Exactly 163 years ago, on the night of 17th February 1854, Robert Schumann wrote down a short, chorale-like melody for piano. Though this melody is based on a theme he had written previously and used in compositions as recently as 1853, Schumann believed he was not only hearing it for the first time when he wrote it down that night, but that the melody has been 'offered' to him by spirits. The same spirit voices he had heard in his head for some time by now - sometimes benevolent and inspiring, sometimes malevolent and threatening. Schumann believed himself to be surrounded by ghosts who played music to him, and certainly his wife Clara was beyond concerned. A few days later, Schumann composed and made fairly neat copies of a set of five variations on this theme in Eb major, which would later become known as his 'Ghost Variations'. This was the last piece of music Schumann ever wrote.
On 27th February, once the variations were completed, Schumann left the house and ventured out into the cold night, only half-dressed. He removed his wedding ring, and leapt into the icy cold Rhine in a now well-documented suicide attempt. Anyone who has visited Düsseldorf and taken time to stand on the banks of the mighty Rhine, especially in winter, will understand this was no cry for help, but a desperate and very real attempt to escape himself. Things didn't go to plan. Picked up by boatmen, Schumann was saved and in a scenario unthinkable in our times, found himself back home the next day, as if to try to continue as 'normal'. Normal service would never and indeed could never be resumed, however. His devoted and long-suffering wife and creative partner Clara had already left the family home on the advice of a doctor. The emotional strain of living with the severely ill Schumann can only be imagined, and even then not very accurately. One of the most beautiful and original minds in music had by now almost completely lost its way, and despite the creativity and clarity of purpose that had gone into the Ghost Variations, Schumann soon found himself in an asylum. He would never see Clara again, and in the almost two years until his death, he was unable to write any more music. Family friend Johannes Brahms was the only one to visit Schumann, and the experience of seeing this shell of the former man stayed with Brahms for the rest of his own life.
Schumann's mental journey is well-known and has been studied in great depth. Even as a younger man he revealed in his critical writing and indeed musical composition a preoccupation with the split personality. Florestan and Eusebius were characters who represented the two extremes of Schumann's own psyche, and he was able to use them effectively as both literary devices and musical motifs. When I play Schumann's piano music, I am always struck by a sense of musical instability that goes on beneath what we write-off as 'Romantic gesture', but this instability is always somehow reined-in, thanks to Schumann's consumate craftsmanship. I have always considered Aufschwung ('Soaring' - No. 2 from Schumann's Opus 12 Fantasiestücke) to be the perfect encapsulation of bipolarity. The piece which follows, Warum? ('Why?'), is a devastatingly beautiful Eusebian reponse to Florestan's passions, and though Schumann gives us insight into his thoughts, and though there is an ambiguity throughout, we are left feeling that Schumann has more in store for us.
I don't get this same sense with the theme from his Ghost Variations. A little knowledge is perhaps a dangerous thing, and being acquainted with Schumann's biography, knowing that the theme in Eb was indeed the last musical utterance in a tragic tale, leads us to make judgements even before playing it. But there is something else. There is something so sparse and honest about the music, you get the sense this is the music of a man who has seen his own future. The simple melody, already familiar to fans of Schumann's earlier works and so already something of a leitmotif in Schumann's music, seems devastatingly prophetic, and yet looks backwards at the same time. All the Schumann touches are there, just in a pared-down form. Even without knowledge of the Schumann story, this is a theme that moves you the second your fingers press the keys - you just don't know quite why. This is Romantic music at its most Romantic, and it is as though he was able to muster enough energy to fashion the most beautiful full stop, before leaving the world on his own terms - before things got so bad he would lose the thing that had defined him his entire life: his music.
The leap into the Rhine didn't turn out to be the end of the story, but Schumann's admission to the asylum was at least done at his own request. The manuscript for the Ghost Variations was guarded so closely by Clara Schumann that the score wasn't published until 1939. The variations are rarely performed, but the score is readily available. Play the geistervariationen at your own risk, though - to do so is to let Robert Schumann speak to you so directly, you'll convince yourself he's right behind you.