We mark the death on July 29, 1856 – 163 years ago today – of the German composer, pianist, and music critic Robert Schumann at the age of 46.
The actress Valerie Harper was back in the news this week. Now nearly 80 years old (her birthday is on August 22nd), she is best remembered for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then its spin-off, Rhoda, in the 1970s. Ms. Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer back in 2009, and she has fought like the proverbial tiger since. Her time is almost up; this week’s news was about her husband’s refusal to ship her off to a hospice.
During the course of her illness, she has pointed out – correctly, if painfully for us all – that we are all “terminal.” I know, I know, I know: it’s not something anyone wants to think about, especially not on a Monday, which by itself is depressing enough. Yes, our time will come when it comes, but I, for one, want to spend as little energy as possible thinking about it. But having buried three beloved family members long before their time should have been up, I am as aware as anyone of the randomness of disease and death and the emotional catastrophe it leaves in its wake.
Are you still with me?
Death sucks; no two ways about it. But there is such a thing as a good death: quick, painless, and in old age. And, tragically, there is such a thing as a bad death: slow, painful, and at a young age.
Robert Schumann, bless him, suffered a very bad death.
He was a big, sweet, talented bear of a man with bi-polar disease. In 1831 – at the age of 21 – he acquired syphilis from a prostitute known to us as only “Christal” or “Charitas.” Writing in his diary at the time, Schumann referred to a “wound” that caused him “biting and gnawing pain”, in all likelihood a reference to a penile lesion. Not long before his death he scribbled a note recorded by his doctor: “In 1831 I was syphilitic and treated with arsenic.”
Schumann was one of the very few to not just emerge from the first two stages of syphilis physically intact but into a 20-year-long latency, during which he was non-infectious and symptom-free. He must have believed he was one of the blessed few to have been cured of what was, at the time, an otherwise fatal disease.
But between January and November of 1853, Schumann – now a married father of six, living and working in the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf – experienced a series of increasingly worrisome neurological disorders, among them an inability to speak or write for days at a time, rheumatoid pain, dizziness, aural disturbances and enlarged pupils in both eyes. Whether he realized it or not, Schumann’s syphilis had entered its mortal, tertiary stage.
In February of 1854, his mind gave way.
During the evening of February 10, he was tormented by what he called:
“very strong and painful aural disturbances.”
Within a week, the sounds in Schumann’s ears had taken shape; he reported hearing:
“Magnificent music, with instruments of splendid resonance, the like of which has never been heard on earth before.”
His wife Clara was becoming more and more frightened. She wrote in her diary:
“My poor Robert suffers terribly. All sounds are transformed for him into music . . . He has said several times that if it does not stop, he’ll go out of his mind.”
On February 18, as if in some terrifying horror movie, angels that had been singing to him turned into devils that took the form of tigers and hyenas. Clara wrote:
“His condition soon became hysterical. He cried out in agony, and the two doctors, who luckily were there, could hardly hold him. I shall never forget the way he looked at me; I suffered with him the cruelest torments.”
And so it went, day-by-day getting worse.
Finally, on February 26th, 1854, terrified that he might physically injure his wife and children, Schumann asked to be taken to a lunatic asylum. His doctor, Dr. Boger, convinced him to settle down and go to bed. When he woke up the next day Robert murmured to Clara:
“Ah, Clara, I am not worthy of your love.”
The awful climax was at hand. It was February 27th; a cold and rainy day in Düsseldorf. Wearing only his slippers and his dressing gown, Schumann slipped unnoticed out of the house. He turned left and, with his head down, he walked – unsteadily and sobbing – towards the Rhine River, only four blocks away. His friend Rupert Becker, the concertmaster of the Düsseldorf Orchestra, reports what happened next:
“Schumann snuck out of his bedroom at two in the afternoon and headed straight for the Rhine, jumping into the river from the middle of the Rhine Bridge. Luckily, he was noticed at the entrance to the bridge, because he had given his handkerchief [to the toll taker] since he had no money for the toll! Fortunately, several fishermen came along with a little boat immediately after he had leapt and saved him. Once in the boat, he tried to jump into the water again, but the fishermen prevented him. The trip home must have been dreadful; he was transported by eight men and followed by a group of people (it was Carnival season) who amused themselves at his expense.”
