Interview With Peter Ostwald
by John C. Tibbetts
Note: The late Peter Ostwald wrote his groundbreaking psycho-biography, Robert Schumann: The Inner Voices, in 1985. This transcript is culled from several interviews that transpired at his offices in the Langley-Porter Psychiatric Institute, San Francisco, from 19851989.
TibbettsMaybe first you could tell me what kind of a doctor you are. Here we are at the Langley Porter Institute, and from there we can get into the various roads that led you to the Schumann scholarship at hand. What is your official title as a doctor?
OstwaldWell let me start at the beginning. I am a musician from early life on. I began studying to play the violin when I was eight and have continued being a musician. When I was in my adolescence, I became very much interested in psychoanalysis and read a lot of Freuds works, especially on dreams. My father was a doctor, and he had all those books available, so of course I thought that wouldnt be an interesting thing to do. My father encouraged that because he didnt think it would be very practical for me to be a musician. He thought I should do something practical like being an electrician or a plumber or a doctor. But he was very supportive and always allowed me to have lessons; and he gave me a nice violin so I kept up the two interests and specialized in psychiatry after I completed medical school.
I went into psychiatry. I had my training in New York, which was a wonderful place to be because there are so many musicians there; and I met a lot of musicians and had a wonderful time. When I moved back to California, I met my wife-to-be who, is a pianist from Canada. So weve maintained a very lively interest in things musical, and we have a lot of music at the house. And in my work at the University, where I am a professor of psychiatry, I have always chosen to do projects that bridge the gap, so to speak, between music and medicine. Some of my early research was in the field of acoustics, for instance, specifically questions like hearing disturbances and speech disorders. I became very interested in the diagnostic meanings of babies cries. That was a fascinating field, and of course Ive always been very interested in the problems of musicians. I treat a lot of patients who are musicians or performing artists. I am the director of a clinic here at the University which specializes in the disorders of performing artists.
TWhich would include the kind of auditory hallucinations that Schumann himself apparently was heir to ?
OWell, yes and no to the extent that would become a problem for performing artists. But auditory hallucinations, of course, do not respect your profession or work. They occur in association with a number of different diseases, and those will strike people from all walks of life.
Psychiatry and Music
TIt already sounds obvious that the connections between your interest in psychiatry and music would inevitably lead you to somebody like a Schumann or a Wolf or a Smetana.
OWell yes, of course, as a psychiatrist and a musician, I was always very interested in the idea that perhaps musicians go mad. Thats sort of a myth that one hears about mad musicians. In fact, it turns out that musicians tend to be extraordinarily healthy, and Ive found very few cases of musicians who were mad. Now Schumann happens to be one of those, and it was very exciting to find out, first of all, that no one had ever seriously investigated questions around Schumanns madness; and secondly, that there was a great deal of interesting material that could be reviewed and could be utilized to reconstruct the evolution of Schumanns problems and to begin to relate the problems to the way he worked and the way he wrote his music.
TAnd to locate those problems so far back into his youth, too, to find the depressions and the suicidal tendencies surfacing very early on in his life, not just later .
OYes, well that was important because in the standard biographies one gets the impression that although he was somewhat unstable and unhappy, he had no serious illnesses until his twenties. Now it turns out that he himself described episodes of illness earlier. He was an exceedingly insightful person. This was, of course, a source of great fascination for me. He was almost like a patient in psychotherapy who has gone to all the trouble to reveal to you what he has observed about his suffering. And so Schumann proceeds, after the age of 16, to record almost every day his fluctuations in mood, his experiences, his observations, and that made him very, very interesting for psychiatric study.
His way of describing his symptoms changed during the course of time, and there are many reasons for that. As he grew older, he referred to his problems as illness rather than madness. He began his career, as you know, during the so-called Romantic Era. Actually, it was the tail end of the Romantic Era. His own father had been in that time of sturm und drang, but Schumann was born in 1810 and Romanticism was very much still in favor among German intellectuals and artists. Schumann cultivated that kind of romanticism, and he indulged in thinking about himself as being mad. He liked to read the works of other people who had mad experiences, such as E. T. A. Hoffmann, who described that in his stories about Johannes Kreisler. And Schumann also read widely in the novels of Jean Paul Richter, which deal with the concept of the double personality as it was understood in the Romantic Era.
TDo you think, at the same time, he was inordinately afraid of going mad. Its as if hes fascinated and repelled by the same thing, all at the same time.
OVery definitely so. He was fascinated by it. He was tempted to drive himself into a kind of hypomania, or I should put it differentlyan inner disorder which was a kind of what we call nowadays an affective disorder. It would drive him into hypomanic episodes. He would actually enjoy them to a degree. He would use them creatively. He would write; he would become very productive. But he was also very, very fearful of losing control over himself, so that he had this double attitude towards his madness. On the one hand, he realized that it was something that pushed him into creative outbursts; on the other hand, it made him feel so sick and so unwell that he repeatedly sought help.
The Young Schumann
THow could you best typify Schumann, the young student, in the days of Heidelberg and Leipzig, maybe a bit of a profile of the man, still in his late teens. What was he like?
OWell, he was a very kaleidoscopic character actually. What the popular biographies emphasize is that he was something of a playboy. He was spoiled. He was a bit of a dandy, a social butterflythats part of it. On the other hand, he was also exceedingly shy, and much of the exuberance that one observed was a kind of forceful attempt to overcome his basic shyness and his social inhibition. He had great difficulty talking, for instance. That was a trait that was noticed by his friends already very early. He himself noticed it when he was in school. He had difficulty speaking. He would try to recite. He would get stuck. He would stumble, and later on he would often become quite inarticulate so that he would sit in a group of people and he would say almost nothing for hours. Occasionally, he would open up with someone with whom he felt very comfortable, and he could talk. But by and large, he was also a person who was quite inhibited, quite shy.
TAnd yet on paper, not so at all. He was quite garrulous.
OExactly. This is fascinating. He poured himself out on paper. He could write endlessly. As I said earlier, he wrote something about himself every day, and of course, for ten years he was a newspaper journalist and editor of a newspaper. He wrote copious amounts of criticism, commentaries on music and musician. He also wrote poetry, and when he was younger, he attempted to write novels and short stories. Most of those have been lying in the archives. They were never finished and never published. His older brothers were publishers, but they never published any of his works. They realized, I think, that they were not first-rate work, and they wanted the name Schumann associated with the best. Now, when it comes to music, thats something else. Here again, Schumann wrote copiously, but he wrote very great music, and I certainly think he was one of the greatest composers of his time.
TYou allude to some of the unpublished songs. Sehnsucht was one of them. You were just doing some corrections on that on the telephone. Some of them had been recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but some, according to my knowledge, have not.
OYes, its a problem. Well, I cant vouch for the unpublished songs because many of the things that were not published in Schumanns lifetime have now been published without opus numbers. Sehnsucht, which you referred toactually, Im not sure that was a song. It was a poem he wrote and he may have written it with the idea of using it as a song text, but there are gaps in the Fischer-Dieskau three volume anthology of Schumann songs, and Im hoping for a fourth volume because there are some songs there. Id like very much to hear all of the songs set to text by Elizabeth Kuhlmann. Those are very important songs because they were written when Schumann was close to his very severe mental illness episode in his early forties, and he became so interested in Elizabeth Kuhlmanns poetry at the time. I have some of them on records, but not all of them.
TAre there some materials that are still, for various reasons, prohibited from being published, translated, or whatever?
OWell, I wish I knew for sure. At the symposium that I just attended at Dusseldorf, I met Barbara Schumann who is, I believe, a great-great-granddaughter, and I should have asked her whether she has any material. I do believe that various members of the family surviving may still have some things that have perhaps not been really looked at and scrutinized for one reason or another. You know that there was a great cache of letters and documents of various sorts and also items such as Claras fur coat and her silk stockings, things like that which were sent by Ferdinand Schumann, the grandson I believe, over to a family in upstate New York after the war. This whole collection, the Dickinson Collection I believe its called. Nancy could tell you more about that. Thats all now been returned to Germany, and theyre just sorting it out. I saw the beginnings of the exhibit when I was over there. So I think there are probably some materials, some documents still that havent been thoroughly analyzed.
