schumann’s last years: part one

Robert Schumann, by Hetty Krist, 2010.

Listen to a piece by Schumann, and you will gain more insight into his complex, troubled, creative, affectionate soul. Unapologetically chromatic harmonies; achingly gorgeous inner melodies; eerie, disorienting rhythmic displacements; obsessive motivic repetition and development–these are the elements so distinctive to his personal style (not to mention the quotations from other composers and the different versions of Clara’s name, encoded, that pop up every so often).

And out of all the lives of the great composers, Schumann’s is perhaps the most heartbreaking because of his last two years, which were a tragic spiral into the dark abyss of mental illness. The little paragraph your history textbook devotes to the end of his life is most likely cold and clinical, and probably goes something like this: “Schumann’s mental health began to deteriorate near the end of his life, and he was institutionalized in 1854 after a failed suicide attempt. He died two years later, in 1856.” What your textbook will probably leave out, for the sake of brevity, is that the voices in Schumann’s mind had begun to take a dark and demonic turn; that he was terrified that he would hurt his seven children, or Clara, who was pregnant with the eighth; that Schumann’s whole community–composed of musical greats like Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms–was in shock after Schumann jumped off that bridge, and was scrambling to protect Clara from the awful truth. Eyewitness accounts from the time, recorded in letters and diaries, brings everyone back to life in painfully vivid clarity.

February 26, 1854: on the night before his suicide attempt, Schumann requested to be put in an insane asylum because he could not control his mind anymore, and was afraid of what he might do. Clara wrote in her diary:

The next morning, he got up but was so profoundly melancholy that I cannot possibly describe it. When I merely touched him, he said, ‘Ah, Clara, I am not worthy of your love.’ He said that, he to whom I had always looked up with the greatest, deepest reverence.

Joachim and Clara Schumann. Adolf von Menzel, 1853.

February 27: Schumann escapes from his room and flings himself into the river Rhine. Albert Dietrich describes the attempt in a letter to Joseph Joachim (violinist and close friend of the Schumanns), dated February 28, 1854:

Dear Friend — I have terribly sad news for you and Johannes; you must let me off the minuter details for the present; I am not calm enough yet to be able to write them. In a recent letter to Brahms I hinted that Schumann’s nerves were in a bad state. This has become worse from day to day; he heard music continuously, sometimes it was of the most beautiful description, but often agonisingly hideous. Later on phantom voices were added to this, which, as he thought, cried terrible and beautiful things in his ear. Last Saturday week he was seized with violent despair for the first time. From that time Schumann’s mind was obviously affected; the phantoms did not leave him a moment’s peace. I went to see him three times a day. As a rule he was apparently calm, but sometimes he hinted at something frightful which the spirits were urging him to do — and he has attempted it — on Monday — yesterday — towards mid-day he managed to slip out of the house — Hasenclever, I and several others looked for him in vain until nearly half past one. About that time he was brought back by four boatmen; they had rescued him from the Rhine; he had thrown himself in from the middle of the bridge. Now, as before, he is apparently quite sensible, and yet his mind is so much affected that they do not think he will recover for some time, although the doctors have not given up hope. As you can imagine, his wife is overwhelmed by grief and despair, but they have managed to keep the worst from her; she seems to have a suspicion of it, however — but she is not to be told — she has not been allowed to go to him since, and is staying with Fräulein Leser in an agony of longing; neither I nor anybody else except the doctors and attendants may go near him — he will probably be taken to a good nursing home soon. You can imagine what I have suffered; I was quite ill, and I am still often attacked by a kind of feverish ague. I hope I shall be able to send you better news before long. I will write to you again soon. Schumann was not able to look at your Overture; I studied it thoroughly until Monday; I deeply admire your fine work. I should like to write a great deal about it — but it is impossible to-day.

Schumann was hospitalized in a suburb of Bonn. Desperate for information about Robert, Clara wrote Wasielewski, the choral director in Bonn. On March 10, 1854:

Oh, dearest friend, what are you inflicting upon me by not writing a word about my husband! Today is the sixth day that he is in Endenich and I know nothing, not a word! Oh, what a sorrow this is for me! My heart breaks when I have no idea of how he is living, what he is doing, if he still hears the voices, in short, every word about him is balm for my wounded heart! I don’t ask for any kind of decisive word, just how he sleeps, what he does during the day, and whether or not he asks after me, that I am certainly entitled to know. Oh, my dear friend, don’t do this to my heart–leaving me so completely without news. If you yourself cannot go…pay someone, charging it to me, and have them go to ask.