Clara, herself on the verge of a breakdown, had to be physically restrained in order to keep her from seeing her husband. For reasons quite impossible to fathom, she was not told about his suicide attempt until some two years after Robert’s death. Schumann again demanded to be institutionalized and this time his doctors agreed. He was admitted to a private sanitarium run by Dr. Franz Richarz, located in Endenich, a suburb of Bonn. Schumann’s doctors, fearing that any sight of his wife and children would agitate their patient, forbade Clara from either seeing him or saying goodbye to him. Instead, in Clara’s own words:
“I sat at [the house of] Fraulein Leser in a stupor, thinking, ‘now I’m done for.’”
The only bright spot – if it can be called such – was the actions of the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, who had befriended the Schumanns just four months before. When he heard about the suicide attempt, Brahms rushed to Düsseldorf and stayed at Clara’s side for the better part of two years. He quickly assumed many of the duties of the “head-of-the-household” and in the process, he fell in love with Clara. Whether they were ever lovers is still a matter of speculation, as it has been since the 1850s. In any case, what is certain is that Clara and her children survived these times largely intact because of Johannes Brahms’ selflessness and loyalty.
Schumann spent 2½ years in the asylum at Endenich. Clara’s hopes and emotions rose and fell by the day, depending upon the news from the asylum. The physical and emotional strain she suffered are almost impossible to imagine.
Despite early hopes that he was improving, Schumann’s madness progressed inexorably. He would pace back and forth incessantly, frequently kneeling down and wringing his hands in despair. He held conversations with voices that accused him of plagiarism; he would become hysterical, screaming:
“That’s not true; it’s a lie!”
The resident doctor – Dr. Franz Richarz – kept a detailed log of Schumann’s condition. Many of the entries are painful to read, as they show us a man in the throes of what was incurable madness. For example, the log entry for May 8, 1855, fourteen months after Schumann’s hospitalization reads as follows:
“Yesterday Schumann was continually agitated, talking drivel loudly and rapidly, also while walking in the garden he made fierce gesticulations; afterward, he played the piano in a wild and crazy manner for almost two hours, hollering all the while; after dinner he was violent with the attendant, threatening him with a chair. At night, sleepless, uninterrupted ranting and raving, threatened the attendant again. His speech is indistinct, like a drunkard.”
Sometime around July 15, 1856, his immune system shattered, Schumann fell ill with a respiratory infection. His weakened body could not fight off the infection, which rapidly turned into full-blown pneumonia.
On July 23, 1856, Clara received a telegram from Dr. Richarz:
“If you want to see your husband alive, come with all haste.”
Four days later, on Sunday evening, July 27, 1856, Clara saw Robert for the first time in nearly 2½ years. He was almost unrecognizable – emaciated, aged beyond his years, bed-ridden. Clara wrote:
“He smiled at me, and with great exertion – for he could no longer control his limbs – put his arm about me. I shall never forget it. Not all the treasures in the world could equal this embrace.”
The next day Clara helped him to drink a little wine. Some of it spilled on her hand and, according to Clara,
“[Robert], with the happiest expression and truly in haste, licked the wine from my fingers – ah. He knew it was me.”
As this played out, the 23-year-old Johannes Brahms, standing in a corner of the room, looked on with horror.
Throughout the day Schumann’s arms and legs convulsed almost continuously. He died the next day, July 29, 1856, at four o’clock in the afternoon. He was alone; Clara had gone with Brahms to pick up their friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, at the train station. Clara arrived back at the hospital only to find that Robert was dead. She wrote in her diary:
“I saw him only half an hour later. I stood by his corpse, my ardently beloved husband, and was quiet; all my thoughts went up to God with thanks that he was finally free. As I knelt at his bed, it seemed as if a magnificent spirit was hovering over me. If only he had taken me along.”
For lots more on Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses, Great Masters biographies, The Schumanns: Their Lives and Music and Brahms: His Life and Music, which can be sampled and downloaded here on RobertGreenbergMusic.com.