TBefore we leave the student days prior to Schumanns moving into the Wieck household, what are some of the great unanswered questions still in your mind about his attitudes and accomplishments as a student? For example, did he indeed attend law courses? There seems to be a controversy about that. In Heidelberg.
OWell, I think part of that is because we think of college students today as going to classes. Of course that wasnt really the way it was done in those days. Professors gave their lectures and sometimes students went, and sometimes they didnt, and a lot of studying was done at home. I think Schumann, by and large, did not really feel strongly compelled to be a lawyer. He registered at the University as a law student, but that was done mostly to comply with the wishes of his mother and his brothers. He really wanted to be an artist. I dont believe theres much of a controversy there anymore. Some people, of course, would say he never set foot in a lecture room, and others say he attended very dutifully. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. He probably went occasionally to a lecture, but we know that much of the time he was in his apartment playing the piano. For one thing, in Heidelberg he first developed symptoms of pain in his right hand. That was surely associated with over-practicing.
The Hand Controversy
TI know that this is a very complex issue, and youve written about it other places in addition to your book on Schumann. Is it possible to assess, in a nutshell, just what was wrong with his hand and why has it come down over the years as a controversial issue. Did he himself cloud the issue in later years as to just what happened?
OHe didnt say much about it in later years, but I think, andyou may have to go to Nancy Reich to have this confirmedI think Clara herself confused the issue by forgetting which finger it was. In a nutshell, its not that unusual a problem. One finds this not too uncommonly among musicians, especially pianists, who practice a great deal and who practice octaves and difficult passage work over and over again that they developed various muscular strains and sometimes mild neuropathies, as we call them, inflammations of nerves. Those are not unusual problems. The question is how are these things best treated? Well, Schumann consulted a number of doctors and some of the treatments are not exactly what we would nowadays recommend. For example, there was one doctor who used what was called in that day an animal treatment where you went to the butcher shop, and you got yourself a freshly slaughtered pig or calf, and then you inserted your ailing hand into that animal, and you were supposed to absorb the healing powers from the animal warmth.
TI love the reaction he expressed to that. Do you recall the one Im talking about? Wanted to go out and hit somebody, beat somebody up.
OIt obviously disgusted him and dismayed him and made him very angry and didnt help him. If anything, it probably stimulated some of his disturbing fantasies about death, and he had many fantasies about death.
TBut you do seem to be discounting a syphilitic connection with the finger injury.
OWell, first of all the whole concept of syphilis was different in those days. It was very, very problematical to make a correct diagnosis of syphilis, but in terms of the hand problem, Ive never seen that connection in any patient. Ive never seen it described in any patients. I base my thinking essentially on a paper that came from two neurologists in England who reviewed the problem, and they seemed very skeptical that syphilis could produce that kind of a problem in the hand, and also they were very skeptical about the idea that treatment for syphilis would have anything to do with producing Schumanns symptoms.
TWhich brings to mind the fact that you did some experiments with some of his hair?
OWell, yes I was fortunate to get samples of his hair.
TThis amazes me. Where do you get hair from the head of Robert Schumann?
OYou can get it in several places. It was not too unusual in those days for people to save locks of hair, and Clara Schumann had quite a large, well-organized hair collection. In fact, I have hair sample of Johannes Brahms, Josef Joachim, Clara Schumann herself, Schumanns father, and various other people. I think it was something that was done at the end of a party, lets say. Everybody would contribute a lock a lock of hair, and then she would tie a little ribbon around them and paste them in a book, and I found this collection in Dresden at the state library, and I was very fortunate to obtain permission from the director of the library to take a few strands of hair along and to have them tested. Now I was interested, of course, in the question of syphilis and mercury treatment, and one way I thought we could get closer to an answer was by testing the hair for mercury because if someone is exposed to mercury, that would be deposited in the hair. Well, I found that both Schumanns father and Schumann had traces in their hair so that raises the question how did it get there? In those days, hats were blocked with mercury. Mercury was an agent used by the hat blockers, hence the term the mad hatter because hatters who worked with mercury would often develop toxic disorder due to the mercury. So the most likely explanation was the mercury got on the hair from the wearing of the hats.
TNow when you get strands of hair like this, do you have to return them?
OI wasnt asked to return them. There are plenty of other strands of hair. I suppose if they run short, they might ask me to. Theres plenty of hair there. Theres also pictures of Schumann with little strands of hair underneath in other collections. Hairs not that difficult to obtain from these nineteenth century figures, but to complete the problem of hair analysis. The other possibility, of course, is that he may have gotten mercury into his system from some kind of medication, and so I reviewed what the practices Here of the physicians who actually treated Schumann, and there was one doctor, Muehler was his name, in Leipzig who used mercury very liberally. In fact his textbooks were reprinted for many years. He used mercury very often to treat a number of symptoms that Schumann had such as headaches, depression, weakness, very nonspecific symptoms so its not impossible Schumann was given mercury at some time.
THow would the mercury have been administered?
O It was given in the form of a salve, or it was administered in drops in a kind of solution. The problems with the hair is we dont know when these hair samples were taken, and thats why this makes this a very unsatisfactory was of trying to make a diagnosis.
TIts interesting though, that that is a kind of scholarship that has been available only to a modern generation of physicians, however, that kind of chemical analysis.
OThats right, but the chemical analysis of hair would be something new. Of course there have been other physical studies. Someone went and exhumed Schumanns skull.
TThis is a morbid story. I remember you got into this in the book.
OBut thats not uncommon. There were many theories in the nineteenth century about intelligence and other mental functions being directly related to the configuration of the brain. You know the whole idea of phrenology. You would have diagnostic experts who would palpate your head and on the basis of the shape of your skull would diagnose what your mental state was. In fact Schumann himself subjected himself to that kind of diagnosis at one time. So then after a person would die, the head often was removed and studied, and someone did that with Schumanns skull in 1885.
TWhat happened to it?
OWell, I dont know if he lost it or just kept it somewhere, but its never been returned. Same thing happened, I understand, to Haydn.
THow did you find that out? Thats something Id never come across before.
OI think it was Gerd Nauhaus who told me about it. In fact, I have a very funny story to tell you about that. When I was at Robert-Schumann-Haus, in Zwickau, which of course is in East Germany, I worked with Gerd Nauhaus. All the Schumann letters are in a safe deposit box, the diaries too, where they should be. Gerd would take these things out, and I saw the safe deposit box, and there was one section of it, a drawer which had a heavy red seal on it, and he never took anything out of that drawer. I was terribly curious, of course, to find out what was in that drawer. I decided one day to ask him, Well, Gerd, I know whats in that drawer. And he became terribly pale and became very flustered and said, Oh you do? You know whats in that drawer? And I said, Yes, of course I know what youre keeping there. Its Schumanns skull. And the moment I said that, he relaxed and his color came back, and he said, Oh Im so glad that you dont know it. In that drawer we keep the escape plans in case theres a bombardment, a nuclear holocaust. These are the escape plans for the city of Zwickau.
THow readily accessible were these documents to the researcher? Did you have to present certain credentials and advance planning even to gain access to things?
OOh yeah. I had to identify myself to Dr. Schoppe, whos the director of the Schumann House. I wrote to him well in advance of my visit. And then I wrote to Gerd Nauhaus also and told him what I was interested in doing and once my credentials and credibility had been checked, there was no problem at all.
TBecause I know youve written in nineteenth century music somewhat, but as far as any other writings youve done, Im ignorant.
OOh well, I havent written in the field of musicology, but Ive written in other fields, communication, language disorders, you name it.
