OROf all things, one of Robert and Clara Schumann’s grandsons, Felix, ended up working as a door-to-door lingerie salesman in a New York suburb. On the morning of October 25, 1941, he was found slumped behind the wheel of his car, parked in a garage behind his home. Carbon monoxide poisoning. According to the New York Times, he had been “discouraged by poor health and financial reserves.” The death was recorded as a suicide.
In the Schumann family, suffering as a result of a psychiatric illness dates back generations. Robert’s father is believed to have had a nervous breakdown; her mother suffered bouts of depression and would recover in what are now the Karlovy Vary spas in the Czech Republic; his sister Emilie took her own life. As for Schumann himself, he suffered severe psychotic episodes throughout his adult life and attempted suicide in 1854, at age 44. At his request, he was admitted to the Endenich asylum, near Bonn, where he died two years later. In addition, a son of Robert and Clara spent 31 years in a nursing home.
For a psychiatrist, a history of mental health disorder in the Schumann family could indicate a hereditary element of the disease. However, in 1943, a physician named Heinrich Kleinebreil posthumously “diagnosed” Robert Schumann as dying of vascular dementia, a non-inherited physiological condition. The date of diagnosis is significant. “The Nazis molded these great composers of the past in their own image,” says Erik Levi, author of Music in the Third Reich. “They were masters at rewriting history, musical history, and suppressing information if it suited their purposes.”
Schumann had been re-diagnosed at a time in Germany when people with psychiatric illnesses were being killed or forced to undergo sterilization. It allowed the Nazis to promote Schumann as a hero of German romantic music, but no serious psychiatrist before or after National Socialism believed that Kleinebreil’s assessment was correct. However, many other more realistic diagnoses have been made and continue to be done to this day. Track these down and you have a bigger story than Schumann’s: that of the name of diseases and the evolving stigmas surrounding mental health; a story of how we think and think, and the values we had and now hold. It could also be the story of modern psychiatry itself.
On Love song, a wonderful 1947 biographical film of Robert and Clara Schumann and their close friend Johannes Brahms, a doctor examines Robert, suggests to Clara that he might have “blues” and then says, “I can’t say anything for sure. Melancholy, his mind … What does anyone know about the mind !? Almost nothing yet. “That soon changed. As David Healy, author of Mania: A Short History of Bipolar Disorder, puts it: figures that shaped the way we see things, one would be Sigmund Freud, who would think about shaping the mental approach we have towards things, and the other would be Emil Kraepelin, who shaped physical focus: the idea of that we have diseases, diseases “. Both were born in 1856, the year of Schumann’s death.
The most compelling diagnosis of Schumann’s disease and cause of death was first established 50 years after his death. Hans Gruhle, a student at Kraepelin, suggested a dual diagnosis: manic depression (now more commonly called bipolar disorder), followed by tertiary syphilis, for which there was no cure until the 1910s. His opinion was shared by two British psychiatrists, Eliot Slater and Alfred Meyer, who examined the Schumann case in 1959, and also by Franz Hermann Franken, the first doctor able to analyze the medical records of the Endenich asylum.
Schumann remains a source of intrigue for psychiatrists due to the vast amount of material he left to study: extensive diaries, countless essays on music and lyrics, as well as his music. Carnival (1835) it has come under closer scrutiny. A set of 21 short piano works, each representing different figures at a masked ball, “stands almost like a catalog of bipolar symptoms,” according to American psychiatrist and pianist Dr. Richard Kogan. In 2015, Kogan gave a talk at the Wellcome Collection in London on composers and mental illness in which he said: “Sometimes in Carnival, you have the feeling that thoughts and ideas are rushing through your imagination, and even though you can’t understand them all, you are trying … I am convinced that that this piece could not have been written by someone who did not have bipolar disorder. “
Bold statements like that have always had another cut. “As psychiatrists listened to Schumann’s music for evidence of illness, musicians began using psychiatric diagnoses to aid their evaluations of musical quality,” Yael Braunschweig wrote in the New York Times in 2010. To this day Schumann’s music sits awkwardly in the repertoire, with his later works often dismissed as symptomatic of a weakened mind. Not so, says the cellist Steven Isserlis. An ardent defender of Schumann’s late music, he points out the Ghost variations (1854) as an example of misunderstood work. “I think they are beautiful, a farewell to life, really,” he says. “Between the penultimate and the last variation, he tried to commit suicide, he jumped into the Rhine. So, you would think it would be disorganized and crazy music. Not at all. It is very contained and sublime. “
Without scans, x-rays, blood tests, and the like, we will never be able to make a conclusive diagnosis of Schumann’s disease. “The music speaks for itself; there is nothing that needs to be diagnosed in psychiatric terms about music, ”argues Judith Chernaik, Schumann’s biographer. And yet, as Braunschweig says: “Schumann prepared this for us by talking about the relationships between what was happening in his life and his creative process. People will continue to want to find these connections to mental health and that is an important aspect of what keeps Schumann relevant to the public. It keeps people listening to his music, because they keep finding ways that music is relevant to their own lives. “
Robert Schumann’s many diagnoses are in BBC Radio 3 on September 19 at 6:45 p.m. and on BBC Sounds for 30 days after broadcast.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism