Schumann in crisis: the suicide attempt of the great composer

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EThe morning of February 27, 1854 (a Monday) began like many Robert Schuman. After breakfast, he worked quietly at his home in Düsseldorf. Around noon, however, he emerged from his office and left the family’s first-floor apartment on Bilker Strasse without explanation.

Still dressed in a floral-patterned dressing gown and slippers, and without a hat in cold weather, he walked for at least ten minutes in the pouring rain to a floating wooden bridge over the Rhine. Schumann may or may not have been recognized along the way: it was carnival time in the city, so her bizarre outfit would probably have blended in more easily with the moving crowd than it would have otherwise.

Arrived at the bridge, Schumann had no money to pay the tax collector. But he offered his silk handkerchief instead and was allowed to continue. The specific details of what happened next are blurred by history. At some point on his way across the bridge, Schumann stopped, stepped over the wooden railing, and entered the Rhine, possibly via one of the pontoon boats below.

The impact of the freezing water was immediate and Schumann would undoubtedly have drowned or died of hypothermia if help had not been immediately available. It came from Joseph Jüngermann, a local river worker who reacted quickly by pulling the composer from the fast current into his ship. Schumann apparently resisted, but was eventually pulled ashore and taken home in a cart.

As news of Schumann’s apparent suicide attempt shocked friends and family – “What I felt was indescribable, it was as if my heart had stopped beating”, his wife Clara Schumann said later – it was not totally surprising. For years he had suffered from mental instability, and in the weeks immediately preceding the Rhine incident, the situation had worsened alarmingly.

He said he suffered from “very strong and painful hearing impairment” and began to hear music “more wonderful than you ever hear on earth”. A theme, he claims, was dictated to him by Schubert – who had been dead for a quarter of a century – and he began to write variations on it. But voices of demons also assailed Schumann, accusing him of sin and causing him to scream in fear. More than once he was afraid of unwittingly attacking his beloved Clara.

What had caused this horrible episode of instability?

Acres of text have been devoted to analyzing Schumann’s mental illness – schizophrenia, burnout, bipolar disorder and syphilis have all been suggested as causes. External factors undoubtedly also played a role. A few months earlier, he had been forced to leave his position as municipal director of music in Düsseldorf, where his mandate did not inspire confidence. The humiliation was significant and there were also financial consequences, especially since Clara was pregnant with the couple’s seventh child. Either of these circumstances could have helped trigger Robert’s final mental collapse. The truth is that we will never know exactly why Schumann acted as he did on that catastrophic morning in February 1854.

Five days later he was admitted to an asylum 40 miles away in Endenich, near Bonn, a decision Schumann himself had suggested to his doctors. He spent the remaining 28 months of his life there, sometimes lucid, but more often delirious and sometimes straitjacket.

Clara, strongly advised by doctors to stay away from Endenich, visited her husband only once, on July 27, 1856. “He smiled at me,” she recorded, “and I wrapped up in his arms – I’ll never forget him.” Two days later, Robert died, aged 46. Although she lived another 40 years, Clara never remarried.

We named Schumann one of the best Romantic composers of all time, a die best german composers of all time as well as one of greatest composers of all time.

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