The Robert-Clara Relationship
TBecause your article about Clara and the right hand was one of the most revelatory things I think Ive ever read, certainly in this field. You were already getting into some speculations and conclusions that are full-blown now in the book. For example, the relationship between Robert and Clara seems to have been in some far less of the idealized loving romance that we have inherited over the generations. You look at it with a much more objective eye, and you see problems there. For example, when they first met.
OThere were many, many problems. The relationship to some extent was romanticized. It makes a good story. I dont know if you ever saw Katharine Hepburn playing Clara Schumann and Paul Henreid, called Song of Love.
TIn fact, in that film Robert Walker looks amazingly like Brahms.
ORobert Walker was very good in that role. And this is the sort of romanticized view of the Schumanns marriage, but as we know, marriage has complications too, and there were many complications in that marriage. Of course Robert and Clara knew each other for many, many years before they actually got married, and already in those early years, there were problems. First of all, when they met, Clara was a mere child whereas Robert was a college student. He was eighteen, and she was nine years old when they met. So there was that kind of a discrepancy in the relationship where he hardly paid attention to her at first. It wasnt until she became an adolescent that they paid much attention to each other. He, by that time, had become interested in other women, and he in fact, had become engaged to one of Claras friends. That led to problems. Disappointment and bitterness on her part, and a certain amount of anxiety and guilt on his part. Then of course there was the big problem which never ceased, namely her fathers objection to the relationship, and he relentlessly attempted to keep them apart, did everything in his power to prevent the marriage, and after they were married, was not the ideal father-in-law, lets put it that way. Now Clara was very loyal to her father, so there was a problem right there in the relationship.
TWas there ever a time when they had taken it to the Leipzig court where all three were in the same courtroom at the same time, Father Wieck, Robert and Clara and the judge. How often, if any time, were all the participants actually together in a courtroom?
OWell, not too often because Wieck did a sort of hide-and-seek game. Wieck was very clever. He would stall the proceedings repeatedly by when a hearing was to take place, and of course, the hearing would require all the participants, Robert, Clara, and the witnesses, Wieck to be there, but Wieck often at the last moment would send a letter to court saying hes not going to be able to make an appearance, and then he would send a long letter in with various demands and stipulations to the court. So there were not many times when they were all together. But there were some. Theres a very poignant moment, in fact, where Wieck lost control over himself and became very emotional, and Clara was sort of caught in the middle. She was fighting against Wieck. She wanted to be married to Schumann, but also she felt such great pity for her father that it must have been very, very stressful. Now Im sure of that; Nancy has described that. I havent finished reading Nancys book yet, but I hope that she goes into that because I can see for Clara that must have been a terrifying moment.
TAt the same time, she indicates Claras ambivalence was extremely stressful to Robert.
OOh yes, not only the ambivalence but the real possibility that the case would be decided against him. You know heres another interesting misconception thats gotten into so many diaries. You read about the song year. You know Schumann would compose in cycles. He would devote himself for a long time to piano compositions, then suddenly he would change and begin writing songs almost exclusively, and one gets the impression in most the biographies that the song-writing began after he was happily married. Well this is a total misconception. The song-writing began actually at the time when it looked as though he might not succeed and the great cycles Dichterliebe and that wonderful Eichendorff (op. 39) were actually composed when things looked very bad for him. So I think these were artistic solutions for his despair and loneliness at a very difficult time in life. Its only after the marriage, then he continued to write. Now Im trying to remember when he wrote Frauenliebe und Leben.
TI think that followed the marriage.
OBut there was a continuity of course. He continued to write songs, but the song-writing itself actually began not after the marriage but before the marriage during that terribly troubling legal proceeding which lasted for more than a year actually. We forget how long it took before it was resolved.
TIs there any reason for you to believe that Schumanns own exposure to the law would have helped him here?
OYes, I think that what he learned, and this is good evidence that he must have attended classes sometime. We know that he read law books too. He was on friendly terms with some of the law students. He acquired some feeling for the law, and that helped him, not only in the law courts in Leipzig, but also in his finagling around contracts when he became the editor of The New Journal of Music because he took over that journal. He ran it almost single-handedly for many years, and in working out the contracts, one can see his precision, almost legalistic approach. Now he probably had help. Im not suggesting he did this all on his own. Quite the contrary. Im sure he had help, but he undoubtedly benefitted somewhat from the legal experience that he had. He also became somewhat litigious when he got into trouble in Duesseldorf when they tried to fire him from his job. His letters are rather rigid and litigious sounding, almost pathological.
TDo you recall who the judge was that decided this issue finally, and has he left any comments on the nature of his decision in favor of the marriage?
OWell I dont remember the name. Id have to look that up. I think he may have been a clergyman, actually, rather than a judge. It was a sort of court of conciliation. You know like a marriage court. What do we call them? They have such things here too.
TI know because she was under age still. She had to have the consent of her father.
OShe actually was the first person to consult a lawyer. She was in Paris when she found out that Wieck was planning to deprive her of her earnings. She had been working as a concert pianist from childhood on, and Wieck has collected everything for her with the understanding that someday it would be returned to her, but she found out from a friend that Wieck was planning to take all of her property away from her, and she consulted a lawyer, and at the same time Robert consulted a lawyer in Germany, and then they attempted a sort of out-of-court settlement, and when Wieck wouldnt go for that, then they had to go to court. I dont know who the judge was. My guess is that he was fundamentally very sensitive to the problems of Robert and Clara, but there were substantial charges against Schumann, and the most difficult one was the alcohol one. Wieck accused Schumann of being an alcoholic and being financially irresponsible. Those were the two things he had to defend himself against. Incidentally, its very interesting to me that Nancy Reich repeats the story that Schumann was financially irresponsible. One sees that in all the biographies, and I simply dont believe it cause in looking at the early diaries, one sees Schumann as being very, very conscientious. He records every penny that he took in and every penny that went out. I think he was very worried about money, and like many college students, he was short of money. His mother and his guardian really kept him on a short leash, and he had great difficulty in getting enough money. He liked to spend money, but I dont see him as being financially irresponsible. I think that this was Wiecks accusation, and its gone down in history, and I think its untrue.
TIs it possible that Wieck had other objections that he never verbalized?
OOh yes! Whether he verbalized them, I dont know. He verbalized so many objections.
TFor example, it just seems hard to believe that he would have stood in the way of such a brilliant young composer who, for all of his faults, apparently did have a future ahead of him.
OI dont think that was the problem for Wieck. The problem for Wieck was Clara. Clara was his pride and joy, his possession from childhood on, and he didnt want to lose Clara, and he saw Schumann as a formidable rival. He also knew that Schumann was mentally ill.
TNow this is interesting.
OAs Clara did certainly. Anybody who was close to Schumann would know this, and you can read the correspondence between Robert and Clara, and Schumann makes no bones about it. He refers to his mental illness many times, and you know, in those days and even today to a certain extent, people think that mental illness is something dreadful, something incurable and is always going to lead to a terrible outcome. Madness is very frightening, and here was Schumann who had some very definite episodes of mental disorganization and illness. I think that bothered Wieck. Another thing that bothered Wieck were these many love affairs that Schumann had had.
TYou refer to diary entries, references to prostitutes, although you seem to be careful not to draw too many conclusions from that.
OBecause someone simply cant. The fact that someone writes in the diary prostitutes with fiery eyes or something like that doesnt mean that they actually went to bed with a prostitute. We dont know what Schumann actually did although one can assume from his later diaries when he was married that he was quite sexually active, and I think he probably did have some contacts but Im not convinced that he was such a flagrantly promiscuous person as some of the biographers in the past seem to want to indicate. In fact there are some entries in the diaries that he was very afraid of prostitutes, and that he would use excuses. There are entries where he talks about going to a house of prostitution, and he would sort of flirt with the girls, but he was very relieved when his virtue was saved at the last moment. Or he would go to parties with his friend Rosen in Heidelberg, and they play games with the girls, and then hed write escaped with Rosen, something like that which makes me wonder how active was he really. Interested, yes, but we dont know for sure.
