I'm here in my childhood home for the last two weeks before I start work. I'm sitting at the same piano I've had since elementary school. I'm reminiscing about touching the same keys that I did over a decade ago, wondering if I'll get the chance to return home once work starts.
I'm playing, intentionally, pieces from Schumann's Scenes from Childhood. In it is probably one of the most famous pieces in classical music. Even if you don't know it by name, you've almost certainly heard of Träumerei:
Since I was little, I was fascinated by the links between life stories and the creative spirit, between one's circumstances and one's music. When I learned Träumerei, I remember browsing through some of Schumann's other works. His G Minor Sonata caught my eye. In the beginning, he writes for the pianist to play "as fast as possible". Later, in the coda of this movement, he marks “now faster” and then “even faster.” Odd.
I remember endlessly browsing Wikipedia for tidbits on the lives of famous composers whose music I was learning. It didn't take long to find that the history for music is littered with interesting stories of psychiatric illness.
Here, I'm sharing three highlights that I discovered growing up. Schumann is one of them.
Ravel: classical music more repetitive than techno
The French composer Maurice Ravel was one of the most influential composers of the impressionist era along with Claude Debussy.
Imagine being one of the most popular composers of your time. Imagine just having toured the United States, giving wildly acclaimed performances with large crowds. In the midst of it all, sitting on a beach with pink shorts, comes an unescapable melody. Ravel immediately rushes to the piano, and frantically hammers out the melody. And then?
He writes 340 bars of it. The exact same melody. Not a single variation. Nearly a century later, Ravel's best known work is still the beautiful, yet repetitive, Bolero:
Six years after Bolero, he starts to forget words. He forgets the alphabet. In a touching letter, Ravel writes to a close friend:
"Write me sometimes. I will try to answer you although it costs me entire days of torture to do so; I began this letter over a week ago.
His condition worsens. Once, he grabs a kitchen knife from the wrong side, completely unaware, and tries to cut with the handle. Eventually, he can't write or speak.
When Ravel died of a neurosurgery complication, there was an effort to study anatomically his neurodegenerative disease. His frontotemporal dementia resulted in holes and scars in his left inferior frontal-insular lobe, which is instrumental in thinking about language.
What makes the Ravel interesting, though, is that there are others. Many others. A retrospective study notes 291 very different individuals who shared the same story. Investment bankers who had a sudden urge to create art. World leaders who had an insatiable need to create. From professors to statesmen, the story was the same: a huge burst of creativity, followed by a loss of language and eventual degenerative death.
The truth is that we don't know why it happens. One hypothesis suggests that:
"...that structural and functional enhancements in non-dominant posterior neocortex may give rise to specific forms of visual creativity that can be liberated by dominant inferior frontal cortex injury."
which just means that now that left frontal-insular lobe is rotting away, the right lobe, associated with visual creativity, can dominate.
Tchaikovsky: a glass to a mysterious death
In French, the word pathétique has one meaning:
1. pathetic (all meanings)
Unlike Beethoven's sonata of the same name that sought to contrast one's sense of limitation or suffering in contrast to one's hopes and aspirations, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's pathétique symphony was anything but:
An energetic and confident work deemed "the best thing I ever composed or shall compose" by Tchaikovsky himself, the composer's last symphony was written only nine days before his very, very mysterious death. He drinks a glass of unboiled water and dies of cholera. This is, of course, during a recent cholera epidemic and at a time when the upper classes were relatively unaffected by the disease.
We may never know the precise details of Tchaikovsky's death. Was it suicide? Was his symphony and his remarks of it a prolonged suicide note? Why did the symphony have a mourning, lamenting end instead of a powerful one? Entire academic articles. films, and even operas have expounded upon the vast array of possible explanations.
What we know is that Tchaikovsky was devastated at a young age when he left his mother for boarding school. His mother then dies of cholera. His close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein dies too. His one enduring relationship of his adult life collapses. His one marriage falls apart in two and half months because of clear psychological and sexual issues.
Tchaikovsky was gay. He kept it private his whole life. Traditionally, his suppressed sexuality was considered the dominant factor in explaining many of his psychiatric conditions. More recently, musicologists downplay its importance.
He used alcohol to blunt his chronic depression. He said on multiple occasions, "without music, I would go insane". At the age of 53, he drinks a full glass of cholera.
Oh yeah, that too. Tchaikovsky suffered from glass delusion, the belief that one's body is made of glass. He was known to hold his head while conducting because he thought it would fall off.
Schumann, and... a lot of them really
Schumann originally wrote over thirty pieces in Scenes from Childhood in the span of only a couple of days. In 1840 alone, he wrote no less than 138 songs. Yet, there were huge chunks of his life where he wrote hardly anything at all.
We now know that Schumann most likely had bipolar disorder, and likely schizophrenia as well. Schumann’s bursts of creativity seemed to coincide with hypomanic episodes, characterized by sharpened imagination, increased energy, and decreased need for sleep, whereas when he was depressed, he almost never composed.
His music is littered with fragmented ideas and unprepared transitions. A number of scholars attribute to his invention of two imaginary companions during times of stress: Eusebius, a melancholic dreamer; and Florestan a passionate aggressor.
Actually, it's not hard to find composers with interesting life stories riddled with psychiatric illness. Many composers have been influenced by psychiatric illness. Beethoven suffered persecutory delusions, volatile moods, ex-plosive rages, and suicidal ideation. Berlioz wrote some awesome but demented music during his struggles with bipolar disorder, suicide, and drug use. And there are lots more, from Brahms to Rachmaninoff, Handel to Mahler.
The mystery of creative genius has been one the most intruiging problems for those who seek to understand the mind. Perhaps it's intuitive that mental instability leads to creative ideas, but now we finally know.
Very recently, Nature Neuroscience published genomic evidence for a link between creativity and a number of psychiatric disorders. Using a large number of gene associations referenced with artistic professions and memberships, the verdict finally came out: creativity and psychosis share common roots.
A lot has changed since the times of Schumann and Tchaikovsky. Modern medicine has advanced to the point where we can treat a number of common psychiatric illnesses to the point where patients can live fairly normal lives, which raises a number of interesting ethical questions.
Would Schumann go back in time and accept treatment, knowing that he would be an even better dad than he already was, but at the likely cost of his music? Would we even have the beautiful Pathétique had Tchaikovsky been treated effectively with antidepressants? How ought we treat future music superstars struggling with mental illness?
I don't wish to be misleading. There are great composers - Bach, Haydn, and Mendelsson, for example - that seem relatively free of psychopathology. It goes without saying that psychosis is not a strict requirement for excellence.
But it sure helps.
About the cover photo
The cover photo is former biologist Dr. Anne Adams' depiction of Ravel's Bolero. She translated the piece into visual form, note by note. Shortly after completing the painting, she dies from frontotemporal dementia - like Ravel.