Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Madness and Music

Music to accompany the article: Violin Concerto in D minor (Schumann)

I recently went to a most beautiful concert of Schumann’s music at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was performing under the baton of Marin Alsop. For me, the highlight of the evening was the violin concerto in D minor, which Schumann composed in just over a week in 1853. The next year, he tried to drown himself in the River Rhine and was admitted to a mental asylum in Endenich where he died two years later. I visited that place some 12 years ago and found it a very sad experience. The saddest thing of all was that his beloved wife Clara was advised by the doctors not to visit him, so he must have died feeling totally abandoned. It is hardly surprising that he starved himself to death. Ironically, Schumann feared abandonment most of his life and this was what he had to endure in his final, tragic years.

   I attended a very interesting pre-concert lecture and discussion ‘Marin, Madness and Music’, and was struck by a comment made by the musicologist, Dr Robert Samuels, who stated emphatically: “almost certainly Schumann’s illness was syphilis”. Well, I say almost certainly it was not! Thus he led the discussion to a sterile blind alley, as not many, if any, people in the audience ever had, or ever will have, experience of syphilis. It is astonishing is that someone without a trace of medical training and knowledge can make such a confident assertion! What Dr Samuels failed to consider was not only that Schumann had no signs or symptoms of syphilis, but that a diagnosis of this condition in 19th century was mere guesswork. The first (non-specific) test for syphilis – so called ‘the Wassermann Test’ – was invented in 1906 (150 years after Schumann’s death) and the specific tests for Treponema Pallidum came as late as the 60s of the 20th century. No medical doctor of a sound mind would have diagnosed syphilis today without these tests.

So what was Schumann’s illness?

Almost certainly it was manic depression.There was a family history of severe depression and his sister killed herself in dramatic fashion (they say she either drowned herself or jumped from a window) when Schumann was only 15. This was followed by the death of his father, although the cause is unknown. Such traumatic bereavements were bound to gravely impact the mind of this young, highly intelligent and deeply sensitive man.

   Already at the age of 18, Schumann was troubled by insomnia, nightmares and musical hallucinations. He complained to his mother of “such sadness that when [his] heart fills up it wants to overflow and to cry and to smile and cry some more”. And in a letter to his friend, Gisbert Rosen, he revealed many depressive fantasies: “Oh, what would a world without people be? – an endless cemetery – a dreamless sleep of death...” He talked about “madness in his breast” and tried to overcome his sorrow by drinking. In his depressive phases, he was sometimes psychotic and felt that the ghosts of dead people were pursuing him. At the age of 20, Schumann invented two imaginary companions, moody Florestan and exuberant Eusebius. Imaginary companions are not uncommon among solitary, sensitive and artistic children; they are age appropriate. However, in Schumann’s case inventing companions was a sign of his fragile mental condition and coincided with his first psychotic episode. Uncannily, the two characters mirrored his two contrasting mental states: depression and mania.

   His manic phases must have been a relief to him, albeit they did not last long and were inevitably followed by dark depressions. I imagine that his creativity was spurred by his elated moods when he was able to transgress boundaries and create music of the ‘beyond’. Such was, I think, the case of his violin concerto mentioned above. The year 1853 was particularly creative for him. There were, however, in the concerto, moments of frightful fragility, particularly when at some point, the entire melody seemed to hang on one note. It feels as though this note symbolised the composer’s weak hold on life. I would not dare, however, to ‘diagnose’ this beautiful, yet haunting violin concerto as a sign of Schumann’s madness. Perhaps music helped him to keep in balance; between madness and an increasingly troubled soul stood music. And what music!