TDo you anticipate any controversies or stormy objections to your books stand on homosexual episodes?
OControversy, yes. There always is controversy around sex. I dont know if Schumann had any homosexual experiences. His diaries mention homosexuality several times. Its very difficult to know what to make of that. We know that he describes his feeling of love for a number of men, especially men that he lived with, his roommate in college and another roommate in his twenties who was a very, very close friend, Ludwig Schunke, Now one has to understand in the context of romanticism where men were much more open in expressing love for each other. These could have been platonic relationships. We just dont know for sure. Also they could have been overtly sexual relationships because we know thats a very human thing, and nowadays we recognize that homosexuality is something that happens, might have happened in Schumanns day, too. Its something one couldnt talk about or write about in those days.
TIn fact, for a biographer to touch on subjects such as thesewould that have been possible? Would that have been done, lets say, fifty years ago? Thirty years ago? Is this a relatively new phenomenon where you can take on those kinds of things in a biography?
OI think there was a tendency in the Victorian Era to be very, very cautious about writing explicitly about sex. Now Im no expert about that. Peter Gay, the historian at Yale, has recently begun a whole series of volumes about sexuality in the Victorian Era. He could probably deal with that question more competently than I. I know that in present day biographies of musicians, one speaks more frankly about their sexuality. For example, Maynard Solomans book about Beethoven goes to great deal of trouble to try to identify who the immortal beloved was, and I do think that its expected nowadays to look into these things when fifty years ago, it was expected that you would look somewhat askance. Maybe not quite fifty years ago, but seventy-five or a hundred years ago.
TSo tell me then what you have learned. What you were pursuing in the emphasis that you place on at least that possibility in his sexual life? What is your rationale behind in getting into this kind of topic in the first place?
OWell, Im not sure I had any. I stumbled over it. Things become more interesting when you dont see them and having read so many Schumann biographies, I never say any references to homosexuality. Then suddenly I read the Schumann diaries and hear references to homosexuality and I wonder how do you handle that. Well, I though the best way was to be honest about it.
TTo be honest a hundred years ago, seventy-five years ago, there would have been people who would not let you, correct? Litzmann, when he wrote his work on Clara, didnt he have a censor of a kind from the family, one of the daughters, I believe, supervise the project? Traditionally, doesnt a biographer have that kind of albatross around his neck?
OThats my impression. Again this is a question for Nancy rather than me. Litzmann did have a sense of obligation. Litzmann was not writing a biography of Schumann. He was writing a biography of Clara, and I think it goes to his credit that he was able to say so many things about Robert Schumann. I find thats an extraordinary book, that Litzmann book, and it helped me greatly. He might, of course, come across these things in Schumann, but they would not have been directly relevant to Clara because the references to homosexuality, of course, never occur after Schumanns marriage.
TNow at some point in the courtship, you are will to admit, that Clara herself might have been alarmed; at what she was seeing in her beloveds behavior or would that have appealed to a more maternal instinct in her that now she has somebody to take care of? Psychologically, what can you speculate might have been going through her mind?
OI dont think we need to speculate. I think you findI wouldnt call it maternal. I think there was a nurturant, kindly, protective quality in Clara already when she was an adolescent. She describes, for instance, you know that Clara loved to go on long walks. This was part of her health regiment which Wieck fostered, and she and Wieck and Schumann would go for walks. Schumann was nearsighted and somewhat clumsy, and Clara described how she would protect Schumann from stumbling if they came close to a rock or some ridge in the road, she would hold his coat and pull him back, and one gets this feeling of her protective interest in Robert from a very early time. Undoubtedly. And, you know, this is an interesting phenomenon of the nineteenth century because we know of a number of women who had this sort of nurturent influence over men, and who really spurred them on to create. Now, in Liszts case, this was the Countess dAqoult, in Chopins case it was George Sand, in Schumanns case, it was Clara Wieck. Without Clara, Schumann would not have been the great composer that he is. First of all, it was the piano works that he wrote for her. Later on, it was the concerto, the piano quintet, many works.
TThe string quartets, of course.
ONow thats a problem. The string quartets he wanted to write before the marriage, and she sort of discouraged that, for various reasons. When it comes to piano compositions, certainly she stimulated him as great deal. Because she was a performer, it gave him an opportunity to actually have his works heard in public, and for him to hear how they could be played. Getting back to the positive aspects of the relationship, this was a great artistic relationship. No doubt about that.
The Schumann Marriage
TYou also indicated, as does Ms. Reich, Robert could be called a chauvinist in our contemporary sense of the term. Yet he did, at the same time, foster, support and get published a lot of Claras works. There seems to be a double attitude there.
OI dont recall Nancy calling Robert a male chauvinist. If she did, I would disagree with that. I dont think that Schumann was a male chauvinist.
TThats my term.
OOn the contrary, I think the marriage was very interesting in that when they began the marriage and decided to keep a marriage diary, it was very much understood that they were to be equal partners, and that they would be interdependent. Actually, this was part of the romantic ideal that the man would develop certain of his feminine qualities, and the woman would develop certain of her masculine qualities, and Schumann was exceedingly generous with Clara. He gave her money. You know she was in a very bad situation when Wieck took all of her funds away. Schumann bought her a piano, gave her money. Later on, Schumann supported her mother. He was always very generous, very giving. I dont see him as being a male chauvinist at all.
TI know there are some letters you can find if you look hard enough where he advises her that she will give up her career, and that she will keep the house and the children, but he just doesnt seem to have followed up on that.
OWell, thats a kind of fantasy. He was very close to his mother, and I think yes, he did expect that she would also be a housewife. I think she wanted herself to be that. She regrets, in some of her correspondence, that she was not prepared for that, she couldnt easily assume that role. Yes, I think they both sought in certain ways to get a kind of domestic bliss and a happy home, but then their professional aspirations interfered with that. Her need to concertize and travel, and his need to be isolated and in his study composing. That was a problem in the marriage because they had so many children, and you cant raise children very well under those circumstances when the mothers out concertizing and the fathers away composing. Who takes care of the kids? Fortunately, in those days, one could get governesses and nannies to do it, but I think, by and large, the children were probably neglected. The oldest child, Marie became a sort of pseudo-parent for the younger children. As you know, the boys did not do well at all. One of them did not live very long; he died when he was just a year old; he was sick from birth. Another one became mentally ill and lived in a hospital for a great many years. A third one did do pretty well for awhile; he was married, but he became a morphine addict. The last child, whom Schumann never knew, developed tuberculosis; well, he may have been a teenager when he developed tuberculosis, but he died when he was in his early twenties. So that was very tragic. Of the four daughters, one of them also died fairly young. She had been married to an Italian count and had some children. She succumbed to tuberculosis. The other threetwo of them never married and became piano teachers and lived to a ripe old age. One of them did marry and lived in the United States for a while. Thats why we have descendants of the Schumann family here in the states.
TWere you surprised, like I was, that in the film Song of Love Claras concert career appears to have ended during the marriage. In a Katharine Hepburn film, of all things, you might have expected it to have been portrayed differently especially in this case, since it would have been the truth. She did concertize during the marriage.
OYes. I dont remember the film that well, however, its true that Claras career ran into some problems during the time they were in Dresden, and you know, there was the revolution beginning in 1848. And at that time, Clara was giving very few concerts. She also had a large family to take care of, but there were not many opportunities for her to play and if she did give a concert, it was mostly for charity so theres something to that. She never stopped completely, obviously, but her career sort of went into decline while they were in Dresden, which is one reason why they jumped at the opportunity to move to Duesseldorf.
TShe hated Dresden.
OShe hated Duesseldorf, too. But the opportunities were much greater for her in Duesseldorf because was there, the conductor of the orchestra, also it was closer to Holland and to England. She wanted very much to concertize in England so she an opportunity to get her career going again when they moved to Duesseldorf.
