How Sick Was Robert Schumann?

[CW: Depression, SI]

Clara Wieck first learned about Robert’s ill health in a letter he wrote to her, a few months after their engagement, while she was on her first tour of Vienna. (His timing was far from ideal, poor Clara, but whatever.) He described to her experiences of suicidal ideation.

She was terrified. At age eighteen, she’d never yet experienced suicidal thoughts. She was very frightened and had difficulty understanding.

Robert insisted, explicitly, that Clara had cured him. That since he’d fallen in love with her and she’d agreed to marry him, he would never have those problems ever again.

We know today that…yeah… Suicidal thoughts don’t work like that. No amount of love can cure depression. No matter how much we might wish it so.

But this was the 1830s. Freud wouldn’t be born for another 20 years. Robert had sought medical care for his “melancholy,” and the doctor’s only prescription had been—get a wife. To say that Clara was under intense pressure to “be his cure” was an understatement.

Around the same time of his suicidal thoughts, he also writes in his diary about symptoms that we assume were from the first stage of syphilis. He sought treatment for it (along with the woman he’d been sleeping with at the time. Yes, this was after he met Clara but when she was still quite young.) I’m not sure if Robert knew it was syphilis or not, if he believed the medical treatment he received cured him or not. But it’s possible that he knew and part of his suicidal thoughts may have been despair from his diagnosis.

[Some more backstory— Robert had a sister who committed suicide as a teenager. And Robert writes of having suicidal urges as a teenager, before contracting syphilis. By his diaries and letters and his rate of compositional output, it’s possible to see mood cycles, symptoms of a bipolar disorder, in addition to the syphilis.]

Anyway—Robert’s health seems to have been fairly stable until 1843. While the Schumanns were on their tour of Russia, Robert started to experience his “melancholy” again. When they arrived home, within the year, they left Leipzig and moved to Dresden under the doctor’s orders. Supposedly, being nearer the mountains in Dresden would cure Robert.

It’s often unclear what was actually happening to him. Clara’s diary says things like nervous attacks, attacks of the hearing, and melancholy. Or just simply “unwell.” What is clear—Clara was very stressed by his condition, it weighed on her heavily. He was often bed bound or unable to leave the house or work. And it got worse.

In 1849, she writes, “Robert cannot get over the fact that from his window he always sees Sonnenstein (an asylum)”. And then, “Robert formed a nervous terror of high places” such that they were forced to move their bedroom down to the first floor, “since Robert cannot conquer the nervous excitement into which he is thrown by any height.”

He was suffering from suicidal thoughts again.

In 1850, the Schumanns moved to Dusseldorf when Robert was appointed director of the symphony. They seem to have hoped this would heal him. It didn’t, of course. For two years in a row, Clara writes he was “unwell” on his birthday. This word “unwell” could’ve described many things, including drunk or hungover. I suspect, it meant something severe, even debilitating. As in laid out with suicidal thoughts and self-medicating with alcohol.

The fall of 1852, Robert was “melancholy” and missed the first two subscription concerts of the season. They were conducted by the chorus master, (who would be promoted to replace him the next year when Robert was let go from his post.) Robert’s health improved surprisingly over the summer of 1853, and Clara clung to optimism that Robert’s health was improving.   

I can’t imagine how terrifying these years were for Clara– watching her husband get worse and worse with no real diagnosis or medical care. How nerve wracking it must have been giving birth to a new baby every other year while worrying for her husband’s uncertain health.

If she feared the worst, though, she didn’t write it down.

In fact, she seems to have been in denial of how sick he really was. But how could she not be in denial? To even consider what was to happen—that the father of her eight children would soon attempt suicide and be committed to an asylum….

It would’ve been too horrible to even think—her worst nightmare come true.

*If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or emergency, dial 988 in the U.S. (The Suicide and Crisis Hotline.) Unlike in the 1830s, today, we have lots of effective medical treatments for depression, bipolar disorder, and emotional health struggles, including talk therapy and psychiatry. Please reach out to trained professionals if you are in need of help. ❤