BOOK REVIEW / Amor vincit omnia, but she still sliced the beans: The Marriage Diaries of Robert and Clara Schumann: Ed Gerd Nauhaus - Robson Books, pounds 22.95

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The Independent Online
THE TRADITIONAL view of the love affair and marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann has always been that it was a triumphant example of amor vincit omnia. The couple had to overcome huge obstacles on their way to the altar: at one stage Clara's father objected so vociferously to his daughter's plans that he landed himself a stretch behind bars, sued by his future son- in-law for slander. It all added a certain Romantic je ne sais quoi to the proceedings.

We can now find out how this romantic story of romantic folk looked from the inside. The joint diary that Robert and Clara kept for the first three years of their marriage has been translated into English for the first time, by Peter Ostwald. It's rather encouraging to discover that even this paragon among loving couples suffered their less than harmonious moments. Robert, initiating the diary on Day One - 'a little book . . . of mediation and reconciliation whenever we have had a misunderstanding' - actually makes express provision for tiffs to come.

He knew himself. 'This evening passed amid sad thoughts and melancholy tears . . .' sniffs a characteristic entry by Clara (Week Ten): '. . . which my Robert chased away over and over again, as much as he had brought them about, though completely without his fault.' Not Robert's fault, of course; never Robert's fault; Clara learns fast that even when she is in the right it is her duty to appear in the wrong. No doubt she is not the only woman of the period who thus regularly mortified herself in the interests of her husband's happiness. Peter Ostwald, in his preface to the diaries, attempts an up-to-date gloss on this quaint 19th-century practice: 'The tension and excitement of this marriage almost typifies the two-income family of today.' The Schumanns were 'two gifted, productive and successful people struggling to maintain a household, achieve sexual happiness, raise children, and preserve their sanity . . .' (a nice touch, that, given Robert's later immurement in a lunatic asylum) '. . . in the face of unrelenting social, psychological and, in this case, artistic demands.'

Up to a point. What about all the chores? All those beans Clara had to slice? (Robert specifically mentions the beans.) Clara's father was right; it would be largely in spite of her marriage that Clara became one of the great pianists of the century. She it was who bore and brought up the children (no choice: eight in all), who coped with an unstable, often domineering husband and - 'the curse of thin walls' - who put up with being banned from the piano whenever Robert happened to be composing. The modern, egalitarian, Bill-and-Hillary view of the Schumann household is a nice idea, but not convincing.

Of course, there was the couple's other, public, side. Musicologists will relish the accounts of performances, concert tours and recitals - and of the great composers who are two-a-pfennig in these pages. Liszt, Mendelssohn, Berlioz ('a Frenchman . . . eats stewed fruit'): all are received by the Schumanns, with mixed praise and opprobrium. And there are happy hours to be had spotting all those once great musicians - hundreds of them - who are great no longer. Sterndale Bennett and Thalberg, Thorvaldsen and David; good fellows, no doubt, but who these days cares?

It's all good documentary stuff. But, sadly, there is little here to compare with the careful journals of Delacroix, say, or the memoirs of Berlioz, Romantic testaments of great Romantic contemporaries of the Schumanns. Where for Robert and Clara the diaries must have teemed with private meaning, to us they often seem merely coy or fulsome. As with so many marriages, the Schumanns present us with a finally impenetrable face.

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