TShe and Sterndale Bennett apparently had a bit of a falling out later on although he was certainly her champion in London.
OThats interesting. Id like to hear more about that.
TNancy showed me a letter. She can tell you more about that.
OThats not surprising because there was a rivalry long before the marriage when Sterndale Bennett was living in Leipzig. He was a friend of Mendelsohnns and he came over to Leipzig, and Schumann was very, very fond of Sterndale Bennett, and when Claras piano concerto was performed for the first time, these were difficult times in their relationship, and Schumann asked one of his associates on the newspaper to review it, and he gave him directions not to use too many words, and it was not a very glowing review. At the same time, Sterndale Bennetts concerto was reviewed by Schumann personally in the most glowing terms. I have a collection of his songs. Bennett, as you know, became more of an administrator in his later years. He founded the Royal Academy.
Florestan, Eusebius, Raro
TThese are all bringing up things that we should get into. First, the Florestan/Eusebius dichotomy involving Master Raro and the Davidsbundler itself. You seem to speculate, if I recall correctly, in your book that the Florestan/Raro helped keep Schumann sane, helped pull him out of the psychotic episode.
OOh, thats very clear if you read carefully in the diaries, you can see that Florestan and Eusebius were invented at a time of terrible despair for Schumann when he was drinking heavily, when he was very much afraid of going under, when he was trying desperately to be a writer. When he was very angry about music at the time, he felt he was a failure as a musician. He had, of course, been planning on writing a kind of novel called Child Prodigies, and he hadnt been able to finish that novel, and suddenly, it occurred to him to use these figures and to rename people in his environment. Now Floristan appeared first, and then Eusebius cam along, and these in his imagination. They spoke to him. He heard them speak to him. They gave him guidance, support and encouragement and ideas.
TIs this strictly a literary creation when you say he heard them speak to him?
OThats how he described it. You know we know all too little about the creative process, but composers do seem to have compositions presented or music presented to their consciousness in a very distinctive way. They will hear entire works in their inner ear. I use the term the inner voices of Robert Schumann. Yes, I believe that he heard the themes and that he heard the voices of Florestan and Eusebius. I think these were very real manifestations.
TLets play a little game with these two voices before we talk about Master Raro. Among Schumanns musical compositions especially for piano, lets say, what would you single out as being most typical, best expressive of each of the two characters? Maybe portions of a cycle or an entire piece?
OWell, I think the piece to illustrate is the Davidsbundlertanze because there he labels movements are being F or E, Florestan or Eusebius Sometimes F and E, and he makes references to Eusebius and his quivering lips, and those were very real images for Schumann. The imagery of these two brothers, so to speak, wasnt limited just to the music. He used it also a great deal in his writing, in his literary work. He would sign articles as being written by Florestan or Eusebius.
TWhat happened to these two characters in Schumanns later creative years. They seem to disappear from correspondence, from his writing?
OYeah, I think as he grew older, he wanted to disown his wild youth, and he did another edition of Davidsbundler where he removed the names and the little words I think they were more associated with his premarital years, and he did undergo quite a definite change in personality and his social style. He became much more conservative and conventional. Sort of an about face where hed been fairly radical, revolutionary composer. Part of that I think is also the influence of Clara.
Schumanns Crisis and Collapse
TI was wondering if youd go so far as to suggest it could also typify or indicate to us the mental deterioration that might have been going on. too.
OOf course, I dont happen to think that he had any mental deterioration. This is where I part company with so many people. I dont think that there is any real evidence of mental deterioration. First of all, I dont like the term deterioration. Surely, Schumann had serious problems in controlling his thoughts and his feelings. That came cyclicly. We know that happened to him in his adolescence, in his twenties, in his thirties, and in his forties. The only real evidence of quote deterioration I suppose would be in the very last phases of his hospitalization, and thats a problem because we dont have enough information really to know what happened. My guess is that he became very depressed again in the hospital, that he stopped eating there, that he probably stopped cooperating with the nurses, and that he did undergo a kind of physical deterioration simply because he was not eating. You see that in prisoners who are starved or who starve themselves. Youve seen that in concentration camp victims, and thats what happened to Schumann. He suffered enormously because he was not eating in the hospital. To that extent there was deterioration, and he finally died.
TBut the episode that led to that, his suicide attempt, you see as substantially no different than what we have seen earlier in his life?
OIn fact, it was quite different in that it was much more severe. It was a horrifying psychotic episode which he felt coming on. He had been bothered off and on by uncanny sounds in his ears. These turned into horrible hallucinations. He was very agitated, and he was, as he had been several times before, suicidal. He wanted to go to a hospital. He got all his things I ready. He told his wife he wanted to be separated from her and to go into a hospital. He was afraid that he would attack her, but she apparently got down on her hands and knees and said, How can you do this? Dont leave us. How can you leave me and the children?which again is an understandable reaction of a frantic, helpless woman under those circumstances, but the next things that we know is that Schumann escaped from the house and tried to drown himself.
THow could he be in the grip of this episode and, at the same time, be so articulate about it? Preparing his things, getting ready to leave? The two things would seem quite contradictory, somehow.
OThey seem contradictory, but we see them all the time in psychiatry. We can observe our mental states. We can have terrible nightmares, for instance. Were fast asleep, and we think, we have thoughts about being in another world or we have the most peculiar ideas, sometimes the most frightening fantasies and hallucinations while were asleep. That can also happen during waking states with people who are afflicted with certain types of mental disorder, and theres no reason why someone cannot, at the same time, maintain a sort of awareness. Now, it fluctuates. There are also conditions we call without insight where patients lose the ability to recognize that they are mentally ill, but Schumann had a good deal of awareness, and I think that he realized that he was mentally ill. The question of the suicide attempt is interesting too. You know he was very severely suicidal. He not only jumped off the bridge and tried to drown himself in the Rhine. But even after he was rescued, and put on a boat, he again jumped off the boat and had to be pulled back. But he did call attention to himself when he started to cross that bridge so he alerted the toll-keepers to the situation, in other words, he was not like one of these people who really set it up in such a way that he would definitely die. You know there are people like that who take poison and slash their wrists and blow their brains out. They are just that suicidal. Schumann never went that far. I think to a certain extent he was ambivalent. He was very ambivalent in many ways; he was also ambivalent about his suicide, and he did accept hospitalization after he was brought home.
TAnd of course, he did not, for some time, address letters to Clara. Or ask about the children.
OI dont find that thats so puzzling. He was very sick; he was sedated undoubtedly by the doctors. He was probablythey probably made every effort to distract him, to distract him from his difficulties. He may not have been encouraged to write; he may not have wanted to write. I would assume he felt very humiliated and embarrassed about the whole situation. He wanted to forget about it. Once he did start writing, he certainly did refer to Clara and the children.
TBut yet, she, for almost two and one-half years did not go to see him, and you do not deal very kindly with Clara about this.
OWhat makes you think I dont deal kindly about it?
TWell, you seem to be indicating this through a variety of motives, including fear which Nancy Reich certainly thinks was justified but also because of her own concert career resuming and the relationship with two brilliant young men, Joachim and Brahms, and maybe also through a sense of not wanting to get back into an uncomfortable situation with Robert. Maybe all of those combined. Dont let me speak for you, but this is how Im interpreting.
OI think its interesting that you think I dont treat Clara kindly. If anything, I dont treat the doctors very kindly especially Dr. Richarz. Well, I think when you look at the history of medicine, there are faults, there are problems in hospitals, there is a lack of knowledge among physicians, there is an unavailability of effective remedies. And looking back at the Schumann case, yes, one has to question the doctors and even criticize them. As far as Dr. Richarz is concerned, I respect him, but the hospital he ran was really no longer the ideal hospital he had designed when he first opened the hospital as a private sanitorium. To him, it was an ideal therapeutic community. It was the first private clinic in the Rhineland. And Richarz had designed it for, oh, 14 to 16 patients. They were all to have undivided attention. He had published an article in the German neurological literature saying that a hospital cannot be effectively administered by one doctor unless there were a small number of patients. By the time Schumann had arrived there as a patient, the hospital had become very well known, very popular, very successful and also somewhat overcrowded. And Richarz was personally unable to give Schumann the kind of attention that he really needed. As far as Clara is concerned, what could she do?
