schumann’s last years: part two

Fernand Khnopff, "Listening to Schumann," 1883

Fernand Khnopff, “Listening to Schumann,” 1883

Schumann’s last years, as described in eyewitness accounts. This is part two; read part one here.

Brahms to Joachim, September 17, 1854:

Dear Joseph–I am delighted to be able to write you this letter and send this enclosure. Listen: On September 12 (the Schumanns’ wedding-day) a letter came from the doctor at Bonn, in which he said Herr Schumann had expressed to him the fear that his wife must be dead, as he had had no letter from her. In this letter of the 12th the doctor asked Frau Schumann to write a few lines to her husband. She wrote two letters; in one she mentioned the dates (12th and 13th), in the other she did not. But Herr Schumann told the doctor quite of his own accord of the great importance he attached to those two dates. So they gave him the first letter.

At mid-day on the 15th a letter came from the doctor with enclosures. I handed it to Frau Schumann in fear and trembling!

Were her letters being returned or was it a reply? She opened the letter, and could hardly stammer, “from my husband”; she could not read it for some time. And then, what unspeakable joy; she looked like the Finale to Fidelio, the F major movement in 3/4 time. I can describe it in no other way. One could not weep over it, but it fills one with a deep and joyful awe. …

I cannot read the last sentence of his letter (“so many questions”) often enough; it is the best proof of what I believe to be the case, that he is only ill now through fear and imagination. He is afraid of asking irrational questions, and begs her, in that case, to draw a veil over them!

The doctor tells her he read her letter frequently during the day, and wept with emotion. As the doctor gave her permission to answer his questions, and send him what he asked for, she did so the same day.

Six of Robert and Clara's eight children, including baby Felix in the center, 1854.

Six of Robert and Clara’s eight children, including baby Felix in the center, 1854.

From Clara to Joachim, September 21, 1854:

My dear Friend–I cannot keep to myself that which, I know, will give you the greatest delight! It is a greeting to you, dear Joachim, from my dearest Robert….And so a joy has come to me for which I hardly dared to hope a fortnight ago, and yet, believe me, it is terribly hard to bear it! I should like to pour my heart out to him, to be able to tell him how he alone occupies all my thoughts and feelings, and yet I have to be careful in my letters, I must control the mighty beating of my heart and suppress so much! He says nothing about my going to him at present. I imagine the doctors are still against it, and he readily agrees to everything they tell him. And so, in spite of all the promising symptoms, he will make very slow progress, and I am quite resigned to that! I only pray God He may give me the strength to endure the terrible agitations which I have again experienced, and which lie before me in the future. My old friend, my piano, must help me in this! Oh, dear Joachim, I thought I knew what a splendid thing it is to be an artist, but I only realise it for the first time now that I can turn all my suffering and joy into divine music, so that I often feel quite happy!

But who should know that better than a magnificent artist like yourself! How much better you must know it than I, since you can create! …

One thing more I must tell you, which has given me great pleasure. I wrote to Robert about the little one and told him I had chosen three names, and that he was to choose from those the one he liked best, to which he replied, “If you want to know my favourite name you will easily guess it–the name of him who will ever be remembered!”

You will guess it too: it was the same one I had chosen. [NB: That name was Felix, after Felix Mendelssohn, and was given to the Schumanns’ youngest son.]

Eduard Kaiser, Robert and Clara Schumann 1847.

Eduard Kaiser, Robert and Clara Schumann 1847.

On September 10, 1855, Dr. Richarz confided in Clara that he did not foresee Schumann recovering. Afterwards, Clara wrote in her diary of the conflict she felt, on the one hand desperately loving and wanting her husband back, on the other hand feeling incapable of seeing him in such hopeless condition:

What a thought, to see him, the most zealous of artists, mentally weakened, perhaps, or far more likely, prey to the most terrible melancholy! Do I want to have him like this? And yet, should I not want to have, most of all, the person back again? Oh, I don’t know what to think any more; I have thought it all over thousands upon thousands of times, and it always remains just terrible.

Schumann’s condition deteriorated rapidly in 1856, his last year. After visiting him in April of that year, Brahms records:

Clara and Marie Schumann (the Schumanns' firstborn), 1844.

Clara and Marie Schumann (the Schumanns’ firstborn), 1844.

We sat down, it became increasingly painful for me, his eyes were moist, he spoke continuously, but I understood nothing….Often he just blabbered, sort of bababa–dadada. While questioning him at length I understood the names Marie, Julie, Berlin, Vienna, England, not much more…

Hospital records reveal that Schumann was “often agitated and unruly, screamed, was hostile and aggressive, lost control of bodily functions, had seizures, and hallucinated,” and in his last days, “he lost the power of speech and could barely swallow” (Reich 129). In these last days, after having refused to let Clara see her husband, doctors finally called her in to see him before he died. She was with him from July 27 to July 29, 1856. On July 27, Clara recorded in her diary:

He smiled at me and with considerable difficulty, because he was no longer in command of his limbs, he put his arm around me–I’ll never forget that. I would never give this embrace away, for all the treasures. My Robert, that we had to see each other again like that, with what effort I had to seek out the features I love; what a painful sight…and then I lay quietly at his feet, hardly dared to breathe, and he glanced at me only once in a while, to be sure foggily, but still so indescribably soft….He seemed to always speak a lot with the ghosts, also could not bear to have someone around him for long, he became restless then, but one could hardly understand anything anymore. Only once did I understand” my”, certainly he wanted to say “Clara”, because he looked at me in a friendly way while saying it; then once again “I know” “you” probably…

On the afternoon of the 29th, she and Brahms left for an hour to receive Joachim at the train station. When they came back, they discovered that Schumann had passed away quietly in his room. After more than two long, anguished years, the ordeal was finally over. Clara wrote in her diary:

I stood at the body of my dearly loved husband was calm; all my feelings were of thankfulness to God that he was finally free, and as I knelt at his bed I had such a holy feeling. It was as if his magnificent spirit hovered above me, oh–if he had only taken me with him! I saw him today for the last time–I placed some flowers on his brow–he has taken my love with him!


  • 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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