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Our continuing fascination with Robert Schumann, his music and his mental state knows no bounds. The past five years alone have seen the publication of an impressive range of in-depth biographies and critical studies. Is there really more to know that could alter our perception of this enigmatic composer?

Eric Frederick Jensen argues there is. The first edition of his Schumann biography appeared in 2001, and this second edition claims to bring to light information that was previously only available to speakers of German. A glance at the select bibliography shows that the most recent publications to inform this new edition are the records from the asylum at Endenich (which were edited by Bernhard R Appel into a book in German in 2006) and Margit McCorkle’s thematic catalogue of Schumann’s music from 2003. Both provide Jensen with more precision and lead him to offer conclusions about the nature of Schumann’s illness and the attitude of friends and family in the composer’s final years.

The first edition for example argues that ‘the later symptoms, which have been used as a basis for asserting that he had syphilis, simply do not provide the proof necessary’. Thanks to this German- language material and recent analysis by doctors, Jensen now believes that ‘the presence of so many symptoms associated with syphilis lends credence to its presence’.

Jensen’s portrayal of Clara Schumann has also undergone something of a transformation, and she now appears more concerned about her husband’s incarceration. In the first edition she seemed to have ‘little desire to see him, even if she refused to admit it to herself’. This passage has been excised and Clara is shown rather as not knowing how to weigh up the conflicting advice from physicians and friends who visited Schumann in the asylum.

Jensen has structured an engaging narrative that presents its subject as a human being, with money problems, fears for the future and health worries. However, the debate about the composer’s mental condition, and how it affects our appreciation of his music, is unlikely to go away – however many biographies roll off the presses.

FIONA CLAMPIN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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