Months passed, and Clara received reports from Robert’s doctors, but was not permitted to visit. On May 7, 1854, Hedwig Salomon–an acquaintance of the Schumanns–visited Clara and later wrote:

We avoided talking about the misfortune; she [Clara] asked after friends and why her father had not written for so long. Then she…struggled against tears and burst out in bitter sobs. ‘If I didn’t have the firm hope that my husband would be better soon, I wouldn’t want to live anymore. I cannot live without him. The worst is that I may not be with him and he has not yet asked for me, not even once during the whole time.’

Clara Schumann, c. 1853.

Clara Schumann writes to Joachim on June 9, 1854, and reveals how much support Brahms is able to provide for her in this difficult time, despite his youth (he is only 21 years old at this time).

My dear Friend–Your letter and enclosure gave me very real pleasure. You must have known this when you wrote, for you will have felt with me the sadness of yesterday [Schumann’s birthday] which I had to spend without him, the man I love above all else….

Brahms is writing this with me. I am learning to understand his rare and beautiful character better every day. There is something so fresh and so soothing about him, he is often so childlike and then again so full of the finest feelings. His is a youthful and open nature combined with a manly earnestness of purpose. He gives me as much pleasure as he possibly can, as you can imagine, and he does this with a perseverance which is really touching; it often oppresses me to think of how much he is giving me and of how very, very poorly I can repay it! …

You have heard the latest news of my dear Robert from Woldemar, and so I need not tell you over again. The reports vary greatly, but on the whole they point to a gradual improvement. I am swayed continually by hopes and fears, and at the bottom of my heart I suffer more than I can possibly describe. But I will not lament to you! You know him, and you know how much he was and still is to me!

On July 27, 1854, Brahms himself writes to Joachim, mentioning that Robert Schumann still has enough presence of mind to remember Clara:

Yesterday evening Fräulein Hartmann came back from Bonn. On the ship, where we all, including Frau Schumann, awaited her, she handed the latter a bunch of flowers from her husband.

This time, at Fräulein Reumont’s [a nurse at Endenich] suggestion, he carefully selected some lovely roses and carnations (the last time he did not know for whom he was picking the flowers). Fräulein Reumont again asked him where they were to be sent and to whom. “Oh, you know quite well!” was his reply. So he had not forgotten the ones he had sent before.

Brahms, c. 1853.

From Brahms to Clara, August 21, 1854, after visiting Schumann at the Endenich hospital (including a little jab at Mozart at the end):

I am diffident about telling you that I too have seen your beloved husband. It seems to me so hard that we, who stand so much further away from him than you do, should see him before you, and I feel that I have no right to this privilege.

…Your dear husband has not changed in the least; he only seems to have grown a little stronger. His look is friendly and bright, his movements are the same as ever, he keeps one hand constantly to his mouth, and smokes in short puffs as he always used to. His gait and his greeting were easier and more assured….The doctor spoke to him, but unfortunately I could not hear his replies. His smile and his appearance, however, after speaking, were the same as ever. Herr Sch. then turned to look at the flowers and went further into the garden towards the lovely view. I saw him disappear with a glorious halo about him, formed by the setting sun.

I cannot describe what my feelings were during this visit. I trembled violently and had to exercise the greatest control not to call out to him or hasten after him. I could not wish that you might have been in my place at that moment, for you could not have borne it. I could hardly do so….

Be very cautious in the letters you address to the doctors at Endenich. They thought, particularly in regard to your last letter, that you were hoping too confidently for a speedy recovery….These doctors know neither of you, and even I, before I knew you, imagined that such people as you and such marriages as yours could only exist in the imagination of the rarest people. The doctor does not know what you are suffering. He can only judge you from your letters, and if these appear to be overstrung, he thinks that you must be overstrung.

I should much have preferred to tell you this by word of mouth….But I hope you will see for yourself that the doctors cannot help judging you to some extent from your letters. If they find them too hopeful they feel constrained to write more coldly. I must not conceal from you either that latterly your husband has been suffering from delusions of hearing. Their periodical recurrence, however, must not alarm you too much….

Surely I am a very bad musician. Just fancy, at a concert in Düsseldorf this winter I would only listen to one symphony, and that was by your husband. I fled from a Beethoven Overture and other pieces. What do I want to hear them for? I said. In Cologne I also declared that there was not much in Mozart and that I could write pianoforte sonatas like his every day!

Read part two here.



  • Peter F. Ostwald, Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1985)
  • Nancy B. Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001)
  • Reinhard Steinberg, “Robert Schumann in the psychiatric hospital at Endenich,” in Music, Neurology, and Neuroscience: Historical Connections and Perspectives, eds. Eckart Altenmüller, Stanley Finger, and François Boller. (Waltham: Elsevier B.V., 2015)
  • Letters from and to Joseph Joachim (London: Macmillan and Co., 1914)
  • Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms 1853-1896 (New York: Vienna House, 1971)
Further reading:

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