TBut at the same time, I believe, you speculate that Robert could have felt abandoned by her, that maybe now he was isolated from the very kind of external stimulus that he so badly needed.
OWell, we know from his earlier writing to Clara that he often figured that he could not live without her. He articulated that very clearly in his letters long before they were married. He also repeated his dismay about a separation from Clara after the marriage when she was on a concert tour in Scandinavia, and he returned home, and they were separated for awhile. Separation from Clara was exceedingly difficult for Schumann.
TBut would she not have realized that during that long period of institutionalization for him?
OI think she would have realized it, but I dont know what she could have done about itas Nancy points out, and as I pointed out, she had the responsibility of her students, she was managing her career, she had to think about the children and take care of them (or find a way of taking care of them). And she was also very much involved, as you know, with Johannes Brahms at the time. He was not at all an easy person to deal with. In addition, I think Clara had somewhat of an inner struggle with her conscience, about having married Schumann in the first place. He father had told her not to do that; he had predicted the disaster which had happened. And the doctors who were taking care of Schumann really didnt encourage her very strongly to get involved with the treatment of the case. If anything, one hears it saidor at least she saidthey never wanted her to come to the hospital. I dont think its true to say she didnt go to the hospital because the doctors insisted she didnt. If shed really insisted on going, she would have gone to the hospital. Theres nothing the doctors could have done to stop that. She was paying the bills, she was the person to contend with. But I dont think she was about to challenge medical authority to that degree.
TAs I recall too, you seem to think that Schumann was withdrawing from her before anyway, that the marriage was having severe problems.
OThere were problems in that marriage from beginning to end. Clara describes them. He was never well from the beginning of the marriage. There were problems when they went on a concert tour to Russia. There were problems when they moved to Dresden and he was so sick. Then there were problems in Duesseldorf that began to encroach on her pride as a musician. Schumann became very open in his criticism of her, and he had in the past when he was under better control, he had pretty much kept his criticism to himself or written it in his diaries, but as he moved closer to what we call this psychotic breakdown, then he became more overtly critical, and that must have been very difficult for Clara to deal with.
TSo these problems youre talking about are not generally the average everyday problems, that any married couple would know a lot about. These are severe schisms.
OOh, no, this is not your average married couple. Here were two geniuses, and that they were able to marry and do so much together and have these childrenthat in itself is a miracle. Many great composers did not marry. Beethoven is an example of that; Brahms is an example, Schubert, and Liszt never married although he lived with various women.
TIn fact the bourgeois dimension of the Schumann marriage in itself is rather unique, isnt it, to the extent that they did maintain a normal household?
OYou know thats interesting because now as I read Nancys book in detail, Im beginning to realize another side of that. Clara was deprived of a comfortable home when she was a child. Her parents were divorced, and she was like a trained circus animal. She was taken on tour by her father. She never really had a good home life.
TDoesnt Robert observe, What kind of human beings are these after he witnesses Claras brother being beaten?
OYes, Schumann make very good observations of the chaotic home life that Clara had to endure so the idea of having a home must have appealed to Clara and certainly appealed to Robert because he came from a very conventional home. He was something of a homebody. He wasnt at all an extrovert. He liked his comfort. He liked to smoke his cigar and work in quiet and be protected and waited on.
TIm curious how you would account, as a psychiatrist, for the characteristic description of Robert almost throughout his adult yearslips continually pursed, self-abstracted air about him. In fact, could you describe such symptoms and interpret them for us? Was he just in another world?
OWell, Im not sure that they were symptoms. I think that they were traits of his character. They were mannerisms. It was noticed when he was in college, for instance, he would make funny faces when he composed. He would sit at the piano, and he would have a cigar in his mouth and try to hum or sing his themes while he was playing, and cigar smoke would be getting into his eyes. I gather he also was something of a clown for awhile. He would entertain Wiecks children by clowning for them and telling them stories. He had a tendency to have a very pensive expression with his lips somewhat puckered. I gathered that when he was severely depressed, that this would be more pronounced. He had a sort ofas though he was whistling to himself. Now there was a psychiatrist, Paul Morbius, who thought Schumann might have had schizophrenia. In those days, they described certain of the so-called stereotyped mannerisms of schizophrenia, and Murbuis used the term schnautzekampf with the snout cramp of the face, and he said that thats what Schumann had, but I think that thats really quite extreme. I think that these were simply postures and facial expressions that Schumann used habitually as he was thinking. Again, if you watch pianists playing or violinists, if you watch Perlman playing, you notice certain facial expressions that are associated with the performing, and I think, I dont see that as so distinctly pathological. Although, theres one portrait made of Schumann when he was very close to his breakdown which suggest that he looked rather sad, flabby. I dont know if youre familiar with that.
TIs that with Clara, also? Is it a daguerreotype?
ONo, not that one so much, but theres a drawing by Lorenz, a Belgian artist who visited them and made a very lovely drawing of Brahms who was visiting then and the drawing of Schumann which has been interpreted by some people as really showing marked manifestation of mental disorder in the face. Im not sure I could make that diagnosis independently. If you know that somebodys made a suicide attempt and has gone mad and has been hospitalized, then you look back at the letters and you say, oh yes, there it is, but IClara, for one, thought that portrait of Schumann was very good, was very attractive. She didnt find it so pathological, and she certainly knew him very well.
TIn fact, when you look at the various portraits of him, I find an astounding disparity almost of expression, physiognomy generally. Ive seen some portraits of him that were absolutely handsome. Others where he was very plain, round-faced. In 1838 or 9, the famous head-on portrait of him which is probably him at his most handsome.
OBy Kriehuber. Yes, thats a very handsome one, and Ive seen others by that artist, and I dont know to what extent he was perhaps idealizing. There are a number of pictures of Schumann in his twenties that suggest he was quite pudgy.
TWhen he had the moustache?
OThe moustache and there are some others that suggest he may have been rather heavy-set at times. We dont know all that much about weight change but that often is associated with affective disorder.
TNow when you say affective disorder what exactly do you mean by that?
OAffective refers to emotion, to mood, to disorder. Affective disorder refers to emotional disorder, to mood disorder. An affective disorder is one where there are intense feelings of sadness, much more than ordinary unhappiness. Schizophrenia is a different category of illness. Schizophrenia is manifested by a primary disorder in thinking, in the cognitive processes. I dont think Schumann was schizophrenic. So often in medicine you have disagreements over these things and I dont think theres any point in hassling over the diagnosis because theres so many tests we cant do on Schumann which we would like to do these days. If one wants to keep the idea of schizophrenia alive, one could accept the position that he had whats called a schizo-affective type of disorder, in which schizophrenic-like symptoms occur in the setting of a major depressive disorder.
Diagnosis and Treatment
TLets say that a man came to your care evincing all of these symptoms and having the kind of mind that he had as a creative genius. How would you or another doctor or a clinic treat such a man now that would represent an advance over how he was treated in 1853 or 4?
OYes, he could be treated much more effectively today than he was in his own time. First of all, one would do a very thorough physical examination and try to correct whatever physical problems he had. You know, we dont even know what Schumanns blood pressure was. There were no blood pressure gauges in those days. And yet, there are reports that he had so-called apoplectic constitution, which suggests that he had high blood pressure. We just dont know. Nowadays, the first thing is to do a very careful physical evaluation, so that if someone has hypertension, that can be corrected with anti-hypertensive drugs. If someone has a heart condition, that can be managed. If somebody has a metabolic disturbance we just dont know! Did the man have diabetes, did he have liver disease? We dont know. Did he have an infection? Did he have tuberculosis? We dont know. And these conditions could be remedied today. We could take x-rays of the chest, we could do a psychological test for syphilis, we could treat those conditions with antibiotics.
