An Egregious Example of Critical Dilettantism

In my last entry I discussed the futility of drawing on a composer’s personal life in analyzing his music. Fittingly, since then I’ve come across a pair of reviews of the new book Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician by John Worthen. I haven’t read this book, and based on the reviews (below) I don’t plan to — anyone who has read it is welcome to set me straight if the book is being misrepresented.

Reviewing in the Telegraph, Damian Thompson mentions Worthen’s selective attention to Schumann’s output, suggesting that Worthen only discusses the works that support his thesis: that Schumann’s miseries resulted from syphilis and drinking rather than mental illness:

Worthern’s attempt to prove that Schumann was suffering from syphilis rather than schizophrenia goes on too long. It reminded me of a biography of King George III which argued that he was suffering from porphyria and therefore not insane. Really? I would have thought that if you end up shaking hands with trees (as the King) or arguing with angels (as Schumann) then you are bonkers, whatever the cause.

Thompson’s choicest words are reserved for Worthen’s dwelling on Schuman’s gastro-intestinal issues:

“Schumann had had haemorrhoids in Dorpat, back in February [1844] and constipation and haemorrhoids go very badly together,” he notes. Thank you, professor. Could that explain the slightly strained quality of Schumann’s writing at the time?

Maybe that last bit was gratuitously nasty, but Thompson was rightly dismissing one of the, um, crappier pieces of “musical scholarship” that has been drawn to my attention. There’s plenty to discuss in the music without desperately resorting to this kind of pedestrian non-analysis. (Thompson himself can’t entirely resist the temptation of extra-musical music analysis. “I defy anyone with an open mind to listen to [the violin concerto] and not realise that something is about to go horribly wrong.”)

In another review published in the same paper on the same day, John Adamson sees value in Worthen’s agenda to debunk the mythologization of the Schumann as the mad, tortured genius:

The tragedy of Schumann’s final years has fitted so perfectly with a certain Romantic stereotype - the demented and troubled genius - that it has exercised a captivating influence over his biographers ever since. Each time, for instance, Schumann recorded in his diary a moment of depression, melancholy or nervous exhaustion, it has tended to be identified as a warning of the storm to come.

It’s Adamson who notes that Worthen is a professor of English, not music. That, in itself, doesn’t mean he can’t analyze music (Charles Rosen’s doctorate, after all, is in French literature rather than music). But according to Adamson, the bulk of Worthen’s approach is a textual criticism of Schumann’s letters and other sources.

Quite frankly, great music is quite challenging to understand. Irrelevant associations with the composer’s life rarely makes it any easier.

And something else that disturbs me even more: the attempt to discredit or marginalize mental illness, to attempt to explain mental illness as if the term is a catch-all for subsidary causes, as if mental illness were the equivalent of the helpless generality, “nervous disorder” which attempted to provide the cause of death in cases where the doctor was baffled…Schumann’s father, August, had his death “diagnosed” in this way.  Unfortunately, mental illness is real and cruel, and Schumann suffered from it, poor man.  And why is there a mania to diagnose composers with  syphilis all the time, from a distance of centuries? Schumann drank quite a bit in his youth, and he always liked pretty girls.  Maybe these two facts are enough to set irresponsible critics and biographers in motion, but this sort of ex post facto tabloid junk is, at least for me, disgusting.  Even if it is sometimes true, which I’m not conceding in any specific case, although the evidence is stronger for Schubert than for Schumann. 

Please let us do criticism the correct, and difficult way.  Learn the darn music and go from there.