Düsseldorf:Bridge copy

The pontoon bridge at Düsseldorf
Steel engraving by Emil Höfer (1845)

Cliffs of Fall

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

                                                            —Gerard Manley Hopkins

Albert Dietrich to Joseph Joachim [i]

                                                                        Düsseldorf, 28 February [1854]

Beloved friend,

I have infinitely sad news to communicate to you and our Johannes. Pardon me for withholding the specific details at the moment—I am still too upset to write them down. In a recent letter to Brahms I hinted at Schumann’s dire nervous condition. This has deteriorated, day by day. He heard music incessantly, often of the most beautiful kind, often also excruciatingly hideous. Later, spirit-voices joined in, which, as he believed, told him the most dreadful and the most beautiful things. A week ago Saturday, came the first violent attack of despair. Since then, Schumann was clearly mentally disturbed; the spirits allowed him not a moment of peace. I was with him 3 times daily; usually he appeared to be in a calm state; only occasionally did he indicate that something horrible might happen, which the spirits urged him to carry out—and he has attempted it;—on Monday—yesterday—at about noon he found a way to sneak out of the house—Hasenclever, I and a number of others searched until nearly 1:30 without success. Around this time he returned, brought by 4 boatmen;—they had rescued him from the Rhein; he had plunged in from the middle of the pontoon bridge. Now he is apparently sane as before, and yet so mentally disturbed that he is not expected to recover in the near future—although the doctors have not yet given up hope.—His wife is, as you might well imagine, hysterical with pain and despair; still, we were able to conceal the worst of it from her. Nevertheless, she seems to have an inkling—she shall not find out—since then, she is not allowed to go to him, but lives with Frl. Leser and consumes herself with longing. Only I, and no one except the doctors and caretakers are allowed to go to him—he will likely be taken to a well-run sanatorium.

What I have suffered, you may well imagine. I was very sick and am still ailing, so that I am often seized, as with fever shivers. I hope that I will soon be able to send you better news—I will send news again soon.

Schumann was not able to look at your Overture. I studied it thoroughly until Monday. I admire the sublime work most profoundly—will gladly write you quite a lot about it—but today it is impossible.


Faithfully devoted

Albert Dietrich.

Schumann’s doctor, Richard Hasenclever, was an acquaintance of Dr. Franz Richarz, the proprietor of a private mental hospital at Endenich near Bonn, an eight-hours’ journey along the Rhine from Düsseldorf. The Endenich facility, situated on a seven-acre garden estate, had been a stately summer home before Richarz purchased it and converted it into an asylum. Schumann was taken there at his own request on Saturday, the 4th of March, never again to return. His daughter Marie recalled how the children looked down from an upper window as the Droschke arrived in the courtyard and her father, Dr. Hasenclever and two attendants got in. They had been told that their father would soon return, cured — but the maids stood by and wept. On the journey, he held a bouquet of flowers that Clara had gathered for him.

The entry for that date in the asylum’s register offers a provisional diagnosis: “Schumann Dr Robert/Music Director in Düsseldorf/melancholy with delusions.” Melancholy — the poet’s disease. [1] It is a poignant indication of the esteem that both Clara and Robert Schumann had for their young friends that from that day until Schumann’s death nearly two and a half years later, Brahms and Joachim were virtually the only visitors that Schumann saw. [2] Clara, with her personal love for Brahms and deep affection for Joachim, relied on them heavily; they were Schumann’s only lifeline to the outside world, and her help in time of need. For much of the time, they possessed knowledge that even Clara was unaware of. This immense, unimaginable responsibility, coupled with the heartbreak and horror that they, too, were experiencing, was a profound psychological burden for two young men in their early twenties to carry.

Johannes Brahms to Joseph Joachim

                                                                        Düsseldorf, 3 March 1854

Herzliebster Joseph,

Do come Saturday; it comforts Frau Schumann endlessly to see familiar faces. With Schumann, things are going somewhat better. The doctors are hopeful; nevertheless, one may not go to him.

I was already with Frau Schumann.

Though she wept a lot, she was nevertheless very pleased to see me and to be able to expect you.

We await you on Sunday morning, and Grimm on Wednesday.



