Composing Music at the Boundary of Sanity
“My heart pounds sickeningly and I turn pale… I often feel as if I were dead… I seem to be losing my mind.”
-Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Nineteenth-century German composer and pianist, Robert Schumann, suffered a debilitating mental collapse that unfurled over the last two-and-a-half years of his life.
His breakdown featured auditory hallucinations, paranoia, obsessive behavior, delusional thinking, and a suicide attempt. From March of 1854 until his death in July of 1856, Schumann lived in the care of doctors and nurses in a mental hospital.
Remarkably, he was still composing music during this time.
His mental illness was almost certainly brought on by tertiary stage syphilis. Schumann had contracted the disease while he was in his early twenties; by the time he was in his early forties, the infection had spread to his brain. Syphilis that develops in this manner is called neurosyphilis (Norton 725; Neurosyphilis para 1).
Most journalists and historians suggest that, in addition to having had neurosyphilis, Schumann had some form of mental illness born of non-organic causes.
For example, according to the late medical doctor and popular science writer, Oliver Sacks, Schumann had either a “manic depressive or schizo-affective disorder” in addition to having neurosyphilis (Sacks 56).
Sacks’s diagnosis of Schumann is in accordance with the opinions of countless journalists, historians, and musicologists. Here are three examples:
- The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music writes that Schumann “had always dreaded the possibility of madness” (75).
- A History of Western Music (Grout, Palisca, Burkholder) notes Schumann had “depression, which ran in his family” (725).
- Musicologist Gerald Abraham, writing in The New Grove Early Romantic Masters 1, suggested that Schumann “had been tortured by fits of melancholy, partly physical in origin, partly psychological” (139).
Indeed, most writing about Schumann features commentary of this sort. But not everyone is convinced. Professor John Worthen of the University of Nottingham, England makes a persuasive case against Schumann having had schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression in his book, Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician. Worthen suggests that all claims about Schumann having had a mental illness of the non-organic variety lack convincing evidence.
Moreover, Worthen considers Schumann’s documented bouts of melancholia and his fears about death and madness to be compatible with normal mental health (Worthen p. xv).
In any case, the final years of Schumann’s life—when he was insane—are quite interesting because he was still composing music during this time. Some of this music still exists.
Schumann’s Malfunctioning Brain Hallucinates Ceaseless Musical Sounds and the Ghost of Franz Schubert
During Schumann’s final years, he experienced a litany of bewildering and terrifying symptoms brought on by neurosyphilis.
One of these symptoms was a form of tinnitus, which is ringing in the ears. But instead of buzzing or ringing—the usual forms of tinnitus—Schumann heard a musical pitch or an entire orchestra. The music sounded in his head, day and night, and sometimes went on for days (Steen 415).
His wife, virtuoso concert pianist Clara Schumann (1819-1896), explained later that Schumann had experienced “very strong and painful auditory disturbances” during this time period (Worthen 347).
Schumann viewed the phenomenon as a curious oddity at first. He even described it as “wonderful suffering.” He commented to his friend, violinist Rupert Becker (1830-1904), that “this must be how it is in another life, after we’ve cast off our mortal coil.” But after the music in his head went on for a period of days, Schumann felt he was on the verge of losing his mind. He sought the care of two local doctors, and they prescribed him sedatives. His condition did not improve, however (Worthen 348).
A week into his musical hallucinations, Schumann began experiencing a new, more bewildering phenomenon—he began hallucinating ghosts who dictated music to him. According to Becker, Schumann believed the spirit of Franz Schubert came to him one night and gave him a melody (Worthen 348).
Schumann wrote the theme down and turned it into a piano piece called Theme and Variations in E-flat Major. It’s sometimes called, Geistervariationen, which means, “Ghost Variations.” Schumann was so detached from reality he failed to realize that the theme was actually from a violin concerto he’d written six months prior (“Geistervariationen” para 2; Worthen 349).
One February morning in 1854 while working on his ghost variations, Schumann left home without telling his wife and while wearing only a dressing gown and slippers. He then walked in the rain to a nearby pontoon bridge that crossed the Rhine river, bribed the toll collector with a silk handkerchief, and then submerged himself in the frigid river water. His intent was suicide by drowning (Worthen 355-354).
Schumann had created a spectacle by shuffling about in his dressing gown in the rain, so he was seen by many going into the water. He was, therefore, rescued almost immediately by fishermen. After they pulled him from the water, Schumann was brought back home amidst a gaggle of townsfolk (Abraham 172).
Soon after this episode, Schumann was taken to an asylum—as per his own recommendation—where he degenerated further over a two-and-a-half-year period. (Norton/Grove 725).
Schumann Suffers Madness and then Dies in the Sanitarium
Schumann’s final years are a fascinating study in the capacity of the human brain to malfunction and suffer. He heard voices, he hallucinated music, he sometimes had to be restrained in a strait jacket, he became obsessed with various oddities like maps and the game of dominoes. When he was allowed, he improvised on the piano (Worthen 379).
He composed a considerable amount of music during his final years in the asylum. But historians think Clara and close family friend, composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), destroyed much of this work to protect Schumann’s legacy.
This may seem a loss to posterity, but the music was likely of poor quality. It appears that composing was Schumann’s desperate attempt to hang on to sanity. One of his doctors reported him writing a fugue, which is a highly systemized and fixed style of composition. Writing a fugue would’ve been a perfect activity for arranging a disorderly mind. If Schumann was a mathematician instead of a musician, then his fugue writing behavior would’ve probably manifested itself as equation solving behavior—both are equivalently pedantic activities. His new compositions were not the raving doodling of a madman, however. For he had them all organized and ready for Clara’s review—just like normal (Worthen 382-384).
Since some of this late period music exist, we as listeners are beneficiaries of Schumann’s mental suffering.
The last six months were terrible because he was no longer within shouting distance of his right mind. Schumann couldn’t play piano or compose because he was too busy urinating in his room, gnashing his teeth, or insisting that the doctors were giving him excrement to eat.
Schumann had entered the third and final stage of syphilis in which the sufferer experiences a loss of coordination, decreased sensitivity, and a form of dementia known as “generalized paralysis of the insane” (Penguin 1309).
He died in July of 1856. In the end, an autopsy showed physical damage to Schumann’s skull and brain. This damage, according to modern diagnoses, was born of paresis, which is inflammation of the brain brought on by syphilis (“Paresis” para 1; Worthen 390-391).
Abraham, G. “Robert Schumann” from The New Grove Early Romantic Masters 1: Chopin, Schumann, Liszt. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985.
Burkholder, P.J., Grout, D.J., Palisca, C.V. A History of Western Music. 9th ed. W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 2014.
“Geistervariationen” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 12 Mar. 2016.
Norton. Grove. The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. Edited by Sadie, Stanley, and Alison Latham W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 1994.
NPR.org. Joyce Yang: Inside The Psyche of Schumann: Celebrating the Schumann Bicentennial. Published June 8, 2010.
“Paresis.” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 19 Mar. 2016.
Sacks, Oliver W. Migraine: The Evolution of a Common Disorder. Berkeley: U of California, 1970.
Steen, Michael. The Lives and Times of the Great Composers. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
Worthen, J. Robert Schuman Life and Death of a Musician. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.