Whenever discussion about the possibility of a link between “insanity”, creativity and genius occurs in the medical fraternity, in literature or seminars, composer Robert Schumann gets trotted out as a stellar case in point. In Roy Porter’s book A Social History of Madness, a prominent role is given to Schumann in the chapter “Genius and Madness”, implying that these qualities are flip-sides of the same coin. But just how “mad” was Schumann really? And do we do him, and our appreciation of his output, a great disservice by regarding him through such a narrow prism?
“On 8th June to Herr August Schumann, notable citizen and bookseller here, a little son.” So read the announcement in the Zwickauer Wochenblatt, of the birth at Zwickau, Saxony, of Robert Alexander Schumann, 200 years ago. From his father he inherited his love of literature, as well as his creative urge, as August was a writer of novels, editor of journals, translator of Byron, and curiously enough, the author of the Merchants’ Compendium, precursor to our Yellow Pages directories! His mother Johanna was a prudent, if somewhat highly-strung Hausfrau. August was keen to nurture his son’s talents wherever they lay, and arranged for piano lessons early in childhood, at which he excelled very quickly. His teacher Johann Gottfried Kuntsch soon realised he had taught him all he could.
Schumann’s father nurtured young Robert’s nascent talent both at music and literature as much as he could. However, upon his death in 1826, Johanna decided that a career in law would be best for Robert. So off to Leipzig he was dispatched in 1828.
The suicide of his sister Emilie the same year of their father’s passing had a profound effect on the young, acutely sensitive Schumann.
Despite heroic attempts on his part to immerse himself in the study of law, he found himself inexorably drawn to music. His improvisations at the piano awed his circle of friends, and by 1830, he had published his first set of works, which included the witty Abegg variations. A flurry of letters that year between Schumann, his mother, and his new piano tutor Friedrich Wieck effectively ended his pursuit of law, and marked his decision to take up music seriously.
Wieck’s letter to Schumann’s mother pledges to turn him within three years “by means of his talent and imagination into one of the greatest pianists living”. He took Schumann into his house, little knowing that this man would steal his daughter Clara, a child prodigy pianist, from him.
Schumann had an independent mind, and was not an easy student. An injury to his right hand following an experiment with a “hand-strengthening” machine (although other accounts ascribe it to the side-effect of mercury treatment for syphilis) put paid to his ambitions as a concert pianist, and he devoted himself wholly to composition, virtually teaching himself as he went along. He was also gaining a reputation as a music critic. His endorsement of Chopin’s Là ci darem piano variations drew considerable acclaim.
In 1833, the successive deaths of his brother Julius and sister-in-law Rosalie plunged Schumann into a deep pit of gloom, with intense physical symptoms, among them a crippling fear of heights, lest he should throw himself off them.
In 1834 he launched a music magazine, (Neue Leipziger Zeitschrift für Musik), of which he eventually became editor, and in which he revealed his remarkable insight and instinct about matters related to music. He would often write under the pseudonyms Florestan (bold, impulsive man of action) and Eusebius (sensitive, introspective poetic dreamer) to drive his points home.
In 1835 Mendelssohn arrived at Leipzig, and Schumann and he became firm friends, with Schumann eventually naming one of his children Felix, in his honour. Mendelssohn would also be godfather to Schumann’s first daughter Marie.
A clandestine engagement to fellow piano student Ernestine von Fricken was soon annulled by Schumann on getting to know her better. From then on he had eyes only for Wieck’s daughter Clara, and she effectively became his Muse.
But her father would not hear of it, citing Schumann’s then bleak financial situation, his inconstancy with women, and his affinity to drink. Despondent, Schumann resorted to encrypting love notes to Clara as ciphers in his music. Some of them are only now being unravelled. He continued to write prolifically for his instrument the piano, although he was now writing with Clara specifically in mind, both as inspiration and performer. He took up the cello, although it would never supplant the piano as the main subject of his creativity.
Clara and he were wed in 1840, when she attained the legal age to marry, following a court order, and over her father’s furious objections. The blissful years that followed opened the floodgates of Schumann’s artistic powers. The year 1840 was dominated by composition of sets and cycles of songs, often inspired by romantic poets, notably Heinrich Heine and Jean Paul Richter.
On Clara’s encouragement he ventured now into orchestral music, and his First Symphony (“Spring”, inspired by a poem of contemporary poet Adolf Böttger) was completed in a few weeks in early 1841 and performed soon after at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, with Mendelssohn conducting. A deluge of compositions for orchestra followed thereafter, among them his Piano Concerto (yet another encrypted dedication to Clara), and his Second Symphony.
The prodigious compositional output of the preceding two years seems to have provoked a breakdown, a “weakness of the nerves”, as Schumann described it, in 1842-43. He developed the composer’s equivalent of “writer’s block”. The necessity to keep on working to support his growing family only aggravated matters. His appointment as professor of piano, composition and score reading at the Leipzig Music School offered some respite from the Schumann’s financial crises.