Shaken, Joseph made plans to depart. He wrote to Arnold Wehner: “Poor Schumann, poor wife and children, poor music, that had to take refuge in a bizarre spirit-world, instead of spreading vibrant beauty and nature among us.” [iii] He also sent a quick letter to Gisela, who had been plaguing him to send her his overture. Her letter to him does not survive, but a later one exists, in which she blames his tardiness and inability to bring things to completion on his “Jewish nature,” as she clearly did in this instance: “Have a little patience with my poor self!” he wrote. “I thought you to be so preoccupied with the Demetrius that I imagined everything else would be of no matter to you. Forgive me if I am wrong. In recent days I have experienced so much of the most emotionally wrenching nature. I have learned to censure myself in some things and still to respect myself. Oh, good Gisela, I could write the whole night long and I still wouldn’t tell you enough about what I have gone through inwardly in Berlin and afterward. I dare say I’m 20 years older. I was a true child in life! … What I said in Weimar has come to pass. I am so agitated; for, other than the direst events that call me to Düsseldorf… I am still plagued by small miseries: in spite of my agitation, I still have to play publicly, still have to pack, etc. So then, very briefly: the copyist is still not finished with the overture, even though he has already had it for 3 weeks. I must hear it first; if I like it, I will send it to you and Herman, and if you then want to Jew-bait me, go ahead. Neither I, nor the work, will be the worse for it. I long indescribably to hear my sounds — I think they would drown out my inner agitation.” [iv]

After the evening concert, Joseph took the night train to Düsseldorf, arriving at around 7 a.m. “The good soul!” wrote Clara. “How this touched me! In the morning, he was with me for several hours, during which we naturally spoke only of him, the dearest one. In the afternoon and evening, I decided to make music with Joachim; we played music by him…” [v]

The next day, Joseph wrote to Clara’s half-brother Woldemar Bargiel: “Schumann was no longer in Düsseldorf when I arrived; he had been taken to a pleasantly situated place near Bonn, where, one hopes, he will gradually become calmer, since everything that could remind him of his misadventure is carefully being kept from him. Your sister, who has not yet been told the worst, is more collected than I imagined, due to your mother’s presence and the care of loving friends. Music brings her consolation and firm confidence in the future. Before his harrowing episode, Schumann had such sublime moments of peace that he completed for his wife some variations on a theme he had heard during his first illness from ‘angels as a greeting from Mendelssohn and Schubert.’ Schumann had put his domestic affairs in order, down to the minutest details, as though he had had some sort of premonition; in the end, he had even added the most detailed instructions to all of his manuscripts. In one of his earlier notebooks, which he had filled with remarks of all sorts, there is the sentence: ‘As an artist, one should beware of losing touch with society, otherwise one founders, like me.’ It gave me the shivers, and I can think of nothing but my deepest grief over the Ideal that has, in such a heart-rending way been driven from beauty to the hideous.” [vi]

“Monday, the 6th of March, I began once again to give lessons!” Clara wrote in her diary. “And oh, it was a hard battle! But on the one hand I felt that only strenuous activity could sustain me now, and on the other, I had a double responsibility to earn…. Joachim came around 11 o’clock, and, together with Brahms and Dietrich, we went through Robert’s ‘Das Glück von Edenhall’ and ‘Des Sängers Fluch.’ We were all deeply moved! … In the evening, Hasenclever returned from Endenich… and told me how much he approves of the asylum! The whole Siebengebirge range can be seen, lying before one. Robert has the morning sun in his window, and the view of the Kreutzberg. The doctor received Robert very affectionately, and gave him an attendant for himself alone, whom he promptly came to like. In the evening, we made music — Joachim and I — again at Fräulein Leser’s (I couldn’t bring myself to do it at my house) until 9 o’clock, when Joachim departed. The good, true soul had to play a concert on Saturday, immediately afterward traveled through the night to get here, and now again travels through this night. We played Robert’s Third Sonata in a minor, and today for the first time we both played it with just the right spirit. I had already absorbed it before, but the last time, in Hanover, Joachim had not been able to find his way into it at all. Today, he was inspired, and I with him. — It is the one thing that can bring me relief — His music! I am absorbed in it, it moves me in the deepest way, alleviates my pain, but still only for minutes, after which, when I am finished, the pain of course returns the louder, and then I feel the doubled impact of the hard fortune, no longer to be able to press his hand with admiration — no longer to be able to tell him myself how much his works inspire me.” [vii]

