(Domschke 2010) from http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/196/4/325
Robert Schumann was a romantic era composer who most likely had bipolar affective disorder and subsequently developed neurosyphilis psychosis. As shown by the above genogram with the arrow pointing at Robert Schumann, he had significant family history of mental health disorder. This post will have a look at his mental illness through the lens of three composition. Two by Robert Schumann himself and one from his friend Johannes Brahms.
Robert Schumann - Carnaval
Robert Schumann was famous for writing music portraits of other people. He would meet people and then composed music based on his interpretation of their personalities. Carnaval is a piano work where most of the movements are portraits of people he knew. For example Movement 13 Estrella (13:59) was a portrait of his then fiancée Ernestine von Fricken and Movement 11: Chiarina (11:52 mark) was a portrait of Clara Wieck which Schumann ended up ending his engagement with Fricken and marrying Clara. Apparently the music already hinted that he was more interested in Clara (although to be honest I don't quite hear it).
However the most interesting movement from a psychiatric point of view is Eusebius (Movement 5 - 5:57) and Florestan (Movement 6 - 6:55). Robert Schumann gave names to two sides of his personality. Florestan which is the embodiment of Schumann's passionate, volatile side and Eusebius his dreamy, melancholic, introspective side. Florestan was inspired by the masculine bold and assertive hero of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio and Eusebius was a 4th Century Catholic priest who was a historian documenting the persecution of Christian and who he was subsequently persecuted and killed as well.
He was famous as a music critic at the time to write music reviews where he would sign off his reviews with either Florestan or Eusebius depending on his current mental state at the time. One review of Frédéric Chopin’s Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” by Mozart where he structured it as a conversation between himself and the two personalities.
Robert Schumann identified his melancholic and exaltated side of his personality to these two characters and they seemed to represent his manic and depressive phase of his bipolar affective disorder.
Robert Schumann developed depression around 1833 where his brother Julius died of tuberculosis, his sister sister in law Rosalie died of malaria and Robert Schumann contracted malaria himself.
He fell in deep depression and anxiety and was quoted in writing “During the night of Rosalie’s death, the most terrifying thought a person can ever have suddenly occurred to me. The most terrible thought heaven can punish you with, that of losing my mind. It overwhelmed me so violently that I was inconsolable, I could not guaranteed that under that circumstances I would not raised my hand against my own life.”
His depression was severe enough to be in near catatonic state where he was kept in the bed for nearly a week where it was described ‘he resembled a statue” which occurred during his tour to Russia with his wife Clara in 1844
In between his bouts of depression he would have phases of ‘exaltation’ where he would led to impulsive behaviours such as hyper sexuality (where he’ll sleep with prostitute and ended up contracting syphilis that would ended up killing him), over-practicing on the piano (where he ended up injuring his right hand destroying his career as a pianist), poor sleep but also periods of composition binge where he would compose non-stop for several days.
The Eusebius and Florestan movements are musical portraits of his depressive and manic side of his personality.
Robert Schumann - Geistervariationen
Although Robert Schumann remained functional throughout his life. Around 1850 (40 years old) his mental state deteriorated and he became increasingly psychotic. He most likely contracted syphilis from sex with a prostitute as a teenager that remain latent throughout most of his life and his marriage but became active during this time. He started having auditory hallucination of music where he described as “very strong and painful aural disturbances.”. Initially the auditory hallucination were restricted to a single note where Schumann was quoted in saying ‘I can’t read anymore. I keep hearing the note ‘A’”. Eventually the hallucination became full fledged themes of music that were attributed to angels and ghost of both Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Schubert. He described the themes he heard as “Magnificent music, with instruments of splendid resonance, the like of which has never been heard on earth before”. He composed these Geistervariationens or "Ghost Variations" of the theme he heard via his auditory hallucination.
Johannes Brahms - Piano Concerto No. 1
Towards the end of his life, the auditory hallucination that were initially angelic in nature, became demonish in nature. He believed the variation themes to be turn into devils and took the form of hyenas and tigers. He started having paranoid delusions of being surrounded by evil spirits. He developed delusions of guilt where he was obsessing that he was a criminal and his destine to go to hell and would repeatedly read the bible in hope for salvation. He started having fears that he may harm his wife and children likely due to command hallucination. Robert Schumann was so distressed by these hallucination that he didn't feel safe around his family and believed that he was a danger to his family.
So Robert believed that he must end his life to ensure his family would be safe from him. He went to the Rhine River bridge and jumped off with the intent for suicide (his elder sister Emilie Schumann who most likely have depression or catatonic schizophrenia committed suicide by drowning at the same area earlier in his life).
However he was rescued by a passing fisherman and he lived the rest of his life in a mental asylum where he died officially from suicide via starvation. Although in reality it wasn't suicide because he wanted to live but refused to eat due to paranoid delusions of the food he was given to be poison. He died from pneumonia after he become severely deconditioned due to his malnutrition brought on by his paranoid delusions.
Prior to his suicide attempt, Johannes Brahms became friends of Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann during his brief period of lucidity during the end of his life and also formed the most famous love triangle in classical music history. He played his Piano Sonata No. 1 and Robert Schumann briefly went back from retirement of being a music critic and wrote an article promoting Brahms to be the next Beethoven and saviour of German music. After Robert Schumann attempted suicide and admission to mental asylum, Johannes Brahms than lived with Clara Schumann and took care of her and her children and helped out with the finances for many years. There are documented letters from both Clara and Johannes that they admitted they have fallen in love with each other. It is unknown whether he hooked up with Clara during this time but he ended up not pursuing the relationship due to possible guilt of falling in love with his best friends wife while his friend was wasting away in a mental asylum.
Johannes Brahms composed the Piano Concerto No. 1 about Robert Schumann attempted suicide, if you listened to the opening theme by the string instruments, you notice the sudden leap in melody which symbolises Robert Schumann leaps into the Rhine river. This concerto is a representation of his despair for his friend Schumann attempted suicide, his love for Clara Schumann (as represented by the tender 2nd movement) and the ongoing guilt this love caused him to feel. It is one of my all time favourite Piano concertos.