[CW: Suicide, depression, grief.]
Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide was a tragedy on many levels.
When he jumped in the Rhine, it was an inconsolable loss, not only for the musical world but for his family. Clara was six months pregnant, at the time, with their eighth child—a boy named after Felix Mendelssohn who would never meet his father.
The depths of Clara’s sorrow and pain cannot be overstated. Her diary entries are utterly devastating.
“No words can describe my feelings, only I know that I felt as if my heart had ceased to beat.”~Clara’s diary, when she learned Robert had run away from home.
The truth about Robert’s attempt was kept from Clara for two and a half years. Until he died in the hospital at Endenich without his wedding ring. Though she’d feared he may have jumped, since he’d left her a note in his study:
“Dear Clara, I am going to throw my wedding ring into the Rhine; do the same with yours, and then the two rings will be united.”
What lead such an artist with a devoted wife and family of seven children to attempt to take his own life?
Clara’s diaries offer immense detail into the days leading up to his dramatic leap. And given her details, it clarifies the reasons for his actions. From the outside, his choice seems like an act of pure insanity, but when we learn what he suffered—given the lack of adequate medical care available at the time—his choice has logic.
Why did Robert jump in the Rhine?
Beginning Friday, February 10th, 1854, sixteen days before his attempt, Robert started having unceasing auditory and visual hallucinations. It drove him to desperation and despair. He experienced extreme depression—what at the time, they called “melancholy.”
“Robert suffered from so violent an affection of the hearing that he did not close his eyes all night. He kept hearing the same note over and over.”~Clara’s diary, February 10th, 1854
Many have mocked this–hearing the same note over and over– but it was horrifying for Robert to experience and for Clara to witness. It lasted for days.
Robert couldn’t sleep night after night. Clara stayed up with him (even in her third trimester). She wrote that Robert experienced auditory hallucinations—one day he heard the music of Schubert. Another day full orchestral works tormented him from beginning to end. Some days he was able to write the music he heard—as in the Theme and variations in E# Major (No. 9 in the supplementary edition, says the Litzmann bio). Other days, he was in utter agony.
Then came the visual hallucinations—angels singing to him and demons calling him a sinner that they would send to hell. Clara referred to his voices and hallucinations as “evil spirits speaking to him.” She felt terrified and helpless, “Ah! And one can do nothing to ease him!” The doctors could offer no relief from his psychiatric torture. With no treatment available, all of them, especially Robert, began to fear his hallucinations would never end.
After over two weeks of this torment, by Feb. 26th, 1854, Clara writes,
“Robert stood up and said he must have his clothes, he must go into the asylum as he no longer had his mind under control and did not know what he might end up doing in the night.”
He proceeded to pack what things he would take with him, then Clara said to him, “Robert, will you leave your wife and children?” He answered, “It will not be for long. I shall soon come back, cured.”
Robert had accepted what Clara had not—that he needed to go away. He couldn’t remain with his family. That night, he wouldn’t allow Clara to stay with him, and they called a male nurse to sit with him. But Clara writes of the next morning,
“Ah! How dreadful! Robert got up, but he was more profoundly melancholy [depressed] than words can say. If I so much as touched him, he said: ‘Ah! Clara, I am not worthy of your love.’ He said this, he whom I always look up to with the greatest, the most profound reverence… Ah! And all that I could say was of no use.”
Though he’d expressed optimism of a cure to Clara, Robert must have known his syphilis was incurable and fatal. He’d spoken of premonitions of his own death many times to Clara and to Johannes. Robert realized his choices were to either go away to a place that would likely be a “living grave” (as Clara would call it) or…
Well, we know what he did next.
The Day It Happened
Clara was meeting privately with the doctors, while their eldest daughter Marie watched over Robert with a nurse. But then, Clara writes,
“Robert ran out into the most dreadful rain, in nothing but his coat, with no boots and no waistcoat.”
Robert jumped from a bridge into the freezing river Rhine. He was recovered by a boat, but it happened very publicly when the Dusseldorf streets were full of revelers from a Mardi Gras festival. It made the newspapers. That’s how Johannes Brahms arrived so quickly after it happened—he learned of it in the Hannover papers.