Well, the major problem with Schumann, which was his bi-polar affective disorder, that is eminently treatable today. We would use probably lithium salts. Thats not a drug, its a natural salt. It has a remarkable effect on controlling these drastic cycles in the mood. We know that there are abnormalities in brain metabolism associated with these affective disorders. These can be corrected with tri-cyclic antidepressant medication. And in the worst case, one can give electric convulsive treatment. Thats not done very frequently anymore. But that definitely removes the depressive condition.
TNow that takes care of the physical part. How would you have talked with him, counseled with him? What kind of therapy in that sense?
OWell, Ill tell what I would have done. I would have loved to play chamber music with Schumann. Ive treated a number of musicians this way, who didnt care to talk; I dont think Schumann liked talking all that much. I would have chatted with him as much as I could, but I wouldnt have pushed him to talk. I certainly would have encouraged him to compose. One of my most severe criticisms is of the doctor who was treating him in Dresden. The hypnotist who told him to stop working on his compositions. I think that was a terrible mistake. I would strongly encourage Schumann to try to compose. And I would try always to engage him in musical situations which he felt comfortable and in which he would prove himself to be competent.
And as for Clara I would try to work with her very closely. I would try to per-suade her to come to the hospital. I would try to get her to confront the situation. And I would see to it that she gets advice, I would listen to her and see what her conflicts are. I would not allow her to go off to London/repeat/as she did without first dropping by and talking with me in the hospital to discuss her husbands case. Wed have a family conference; wed talk about the children. I think nowadays we would face these issues quite different than they did in those days. I am quite optimistic about it because Schumann had recovered from so many episodes. And theres the question always, would he have gone on to compose very much? I think its very hard to answer that. He seems to have tried every medium of expression for himself. He did a great deal of writing, he did a great deal of composing. He was working on a new book at the time of his severe psychotic episode. Its hard to predict the kind of life he would have led in the event of recovery.
Maybe he would have had to be a kind of traveling companion to his wife. Maybe he would have had to stay at home and tend to the children. I dont think that a doctor can either prevent creativity or make it happen.
TBecause you have to ask at this point, I suppose, how crucial such disorders would have been to his creative life and when did they then block that creative life. I mean could you expunge his creative brilliance out of him by curing him?
OI dont think so. I dont think thats possible. I dont think you can expunge creativity if its really there, its going to manifest itself. I think he would have been spared a good deal of suffering had he had better treatment. He might have taken more time. You know, one of Schumanns problems is that he was often very hasty. He was in a terrible hurry to compose. He didnt, like Brahms, go back and rework his pieces carefully and its possible there might have been changes in Schumanns creative style as a result of more consistent attention to his mental disorder, but I dont think his basic creativity would have been disturbed. If anything, it would have been enhanced by good care. I think he did get a lot of good care incidentally. Dont misunderstand me. What the doctors could do was very limited. They did try to do their best. He had some very fine doctors. In fact, he had an excellent doctor when he was a teenager. He was the husband of one of Schumanns women friends. She was eight years older than he, and she was a singer, and they used to play Schubert songs together, and Dr. Carus, I believe, was very, very important in Schumanns life at that time. In fact, it was probably at Dr. Caruss house that Schumann met Wieck and Clara.
TBut you get into an episode I had never encountered before where Schumann went to the hospital. It was a mental institution.
OYes, Carus was the director of a hospital in Colditz, and that was an important contact that Schumann made in his adolescence with the problem of mental illness. Hed already had the contact in connection with his sister. You know this gets us back to the family history of mental illness. Schumann was not the only member of the family who was disturbed. His sister was also mentally ill, and she committed suicide. Emilie. There was a daughter born just before Schumann appeared and I cant remember her name now. It may have been something like that. There was a sister-in-law whose name was Rosalie, but no, Schumanns older sister was Emilie. As far as I can tell, she committed suicide. They dont know exactly how, but people in Zwickau think that she drowned herself, and thats where it happened.
TLets talk about the music for awhile. Because, somewhat to my surprise, you are very favorably disposed to some of the later works, most notably the Violin Concerto, particularly the lest movement. Ive never read anybody who likes the last movement of that.
OIts usually played too slowly.
TLets talk about the last music he wrote and what effect, if any, his mental condition was having on the composition of said music and do you believe that maybe we have been unjustly discounting these last pieces?
OWe dont know his music that well. As we discussed earlier, some of his late songs have not been recorded. Schumann changed in his approach to composition. He wanted to be a much more serious composer as he grew older. He and Clara, too, were dissatisfied with these short pieces hed written. From almost childhood on, he wanted to write opera; he wanted to write symphonies. He had some difficulties there partly because of the lack of training that he had. You know Schumann was almost completely autodidact. He did not do well with teachers; he trained himself so that he lacked the technical ability that people like Beethoven had, for instance, who had very, very solid training or Mozart. Then there was something about his mental conception. He did best with improvisatory ideas, fleeting moments. He had these great inspirations, and then when he had to work on them, he sometimes ran out of steam. So as his compositions become longer, for instance, his operas and his oratorios, there are stretches that strike one as being repetitive and somewhat dull, and I suppose if someone had spent more time in revising his music and had gone back very critically with the necessary musical ability and skills, they might have trimmed it and worked on it. But to say his music deteriorated, I think, is a great mistake because we find such wonderful compositions, such very successful works as the Rhenish Symphony, for example, which is a late work or the Cello Concerto, which I think is one of his supreme masterpieces. He wrote that under very difficult circumstances in Duesseldorf. The violin concerto has an interesting story. He wrote it at the request of Josef Joachim. Schumann was a pianist. He was relatively inexperienced with the violin. He had studied violin a little bit when he was in his thirties while he was studying to compose symphonies, but he was quite dependent on Joachim for corrections. He asked Joachim to help him edit the work. This was at a time when Schumann was so close to his illness that nothing much came of it. Joachim promised to come and play the concerto for Schumann in the hospital but never did that. So again I think its an unfinished piece in some respects, but its a very great piece. The slow movement especially is phenomenal. It has ideas that are very forward looking. Yehudi Menuhim called that concerto the missing link between the Beethoven concerto and the Brahms concerto, and thereve been some very fine recordings of it. Recently Gidon Kramer made a beautiful recording of the Schumann concerto.
THow about works like the Mass and the Requiem?
OWell, theyre church pieces. They have some very great moments, especially the Mass. Again, Im not a musicologist and I dont think that what I have to say about them really counts very much, but I have the feeling that if Schumann had lived longer and had gone back to revise the works, they would be better today. He might have made certain changes. On the other hand, the Requiem was also written under a kind of depressive fantasy. He thought that he was writing it for himself. Thats not too unusual. Mozart had that feeling about his Requiem which is also unfinished and I think there have been a number of other composers who have written Requiems for themselves. I dont know if youve heard the Mass. I find it is very beautiful in places.
TYeah, I have a recording of it. Its like the Requiem. I find I can take it in smaller chunks as opposed to listening to it in the whole I had the same problem with Paradise and Peri, a much earlier work. I preferred it in pieces.
OYou know I like Paradise and the Peri. I always have the fantasy it would be wonderful to do it as a kind of operatic piece or as a ballet again with proper production. This is the problem with the opera too which is so rarely performed, I think its a difficult work; its a very inward piece. Its not like a Wagnerian opera where everyone externalizes his feelings. On the contrary, Schumann has his characters talking mostly about what they feel and not about what they do so its a very private, sensitive opera. It reminds me a lot of Pelleas and Melisande.
TTheres also a striking passage from the character Golo, who goes insane after having been rejected by Genoveva. I think thats really good stuff.
