Schumann in crisis: the great composer’s suicide attempt

How mental illness and financial stresses drove Schumann to throw himself into the Rhine on an icy day in February

Portrait of German composer and music critic Robert Alexander Schumann (1810 - 1856)

The morning of 27 February 1854 (a Monday) began as many did for Robert Schumann. After breakfast, he worked quietly at home in Düsseldorf. Around noon, however, he emerged from his study, and left the family’s first-floor apartment on Bilker Strasse without explanation.

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Still wearing a floral-patterned dressing gown and slippers, and hatless in cold weather, he walked at least ten minutes through pouring rain to a wooden pontoon bridge on the River Rhine. Schumann may or may not have been recognised en route: it was carnival time in the city, so his bizarre attire would probably have blended more easily into the milling crowds than it might otherwise have done.

Arriving at the bridge, Schumann had no money to pay the toll collector. But he offered his silk handkerchief in lieu and was allowed to continue. The specific details of what happened next are blurred by history. At some point on his way across the bridge, Schumann halted, stepped over the wooden railing and entered the Rhine, possibly via one of the pontoon boats below.

The impact of the ice-cold water was immediate, and Schumann would undoubtedly have drowned or died of hypothermia had help not been at hand immediately. It came from Joseph Jüngermann, a local river worker who reacted swiftly by pulling the composer from the fast-flowing current into his vessel. Schumann apparently resisted, but was eventually brought ashore and taken home in a cart.

While the news of Schumann’s apparent suicide attempt was shocking to his friends and family – ‘What I felt is indescribable, it was as if my heart had stopped beating’, his wife Clara Schumann said later – it was not totally surprising. For years, he had suffered from mental instability and, in the weeks immediately preceding the Rhine incident, it had grown alarmingly worse.

He had reported suffering from ‘very strong and painful auditory disturbances’ and began hearing music ‘more wonderful than one ever hears on earth’. One theme, he claimed, was dictated to him by Schubert – dead for quarter of a century – and he began writing variations on it. But demon voices assailed Schumann too, accusing him of sinfulness and causing him to scream out fearfully. More than once he worried that he might unwittingly attack his beloved Clara.

What had caused this horrifying episode of instability?

Acres of text have been devoted to analysing Schumann’s mental illness – schizophrenia, burn-out, bipolar disorder and syphilis have all been suggested as causes. External factors undoubtedly played a part too. A few months previously, he had been forced to step down as municipal director of music in Düsseldorf, where his tenure had not inspired confidence. The humiliation was substantial and there were also financial consequences, especially as Clara was pregnant with the couple’s seventh child. Any or all of these circumstances could have helped trigger Robert’s final mental collapse. The truth is we will never know precisely why Schumann acted as he did on that catastrophic February morning in 1854.

Five days later, he was admitted to an asylum 40 miles away in Endenich, near Bonn, a move Schumann himself had suggested to his doctors. There he spent the remaining 28 months of his life, occasionally lucid, but more often delusional and sometimes straitjacketed.

Clara, strongly advised by doctors to stay away from Endenich, visited her husband just once, on 27 July 1856. ‘He smiled at me,’ she recorded, ‘ and wrapped his arm around me – never will I forget that.’ Two days later, Robert died, aged 46. Despite living on another 40 years, Clara never remarried.

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We named Schumann one of the best Romantic composers ever, one of the best German composers ever as well as one of the greatest composers of all time.