Without hitting you over the head, Chernaik allows you to feel the core of Schumann’s story: his love for his wife, Clara, a great concert pianist and formidable muse. Between this and the battle against his own demons to compose truthful music, Schumann’s spirit comes across as an antidote to all the hate and perverse self-love we are forced to swallow in public affairs, day after day ... Chernaik gets the incredible essence of this: how he offloaded his difficult emotional world onto an imaginary band of alternative identities, partly for survival, to fight the philistine world on better terms. I wish she had dug a bit further into the way he translated them into music ... Chernaik, drawn to this supercharged story and the music, has backed up her affection with solid research.
Picture a man swooning and raging with all the passions of youth. Every problem is a crisis, each feeling an ocean. His commitment to political and artistic freedom yields only to the irrepressible truths of love and beauty. Put that exhausting spirit to music and you have the tragic Romantic composer Robert Schumann. His diaries repeatedly refer to the worst day or night or week of his life.
The great composer Robert Schumann receives a sharp, knowing, and complicatedly sympathetic treatment in his latest biography, Schumann: The Faces and the Masks by Judith Chernaik, who fills her book with Schumann’s music but keeps her focus always on the man. Schumann hasn’t lacked for biographers since his death in 1856...Chernaik does everything she can to change this; not only does her book feature some of the most passionate appreciations of Schumann’s music ever written in English, but she leaves her readers very specific and very encouraging instructions on how to find every last note of that music for free online.
Following Beethoven’s lead, most of the greatest Romantic composers became, of necessity, entrepreneurs and legends in their own time. None of their stories is sadder than Robert Schumann’s, involving as it does a haunted conscience; a tremendous struggle for personal happiness; a steady flow of musical creativity; and then, long-drawn-out mental and physical collapse. (Chernaik) fills the book with descriptions of Schumann’s compositions that are more easily followed and more thorough than most recording liner notes and that convincingly relate each piece to Schumann’s life circumstances as well as to his other music—all without excerpting musical scores ... Altogether outstanding.
Chernaik...has clearly devoted years of research to this lush life. Although she asserts in the introduction that she is aiming her work at 'the general reader,' there are many places—especially in her analyses of individual works—where general readers will require some fairly sophisticated understandings of music ... She teaches us a lot about Schumann’s world and life, including details about his boyhood and his early love for Clara Wieck (the gifted pianist whom he would later marry), whose father’s angry opposition to their relationship courses throughout the early sections ... A sturdy foundation of research and musical knowledge (and love) underlies this inspiring and wrenching account of a man who pursued, captured, and lost.