How hard everyone must have worked to conceal the truth from Clara: “Where and how they found him, I could not learn,” Clara writes. She didn’t understand why she received so many notes of sympathy from people.
Perhaps she also willfully closed her ears from the unbearable truth. Clara’s denial of Robert’s declining health has been criticized as delusional by many. But consider how horrible it was for her to lose her husband and father of her children so tragically. Such an outcome would’ve been unthinkable for her to even contemplate.
The Tragedies of Treatment
The doctors decided to separate Robert and Clara. They forced Clara to leave the house and stay with a neighbor. Robert continued to request he be taken somewhere for treatment, and so a few days after his attempt, Clara watched from a window as he was ushered into a carriage.
She wasn’t allowed to say goodbye. But from somewhere, Robert found a carnation flower which he asked the doctors to give to her.
She pressed the flower in a book and kept it for decades.
The doctor’s at Endenich continued this course of treatment—separating Robert from his family—believing all references to the past might agitate him and make him worse. He was never allowed to see his children again, and he would not see Clara for 2.5 years, not until the day he died.
For the first six months, Clara wasn’t even permitted to write to him, not even to tell him about the birth of their son. He didn’t learn of Felix’s birth until four months after the fact. Johannes Brahms and Josef Joachim were allowed to visit Robert after 6 months, but Clara was forbidden.
The doctors’ not allowing Clara to see Robert has perpetuated many harmful myths. Even though Robert’s diagnosis of syphilis was incurable at the time, falsehoods abound that somehow Clara was to blame rather than his fatal infection.
Their separation has been misinterpreted to mean that Clara caused Robert’s insanity. That after fourteen years of marriage his wife had driven him mad. That, since a wife’s duty was to care for her husband, she had been a failure as a wife.
She’s also derided for not visiting Robert in the hospital, as though it were her choice. As though she didn’t love him. As though she willfully abandoned him at the hospital and refused to bring him home. As though it was from her neglect that he died in the hospital.
None of these things are true.
How did Robert Schumann die?
Robert had syphilis. Plain and simple. It was fatal at the time. It killed him. Two and a half years after he arrived at Endenich, he died. His official cause of death was starvation, but that was a side effect of the syphilis, which inhibits the ability to swallow food. He didn’t starve himself to death by choice, as some have suggested.
There was no cure for syphilis in the 1850s. Period.
“And so, with his departure, all my happiness is over. A new life is beginning for me… God, give me the strength to live without him.”~Clara’s diary, the day of Robert’s funeral
Clara mourned her husband deeply. And while yes, she leaned on Johannes Brahms’s emotional support, what she valued most in the young man was how much she could talk to him of Robert, how much Johannes respected and understood her husband more than anyone else.
“I can talk to no one of Robert as I can Johannes.”~Clara’s diary
Clara returned to concert tours four months after the birth of her last child.
For this, she is also criticized. Many people, Johannes included, wanted her to stay home and accept charity rather than support her family herself. Without Robert composing any new works or conducting, their primary household income was gone. And the cost of Robert’s medical care was exorbitant—equal to over half their household budget. She had to pay those bills.
To any suggestions of benefit concerts, she was mortified and said, “I’ll give the concerts myself.” She determined to support her children and her husband’s care. She would earn money the best, most profitable way she could—concert tours.
But it wasn’t just about the money.
A Mission For Robert’s Legacy
Every concert and performance Clara gave in countless cities across Europe, she played Schumann music. Her programs of Beethoven and Bach, only the great masters were also a continuation of her husband’s musical philosophy and legacy. As he lay dying in a hospital and she feared he would never come home, her life’s work became ensuring her husband’s name would never be forgotten. That the music of Schumann would never die.
She dedicated the rest of her life– forty years of concert tours— to cementing her husband’s place of immortality in the classical music canon.
If you or someone you know suffers from mental health struggles, please reach out for professional medical care. Unlike in Robert’s time, we now have many adequate treatments that offer help and relief.
All diary quotes are from the Grace E. Hadow translation of the Berthold Litzmann biography of Clara Schumann from 1908.