Back in Hanover, Joseph wrote to Julius Grimm (who was in Düsseldorf with Brahms and Dietrich, and in close contact with Schumann’s doctor) that he was looking for an “anchor of hope,” however flimsy. Bettina had spoken with Count Ferencz Szápáry [3] concerning his “magnetic cures,” and was promoting the practice to Schumann’s friends, among them Woldemar Bargiel, who doubtless passed her suggestion on to Joseph. [viii] Joseph wrote: “… I do not believe strongly in Magnetism, but listen: I got a letter from Berlin saying that in Paris a Count Sagadie (the name is not very clearly written, he could be called Saparin), finds that, with his magnetic power, he has saved the lives of people on whom the doctors had given up hope. He is supposed to have discovered this power through his own child, whom he saved from death, and since he is very religious and previously wanted to go to a monastery, he now devotes his life, gratis, to the healing of the sick. The friend who told me of this matter named with names many people that he knows personally who have been helped by the magnetic cure, but he tells me primarily of a professor who was depressed for 8 years (as the doctors said, in consequence of a stroke and a softening of the brain which they declared to be incurable) and is now completely restored to health, after Count Sagarin treated him. — This is the news from Berlin — Now, what do you think, dear friend? In any case, the matter appears important enough to me that we should at least communicate it to Dr. Hasenclever. Discuss it with Dietrich, to whom I send warm greetings, and, if possible, let me know what Hasenclever says about it — though one may bow ever so obediently to destiny, one’s own worries cannot be assuaged — one mourns and hopes continually in ebbs and floods.” [ix]

[1] From time immemorial, melancholy has been associated with creative genius. The concept of melancholy derives from the theory of four humors; the word comes from μελας, melas, “black”, and χολη, kholé, “bile.” Aristotle noted the correlation between an excess of black bile and distinction in poetry, philosophy and politics. Renaissance thinkers and artists from Ficino to Dürer advanced a like theory of a connection between melancholic illness and artistic eminence. Schumann seems to have exemplified this ancient observation, and, in a time when mental illness was widely viewed as a shameful condition, melancholy was perhaps the most positive face that those who loved him could put on his terrifyingly unknowable condition. In Eduard Bendemann’s portrait, based upon Johann Anton Völlner’s 1850 Daguerreotype, Schumann is shown with head on hand, in the classic pose of the melancholic. The picture is strongly reminiscent, for example, of Dürer’s etching Melencolia I. Clara Schumann praised it as the best likeness of her husband. [see: Appel/SCHUMANN, pp. 18-21, 495-497.]

Schumann-photo1850.jpg Albrecht_Dürer_-_Melencolia_I_-_Google_Art_Project_(_AGDdr3EHmNGyA).jpg

[2] Schumann had just three other personal visitors: Bettina and Gisela von Arnim visited once, in April, 1855, and Clara was allowed to see her husband only in the three days prior to his death.

[3] Ferencz Szápáry (1804-1875), author of the Katechismus des Vital-Magnetismus zur leichteren Direction der Laien-Magnetiseurs (Leipzig, Wigand, 1845), and Magnetisme et Magnetotherapie (Paris, 1853) directed a clinique magnetique in Dresden in the 1840’s, and later practiced his magnetic cures in Paris.

[i] Joachim/BRIEFE I, pp. 165-166.

[ii] C.f. Brahms/LETTERS, p. 747.

[iii] Joachim/BRIEFE I, p. 168.

[iv] Joachim/BRIEFE I, p. 170.

[v] Litzmann/SCHUMANN II, p. 304.

[vi] Joachim/BRIEFE I, p. 171.

[vii] Litzmann/SCHUMANN II, pp. 304-305.

[viii] See Bargiel’s letter to Mariane Bargiel in: Appel/SCHUMANN, p. 75 f.

[ix] Joachim/BRIEFE I, pp. 176-177.