OAgain, I think with maybe proper production and maybe some editing, it could be done successfully. Paradise and the Peri is very dependent on the Thomas Moore story, which is rather old-fashioned. Its one of those highly romanticized things, like the Arabian Nights. It works better in German where people understand that. I dont know if its been produced in this country.
TI would love to hear the Pilgrimage of the Rose in its original setting for two pianos and voices. Do you know if thats ever been recorded?
ONo, I dont know of any recordings. Im sure its been done. There are many things of Schumann that are not performed frequently. I think were ready for a Schumann revival. The symphonies, of course, are wonderful pieces; and the piano concerto is one of the greatest compositions of the nineteenth century.
TI find the incidental music, not just the overture to Manfred quite unique.
OOh, yeah thats another example you see which I think is evidence against mental deterioration. Thats a relatively late work. Thats a wonderful piece of music, expertly crafted and the Genoveva overture is very fine. Schumann had more luck with shorter pieces.
TSo he was going against his own grain with these longer things?
OHe was, and probably as he grew older, he didnt have that sort of youthful improvisatory fervor. You know, people do change. Theres a very interesting article written by a psychoanalyst called Death and the Mid-life Crisis. It becomes more difficult for many creative people and they enter middle age and then go on with their lives. Theres something about being young and spontaneous and full of vim and vigor. Mathematicians, for instance, or physicists often do their greatest, most extraordinary work when theyre young. You see it in academic settings where scientists whove been very productive often become administrators.
TPeople like Leos Janacek, who did his greatest works when he was older, are rather rare.
OThere are, of course, very important exceptions to that rule. Verdi is a wonderful example of a man who maintained that youthful vigor and originality right to the end. He was close to eighty and was writing wonderfully. Falstaff, which you know is the work of an octogenarian, and its a miracle.
TLets begin to close this out now with a little fantasizing here. If you could go back and be a guest, a participant, an unseen visitor to a scene or two in Schumanns life. Im curious. What are some of the episodes, places that you would choose to go? Maybe to answer an unanswered question that remains with you or just to enjoy something real extraordinary going on in the mans biography. What are some of the things you would choose?
OWell, I would loved to have gone with him on his trip to Italy. He was a college student in Heidelberg, and he decided to do what many students did in those days which is to take the Grand Tour, and he was so happy when he was in Switzerland, for instance, walking in the Alps. He was yearning for companionship. I would have loved to go along with him on that trip to get to know him better and also to keep him company because I think he wanted so much to let people know what he was feeling and there was no one very close to him. His mother was far away and he wrote a lot of letters to her. She was almost like an imaginary companion, and I would have liked to have been with him then when he became ill in Venice. Something happened there which upset him very greatly, and I think I might have been able to help him with that a little bit and protected him from some of the stress he was experiencing. What else? I think I would have liked to be in Dresden when he was going through that very severe depression. I would have liked to see what happened when he was hypnotized. Not that I think thats a very good treatment. I wouldnt have wanted to bully my way into the situation and just push all the other doctors aside, but Id be very curious what really happened when Dr. Helbig was putting Schumann into a trance.
TWhat do we know thus far about that episode? I dont recall that.
ORelatively little. We only know that Dr. Helbig hypnotized Schumann, and that Schumann became very much involved with the idea. He bought himself an amulet which he wore to ward off the evil spirits and then he became very much afraid of metallic objects, and some of the doctors think that that was quite pathological and Id like to see if that didnt have something to do with the magnets that Dr. Helbig was using. Id like to be sort of a consultant looking over Dr. Helbigs shoulder to see what was really going on during that episode of treatment. Then, of course, I would have loved to have been around when Brahms arrived. I think that was a critical moment in Schumanns life. I would have liked to see how Brahms enormous talent and enthusiasm and ambition would have affected Robert and Clara Schumann because I think that was a turning point for all three of them. I would have loved to witness that and to sit in on some of the musical evenings when Brahms would play his new compositions and then Schumann would respond by incorporating some of Brahms ideas into his own compositions. Speaking of late compositions. Schumann was writing music at that time which is really very innovative, the Fairy Tales that he wrote for viola, clarinet, and piano. Extraordinary music, very late in Schumanns career.
TYou would not have wanted to be at the institution of Dr. Richarz the day he arrived?
ONo, I dont think I would have been made very welcome there. I think Dr. Richarz had his own ideas about how he wanted to handle patients, and Im not so sure I would have sent Schumann there. I think I probably would have tried to treat Schumann closer to home. I know there was a mental hospital in Duesseldorf, and Schumann was afraid of it. I rather think there was a bit of a conspiracy going on there. You see there was Dr Hasenclever who arranged to get Schumann out of town. I think that was very convenient because Hasenclever was one of the directors of the Symphony Society there, and Schumann had become a bit of an embarrassment. I dont think that I would have been content to separate Schumann from the environment like Hasenclever did it. I dont know what other institutions might have been. I might have taken him to England. There were some very fine hospitals there or to France.
TIt must be sometimes a bit frustrating for you, and I know you are so close to the topic. I can tell you have warmth and a sense of contact with Robert that I think is wonderful. It must be difficult for you at times to know its too late, that all of this insight is coming too late for him. Do you ever have that personal sense of almost depression about . When I finished the book, I had that kind of depression, almost that it all could have ended so differently somehow.
OI think I handled it by being as good a doctor as I can with patients that Im seeing today. You know, where I can really do something. Theres nothing I can do for Schumann except to write about him and to write as honestly and truthfully as I possibly can and to learn as many facts as I can. I dont think the thing has been exhausted. I may find things. Today, for instance, I heard about some diaries written by one of the doctors who treated him. Id like to read those. Well, the book is finished, but the questions about Schumann have not been entirely resolved in my mind. Id love to see something done about, this may be in the way of a television program . I hope your radio program is going to be a big success. I think that would be phenomenal. Id love to see a good film made of Schumann. There have been several efforts. Recently there was one called Spring Symphony. Id like to see it also. Some people say its very good, and others dont agree so.
TNancy Reich says it brings in a sort of incestuous implication between Clara and Father Wieck.
OYes, well Nastassja Kinski plays Clara.
TI dont think thats such a far-out choice, incidentally.
OI dont either. In fact, I think there may have been something incestuous there in that relationship. As Nancy pointed out to me, Wieck much preferred to travel with Clara than to be home with his wife, and Clara was quite a young woman.
TI know that in doing these interviews and preparing these shows that Im not only coming closer to something that I love so much, but also like Im repaying a debt, As corny as that sounds, since the age of fourteen, the music has been so important to my life, not to the exclusion of anything else, of course, but it just retains a central position in my own listening life .
OMusic to me is the greatest art because its the most living art. One lives music. Theres something more detached, to me anyway, about looking at a painting. I love to go to museums, but looking at a painting doesnt move me as the way playing music does. Its an actual experience in reality in time, and ongoing, real emotional event for me.
TNow, lets take two minutes, settle back, and youve got a book out. How many years did you work on it?
OActive work on the book was about 6 years.
TAnd a lifetime of listening and thinking about the subject. How do you sum it all up? Is there such a thing as a thumbnail sketch of why this man is so interesting to you, as well as to so many others? What are the unique aspects of him that remain so compelling to you and the rest of us?
OTo me, hes so unique as a composer because of his completeness. He was a highly intelligent person who was very well educated, very well-read, much better educated in a literary, and historical, and philosophical tradition than most musicians were in those days. He also was a husband and a father. He tried so many things. He didnt always succeed. He tried to be a conductor. He failed at it, but he tried it. In his very modest and self-effacing way, he was tremendously courageous. To live up to the challenge of being Claras husband. That to me is very admirable, There are many human things about Schumann that I may not always find in other composers who didnt try to do as much. On the other hand, he is not the towering genius-composer of Bach or Beethoven either. As weve said, there are problems there with Schumanns music, but I can overlook those because I have so much respect for him as a human being.
© John C. Tibbetts 2004