Beethoven’s and Mozart’s string quartets,” she says. “No, I don’t listen to Schumann every day. I do play his piano works, or rather struggle to play them quite often.”

She was originally commissioned to write a Schumann biography 30 years ago and went to Zwickau, then in East Germany, where she was overwhelmed by the mass of material available in the Schumann Museum there, all needing to be transcribed.

Finally, four years ago, she returned to the mammoth task.

“The tragic history of Schumann’s madness and death, and Clara Schumann’s response to his music and to their marriage, haunted me for many years,” Judith explains.

“My new book about Schumann was commissioned four years ago and I’ve been working at it steadily ever since.

“Schumann has not been ignored by musicologists. On the contrary, there is a huge amount of literature on his life and music.

“But much of it is full of misconceptions, including theories that he was ‘mother-fixated’ or secretly homosexual, as well as manic-depressive.”

Judith provides the key answers in her deep and delving biography that brings new life and new insight into a great composer you can listen to any day now, thanks to new technology and dear Alexa.

Do read it.

Schumann: The Faces and the Masks. By Judith Chernaik, Faber & Faber, £20

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