I had been thinking about doing a historical novel based upon the life of Robert Schumann since 1990, when I discovered a translation of his letters in the public library in Seattle. I wrote several poems based upon what biographical material I could glean in those letters and other general biographies that were at that library, but beyond buying recordings of his piano and symphonic works and becoming a fan of his music, my hope of writing a book about this curious and tragic genius remained remote until I found a job working for the US Army as a contractor in the fall of 2001, became friends with a violinist in an orchestra in Darmstadt, who – like many career musicians, had a library of books about composers. It was here that my research began.
I was lucky, in that I had a day job that supported me more than adequately, allowed me weekends off as well as vacation time, and I was geographically situated near several spots where my research subject had lived – and most importantly, only 300 km from where he spent his final years, a private psychiatric hospital in Bonn which I found out – still stands.
I had already written three historical novels, and in each case, the actual places were too remote for me to venture to in person for a sense of place and for the kind of detail that would allow me to visualize my setting and character. The first book, which was about the Hunnic empire and Attila, took place in Asia Minor and what is now Hungary, and the only available sources I could find were some archeological studies, and the fragmentary work of the Roman senator Priscus, who had visited Attila in the early 5th century.
Due to a lack of research material, my planned trilogy languished, despite a plethora of maps from the time period, and assiduous study of the books I could get. Book study of an era and of a people were not quite enough for me to synthesize into a believable, coherent, and convincing historical novel.
I needed to be there. And in fact, still hanging on to my hope of finishing the Hun book, I set off in the late fall of 2001 thinking I would be able to draw enough from a day trip to Troyes, in eastern France, the site of Attila’s final battle, to renew my interest and give me enough sense of place to breathe life into my project again so I could finish it. I didn’t make it to Troyes – it was 4 hours away by car. But I did go to concerts, and I did go to Johannes Brahms’ house in Baden Baden, and to downtown Heidelberg, and in those historic towns, left intact by the ravages of WWII, I began to absorb the atmosphere and sense of place that would eventually get an historical novel off the ground – the book about Schumann.
Although it is not enough to simply go to a place that remains as it was a century before (or largely so), I have found that sense of place – its geography, its character, its smell, for want of a better word – is crucial for visualizing it in historic context, to make the people who lived then, breathe and move about enough for me to capture them. It provides specificity. One can read in a book that the baths of Baden Baden are situated in the woods, but to travel up the twists and turns of what was once a carriage road through the dense pines to a towering stone mansion mostly obscured on a high bluff, is to be able to picture it vividly and accurately. I took photos of the crumbling ruin of forts and castles that had been crumbling and in ruins when my protagonist saw them. Europe – the parts that survived the intense bombings, would be as he had seen them.
Heidelberg, where Schumann spent a year of university and first began to compose, was less than 15 miles from where I lived. I loved that city, and took hundreds of photos of the historic downtown, and the enormous ruin that hovered over it, Heidelberger Schloss. The views of the gardens of the Schloss are the most beautiful. One historical footnote is that by a curious coincidence of fate, both Hitler and the Allies had identified Heidelberg as a strategic goal for headquartering troops, so neither side bombed there – as a result, Heidelberg remained untouched by the war, while Mannheim to the northwest, was severely damaged, and is almost entirely rebuilt except for specific neighborhoods.
Besides touring the places my character lived, studied, and performed, I attended concerts, read books in German and English about the people and their times, got biographies of Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn that were published in the country that I would never have seen in the United States, which included photographs, daguerreotypes, facsimiles of manuscripts… and the motherlode of all primary sources: diaries. Fortunately for me, my subject, while he suffered from the scandal of being a suicide in the 19th century, was largely rehabilitated as a “great German composer” by the time Germany reunited and reconstruction began. The hospital in Bonn where he died, badly damaged during the bombing of Bonn, was reconstructed, as was the cemetery and his memorial, and made into a music library, not only of Schumann’s music and biography, but of all German music. I wasn’t able to take books out, but I was able to read their private collection at the library, and take notes. They also published and sold books that were only available in Germany, and here I found the detail I needed to be able to fashion a story. Despite the destruction of many personal letters between Schumann and his closest friend, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, there was enough remaining in his diaries and letters to reveal, however subtly, the details of a poetic and musical soul who fell in love easily with both men and women. The nearly-inscrutable, elaborate left-hand script. Where he took his walks, and what he thought about. His nightmares. His confinement and the visitors he had there. Perhaps ironically, the Staatsbibliotek holds regular chamber concerts in the library where Schumann spent his last days, wasting away from a depressive illness which had stolen his ability to compose music. Preserved in glass there, the final piece of music, entitled only “Theme”, a mere 9 bars of melody, left unfinished and marred by an inkblot.
I was about two-thirds of the way through the first draft of my novel when I took a two-week trip to the former East Germany, to see Leipzig and Zwickau, Schumann’s childhood home, now also a museum and concert venue. The entire city has undergone reconstruction, and by the time I got there in June of 2003 for their annual concert festival (in Schumann’s honor), the 7 million euro renovation of his home was complete.
There, I found a wealth of new material, including published reviews he had made of other composers such as Chopin (whom he adored from afar), Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who was both an intimate friend and benefactor, the originals of all of his extant portraits, and his own piano. I jotted down quotes, took photos of his visiting card. I listened to lectures by professors whose careers are devoted to discovering how and why the troublesome Third Symphony was edited as it was, whose only concern was what he produced – not what he was. I was looking for the man behind the composer. Seeing what he saw and understanding, with my developing fluency in the language, how he expressed himself. I finally had the level of specificity to write with confidence not only about the person, but about Zwickau, Bonn, and Heidelberg – I knew as much as I could know about what it was to experience life as he did, because the German federal government had pieced it all back together for me, put it in glass cases, published monographs and presented lectures, concerts and put on festivals to celebrate the culture that thrived before the Nazi era.
In fact, all of downtown Zwickau was renovated and refurbished – the entire cobblestoned Kornmarkt, the central mercantile square, had been rehabilitated and restored to as original condition as possible, with the occasional “new” shop or restaurant peeking out of a historic facade. In this picture of the Kornmarkt, which is taken from the point of view of Schumann’s house, you can see a Burger King beside the original facade.
I absorbed all that I could of the places I could reach, I read all the biographical material I could buy or borrow, but by far the best resource for me – and this applies equally to biographical figures as invented ones – is diaries. How long it took to travel by carriage from Zwickau to Heidelberg (2 weeks.) How frequently a devoted son writes his mother (daily.) How much it costs for a private room in a sanitarium (50 thalers a month.) The philosophy I emerged from this research amounts to this: it is not so much that people change throughout history, it is the specifics of how they live that change. The detail of everyday life in that specific time and place, and how that influences their outlooks. And, for those of us who write historical stories of nontraditional sexuality – how they expressed it, how they hid it, their view of themselves in a society that at best, silently ignored what was universally viewed as a disgusting perversion. There were precious few crumbs to sift through. One biographer theorized that whatever evidence of homosexuality was left behind in diary or letters that was not destroyed by Schumann’s wife or Mendelssohn’s executors, was systematically destroyed by Hitler’s government when he was elevated as an official cultural hero of the Third Reich. But they missed enough for me reconstruct (and to fill in where there were no facts to draw upon) a life lived at least half in shadow.