Sanity vs. Creativity? Robert Schumann Revisited


Sometimes the point of contact between art and life becomes uncomfortably close.

Last summer, I wrote about Robert Schumann and the dichotomy between his two musical alter-egos, exuberant “Florestan” and introspective “Eusebius.” I half-seriously suggested that some composers might benefit from creatively embracing a sort of artistic schizophrenia and simultaneously pursuing radically different trajectories in their work.

The week after I posted that essay, things got a lot more personal. One of the most talented and brilliant musicians I know, capable of learning music with extraordinary facility and interpreting it with rare sensitivity, had been struggling with mental health for some months and experienced another breakdown. While it can be deeply unsettling to see anyone in the thick of a battle with mental illness, it was particularly painful to see one of the persons who matter the very most to me in the world having to deal with it. Doctors eventually reached a diagnosis of bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, after the two opposing mental states alternately experienced by those who have it). Wanting to learn more about it, I started reading the book Bipolar Disorder by Francis Mondimore, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University. While scanning through his chapter “Bipolar and Creativity,” I was intrigued to find a discussion of Robert Schumann.

While the exact nature of Schumann’s mental illness is debated, most scholars, including Mondimore, believe he had bipolar. Thanks to the numerous letters, journals, and essays of Robert and his wife Clara, musicologists can reconstruct the trajectory of his illness and his creative work fairly well, revealing marked fluctuations between the wild, uninhibited creativity of the manic phase on one hand and severe depression and near-paralysis on the other. For example, Schumann created dozens of works in the calendar year 1840, including most or all of over 20 (twenty!) song-cycles. In 1844, by contrast, he failed to complete a single work. By 1849, he had resumed his frantic pace of dozens of new works a year. But in 1854, in an apparent attack of severe depression, Schumann attempted suicide and eventually entered a mental institution, where he spent the rest of his life.

This perspective on Schumann’s career, combined with anecdotal evidence of numerous other composers reported to struggle with mental instability (everyone from Beethoven to Rachmaninoff), raises a disturbing question: Do some composers pay for their inspiration in corresponding bouts of depression and mental turmoil? Conversely, are artists blessed with relative stability of mind shut out from reaching these highest levels of creativity and invention, since their highs just aren’t high enough? Are allegedly sane composers like kids on a backyard swing who, even at the apex of their flight, still can’t quite touch that certain tree branch?

As it turns out, other scholars have sought to answer this question. Robert Weisberg has attempted to study the relative quality of Schumann’s output from manic and depressive periods in a somewhat scientific manner. Using the number of existing recordings of a work as a (rather imprecise) proxy for its quality, his research found that while Schumann composed far more works during manic years than depressed ones, he did not appear to compose at a higher level while under mania. In fact, the average popularity (as measured by recordings) of his works was roughly the same for works written in manic years as depressed years. He simply created more “great” works in years when he created more works overall. (Incidentally, my favorite Schumann piece, his A-minor piano concerto, was begun during a period of apparent mental stability in 1841 and completed during another calm year in 1845, after the intervening depression and creative dry spell of 1843-44.)

Thus, Weisberg argues that Schumann’s affect affected (pun intended) not the quality of his work, but the readiness, flow, or even motivation with which he worked. In manic periods, he wrote feverishly, but only some works turned out to be high-quality. In times of depression, he may have had more difficulty in starting to write a piece, but when he did manage to work, his output was a similar mix of the great and merely good. (This is essentially the reverse of the common college student’s dilemma that sleep deprivation increases creative and innovative thinking but decreases motivation to actually do any work…)

Thankfully, then, there can be no Faustian bargain, an artist trading their mental health for uncanny inspiration. To be sure, those who struggle with mental illness cannot be held responsible for their condition anyway. But even if someone were willing to pay the terrible price of violent mood swings, there would be no payoff in creativity.

On the other hand, is the dividing line between luminaries like Schumann, others with bipolar disorder, and allegedly “normal” people really so firm? While mental illness is all too real, one could also see the roller-coaster career of a Robert Schumann as merely a more extreme illustration of the ebb and flow of inspiration experienced by all intelligent and creative personalities. We all go through dry spells where it feels like our work is worthless and we just can’t hit on a good idea—which is when we must cling more firmly to the confidence that our muse has not deserted us entirely, but merely left our side for a moment, and will return soon enough. On the other hand, we also experience euphoric seasons when we are so obsessed with a project that we can hardly seem to finish sketching a good idea before the next one pops into our brain. In such times, we must remind ourselves to eventually take a calmer and more measured look at our work, knowing that everything is likely not as brilliant as it seemed at first.

With both mental health and artistic talent, a neat categorization of humans into “normal” and “abnormal” is deceptively simplistic. We all face the same struggles; some brave souls just have to face them more directly, in both life and art.

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