On Monday, we listened to Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 “Spring,” a sunny piece written in the “springtime” of Schumann’s life, shortly after his marriage to Clara. Now let’s hear a different, darker side of Schumann: two strange, haunting works from the final years of the composer’s life, written as he descended into insanity.
It’s now believed that Schumann suffered from tertiary syphilis, a disease which appeared gradually over time and produced a host of hideous symptoms. Schumann experienced a painfully prolonged “A” ringing in his ears. Additionally, it’s possible that neurological problems altered his perception of tempo. Throughout his life, Schumann reported hearing inner voices which led to some of his most profound music…pieces like Kreisleriana opus 16. In his final years, the “spirits” which Schumann believed surrounded him, offering the “most magnificent revelations,” increasingly turned into demons.
Ghost Variations for solo piano is filled with a combination of sadness and solemn beauty. It was the last piece Schumann wrote before entering the asylum at his own request in February, 1854. There’s a stately nobility to the repetitive opening rhythm which seems to be a trademark of Schumann’s music. It’s a theme which gains power through simplicity. The theme reaches its climax just before the resolution of the final cadence. It seems to hesitate for a moment, as if attempting to hold onto the ephemeral, and to express its deepest message in this one last chord. As the five variations unfold, listen to the way the voices begin to pull apart and become more diffuse. In the second variation they break into a strangely disjunct canon. The fourth variation enters anguished minor territory which gives way to a hazy dream world.
Schumann’s Ghost Variations inspired Brahms’ Variations For 4 Hands On A Theme By Schumann, Op.23.
Here are two back-to-back recordings featuring Piotr Anderszewski and then Igor Levit:
Jessica Duchen’s recent novel Ghost Variations dramatizes the strange story of Schumann’s obscure Violin Concerto. Written in 1853 for the violinist Joseph Joachim, it’s a sprawling, seemingly incoherent work, which Clara Schumann and Brahms attempted to hide from the public. Damian Thompson details the story of Schumann’s nearly-lost Violin Concerto in this article,
After Schumann’s death in 1856, the violinist Joseph Joachim hid away the strange concerto that the composer had written for him in 1853 because it showed evidence of softening of the brain. Clara, Robert’s widow, agreed. That became the conventional wisdom. The violin concerto was suppressed until 1933 when — appropriately for such spectral music — the disembodied voice of Schumann contacted two of Joachim’s nieces during a séance and demanded its recovery. The work was fished out of the Prussian state library and championed by the Nazis, who saw it as an alternative to the devilishly hummable violin concerto by the Jew Mendelssohn.
At moments, Schumann’s music seems to foreshadow Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Then, we slip into passages which become strangely static, with dissonances that would be at home in the twentieth century. Occasional sequences suggest concertos of the baroque era. In the opening of the second movement, you’ll hear a fragment of the Ghost Variations theme emerge.
Listen to Gidon Kremer’s live recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and share your thoughts about the piece in the thread below. Is this the delusional music of a composer who has gone over the edge, or is it a powerful, if eccentric, work which has something to say?
- Ghost Variations, Robert Schumann: Jean-Marc Luisada, piano iTunes
- Violin Concerto in D minor, Robert Schumann: Isabelle Faust iTunes
- Ghost Variations, a novel by Jessica Duchen
- A reference to Schumann pops up in the Seinfeld episode, The Jacket.
6 thoughts on “Schumann’s Musical Descent into Insanity”
Schumann: violin concerto > Zehetmaier plays violin and conducts. Schumann in optima forma (in youtube). For me this concerto is a highlight in composer’s oeuvre. Awfully neglected for too long. Any starviolinist can prove his superiority in this enigmatic composition, so modern as well as traditional at the same time, leading Schumann’s pupil and more than dear friend Brahms to aim for the same blend. In which Johannes succeeded triumphantly.
I can’t listen to the violin concerto. I can hear the madness in every measure and it makes me want to cry. I long for his disease to magically disappear and for my dear Schumann to be well and whole again.
Really interesting, I’ll find them all and listen!
Yelli d’Aranyi was actually Joachim’s great-niece. I knew her well.
I’m pleased to say I first heard this work 25 years ago, unaware of who had composed it, on a budget priced recording probably performed by an Eastern Bloc orchestra — wish I could identify the soloist. It was well played and recorded and I loved it immediately. Next, at London’s Festival Hall, I heard another proponent, Joshua Bell, play it. He has done a lot to make the work popular.
It’s not as though Schumann was totally ‘gaga’ or feeble-minded, and it seems likely that today he would be diagnosed as bipolar, swinging between extreme high and low spirits, possibly exacerbated by mercury poisoning (a syphilis treatment) and/or a brain tumour. Morbidly depressive episodes would hardly make him unique among gifted artists, however. Within my own lifetime in the early 1950s, my grandmother was treated with a lobotomy, a barbaric practice — so imagine the paucity of mental health knowledge 120 years beforehand! Many who comment on the sadness, etc. of this Violin Concerto might do better to put aside their ideas of Schumann’s mental state, and Clara and Joachim’s reaction to it. The concerto deserves to be appreciated on its own merits.
I am a musician with an artistic temperment & bi-polar. Extreme highs & depressive lows. I have composed during my so called madness. To have to listen to an “A” note ringing in my ears would make me want to jump into a river. Alas, there are no rivers here. Schumann was a genius. Let us all remember that. Thank you. 💓