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‘The more we know about a composer, the less we can discount his life’; ‘Schumann is the first composer whose life and works were fused together in a symbiotic relationship’; Such claims, in the prologue, may well provoke some apprehension. The author goes on to say ‘Even though the “life” does not explain the “works”, there is a “surplus-value” [Roland Barthes’ expression] to examining the one against the background of the other.’ This implies considerable risk because, in spite of what the author says, there will always be the temptation to try to ‘explain’ the works in terms of personal circumstances. Ultimately music stands or falls purely on its own merits, and Geck fails to convince me of any ‘surplus-value’, except that which is offered by most ‘life and works’ biographies.

This in-depth study is sometimes impenetrable. One example is a six-line sentence on page x which seems to me verbose, ungrammatical and unclear – how can music ‘shimmer in many contexts’? The last sentence of page 156 is equally obscure. The translation does not always avoid awkwardness – a sentence on page 178 has ‘that’ (meaning ‘which’) four times, but I suspect Geck’s original presented quite a challenge.

Some remarks about particular pieces strike me as unappreciative – eg the delightful Overture, Scherzo & Finale ‘leaves an ambivalent impression’. Geck writes patronisingly of the Piano Trios in D minor and F major: ‘In terms of the design and sequence of their movements, Schumann produced some extremely solid work here.’ I find the D minor work inspired rather than solid.

On the credit side there are many extracts from letters, comments from composers or musicians of our own time, including Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Henri Pousseur, Aribert Reimann and Gidon Kremer, and illustrations including Schumann’s sketch of the Kremlin, John Martin’s Manfred on the Jungfrau and various paintings, lithographs or photographs. There are only a few music examples. The Schumann collector will need to have this book, but others are advised to be cautious.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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