Clara continued to concertise to much acclaim after marriage, which often put a strain on the relationship. Schumann chafed when she was away, as he found it difficult to compose in her absence, and was even more miserable if he accompanied her on her travels. But she found it impossible to practise her piano when they were together, as it disturbed Schumann’s concentration.
In 1845 the Schumanns moved to Dresden, and lived through the tumult of the 1848 uprising there. Despite the unrest, 1849 was one of his most productive. Later that year, he was offered music directorship in Düsseldorf, a post he reluctantly took up, one of the reasons quite presciently being his unease at discovering there was a “mad-house” there.
Nonetheless, 1850 saw another torrent of works from his pen. However, his skill as a conductor seems to have left a lot to be desired, and the ensuing criticism hurt him deeply. The strain precipitated another breakdown in 1852. He began to focus now on thoughts religious and spiritual. His Mass and Requiem were composed in this year. He was drawn now to “table-turning” (invoking spirits of the dead), and believed that Beethoven had spoken to him through four knocks on the table during one such session. Could this have been the Fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth?
He began to have “strange afflictions of hearing” (auditory hallucinations? tinnitus?). Clara writes at one point in her memoirs that Robert “always heard one and the same tone, and from time to time another interval as well”. In other instances Schumann reported to Clara of hearing “music so glorious and with instruments sounding more wonderful than one ever hears on earth”.
Schumann’s orchestra grew even more disenchanted with his conducting. The love of Clara and his children, and of his friends Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms (the latter had just come into Schumann’s life in 1853) sustained him through these difficult times.
Schumann saw young Brahms’ talent and enthusiastically endorsed him in his article “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths).
In February 1854 he attempted suicide by jumping into the Rhine, and the following month he allowed himself to be admitted into a private asylum. He spent his time initially composing fugues, then burning them as they weren’t “good enough”. Over time, however, he realised that while it was straightforward matter getting admitted, it was near-impossible for him to leave. This realisation broke his spirit. “Robert Schumann, Honorary Member of Heaven”, he would now write after his signature; he had virtually died already.
He was not allowed to see Clara (doctor’s orders) until two days before he died on 29 July 1856, all alone.
Much has been made of the affection between Clara and Brahms, and whether this contributed to Schumann’s eventual decline.
An autopsy revealed that at least a contributory factor to Schumann’s mental symptoms was the advanced stages of syphilis (General Paralysis of the Insane). Was there also a manic-depressive element? Or was it schizophrenia? It is dangerously easy with the benefit of hindsight to find clues supporting this in his diaries (he kept meticulous daily diaries from his teens, down to the money he spent), a phenomenon known in the profession as retrospective bias.
In my view, this is really quite irrelevant. Sadly a lot of his later compositions were destroyed by Clara as she felt they betrayed streaks of his mental illness. Nevertheless, what remains, and what continues to be found sporadically from those years reveal a novel form of composing all his own.
In addition to his stupendous spectrum of compositions during his short life, the world owes him a debt of gratitude also for publishing hitherto unknown works of Johann Sebastian Bach, and in general championing a revival of interest in Bach’s music, and for discovering Schubert’s manuscript of his ‘Great’ C Major Symphony. Thanks to Schumann it was first performed in 1839 at the Gewandhaus, with Mendelssohn conducting.
Music commentator Norman Lebrecht summarises the pivotal importance of Robert Schumann to music beautifully: “In the growth of the symphony, Schumann is the connective thread between Beethoven and Brahms; in the Lieder form, he spans the chasm of psychological complexity between Schubert and Richard Strauss. Remove Schumann from the story and the whole art grinds to a halt.”
Cellist and ardent Schumann advocate Steven Isserlis, looking back on his troubled life, and dismal, lonely death, writes: “It’s such a sad story that I can hardly bear to think of it. The only possible consolation is the thought that when he was happy, he was wildly, ecstatically happy—probably far happier than you or I will ever be. And it’s nice to think, too, how glad (and possibly surprised) he would have been to see how people all over the world respond to his music today—to see how close they feel to his passionate heart!”
Join Dr. Luis Dias on 8 June 2010 at 5.30 pm, at the Xavier Centre for Historical Research, Porvorim, on a journey through Schumann’s life, which will include a presentation of two short films featuring works of Robert Schumann, preceded by a small talk, on the occasion of Schumann’s birth bicentenary, which is being celebrated the world over by music lovers.
The first film clip features Lang Lang playing the Abegg Variations, Schumann’s first published work, a witty musical cryptogram that has five notes as its nucleus.
The second film clip has Sir Clifford Curzon playing Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), a suite of 13 pieces that showcases Schumann’s musical imagination at the peak of its musical clarity.
The preceding talk will discuss the background to these works.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Herald, Goa India on 6 June 2010)