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Schumann's Fateful Accident

By FRANCIS LINCOLN
 
The accident which changed Schumann's career from that of the virtuoso pianist to that of the composer has been frequently related, but its real part in the career of one of the greatest of masters has rarely been understood.
 
Schumann had had difficulty in raising his fourth finger (reported by some his third finger) of the right hand to the height he believed that all the digits should be raised to secure good results at the keyboard. In order to secure the end he desired, he invented an apparatus for holding up this finger while he practiced with the other fingers. Later in his life. Schumann condemned the dumb keyboard, as the unfortunate outcome of his accident prejudiced him against all manner of mechanical contrivances. This has led many people to infer that Schumann was injured by playing upon a dumb keyboard, but this was distinctly not the case.
 
Schumann became so interested in his device that he practiced very steadily with it, believing that he had invented something which would prove of immense value to piano students. He even went so far as to write a series of exercises for use in connection with the instrument. The result was that after considerable use his fourth finger seemed to take on an opposite action. When he desired to direct it toward the keyboard, the finger sprang up and away from the keyboard. In other words, he had lost the ability to control the finger entirely. He also suffered great pain from the effects of the implement.
 
Schumann endeavored to- remedy his trouble by resting his fingers and prcaticing (sic) with his left hand. Physicians were consulted, but when control of the finger returned it failed to respond in the normal manner, and it seemed hopelessly weak. Schumann's left hand, however, was remarkably developed and this may account for some of the intricate left hand passages in some of his later works.
 
In writing to a friend he states his misfortune as follows:
 
"We did indeed err when we thought we could accomplish by capricious mechanism what the peace and leisure of later years would unconsciously bring; or we grasped the handle so firmly that we lost the blade (the reverse is much worse). In this respect, and to make skill balance with other powers, I have often been obliged to correct my ideas. Much which I once considered infallible has been discarded as useless and hindering. Often have I sought to unite the powers of opposing paths. For equal powers elevate and multiply each other here as in the physical world, but the stronger kills the weaker, and, to apply it to art, a poetic whole can be formed only by the harmonious cultivation of skill and ability (culture and talent). I play but little on the piano now. Don't be alarmed. I am resigned and consider it a decree of Fate. I have a lame finger on my right hand in consequence of the injury. Although that was slight in itself it was neglected until the evil grew so great that I can hardly use the hand at all."
 
The decree of Fate mentioned by Schumann was really one of those peculiar operations of the machinery of destiny which seem to control the lives of some. Schumann did not have the qualifications for becoming a great virtuoso pianist. He was extremely modest and disliked show in any way or form. His best work was done in the intimate seclusion of his home. Fortune frequently comes to every one of us in the disguise of Disaster. If Schumann had been able to play he might have composed in an entirely different manner. As it was, his affliction brought the uselessness of superficial show so closely to his attention that his compositions are written with a kind of artistic economy which makes them of peculiar aesthetic worth. All this resulted largely from the fateful accident which many of Schumann's friends considered nothing less than a catastrophe.

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