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Clearly this life-and-works is based on comprehensive research and a generally perceptive appreciation of Schumann’s music. As much of this account significantly adds to what may be read in other Schumann studies, it must be recommended. More importantly, Chernaik conveys her affection for the music, though she sometimes disappoints. The second symphony is especially loved (as biographer John Daverio wrote: ‘for Schumann devotees, the Second is the symphony of symphonies’), yet Chernaik seems unconvinced. Writing of the third movement, ‘then inspiration takes over’, she gives the (hopefully unintentional) impression that she values the preceding two rather less. Surely the idiosyncratic rhythmic obsessiveness of the first Allegro should be recognised as an essential characteristic of Schumann’s language.

The author neatly expresses the composer’s quicksilver character – ‘his emotional swings, as changeable as the weather’ – and gives a balanced account of his final mental collapse. There are a few strange remarks, sometimes redundant or weak. Of the symphonies she writes: ‘All four are often recorded together, and performed frequently in concert series and festivals.’

Chernaik occasionally tries too hard to draw parallels with Beethoven. Commenting on the Rhenish Symphony, she refers to the Eroica and Pastoral Symphonies, though the connections are tenuous. One topic which might have been explored is Clara’s limited appreciation of her husband’s most original works. It is arguable that she was closer in temperament to Brahms’ musical language.

In her final chapter (except for an afterword presenting medical diagnosis of Schumann’s terminal illness) Chernaik reproduces several of the letters Schumann wrote from the Endenich asylum. On his increasingly rare good days he was still capable of lucidity.

While the brief summaries of the lives of the seven Schumann children are very welcome, the brief summary of recordings is strangely restricted to the internet.

Factual errors include: Beethoven’s String Quartet opus 132 (p 76) should be opus 135; Mendelssohn’s F sharp minor String Quartet (p 204) should be F minor. There are about 30 illustrations, almost no music examples and minimal technical language.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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