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Peering into the troubled mind of Robert Schumann

Great composer's bipolar disorder examined in BSO program

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

4:46 PM EDT, May 12, 2011

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Robert Schumann heard so much music in his head, he felt compelled to compose.

"I cannot help it," he wrote to his wife, Clara, "and should like to sing myself to death, like a nightingale."

When he died at the age of 46 in an asylum, the only sounds he made were unintelligible to Clara and the doctors. It was a pathetic end to one of the greatest figures of 19th-century German Romanticism.

This weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will examine Schumann's troubled mind in an "Off the Cuff" presentation led by music director Marin Alsop. Audiences will hear a discussion of the composer's bipolar personality and how it was reflected in his work.

"Knowing Schumann's struggles gives me insight into the pieces," said Alsop, who will conduct the BSO in performances of the "Manfred" Overture and Symphony No. 2 on the program.

Alsop points to the "really avant-garde harmonic shifts" in "Manfred," music inspired the tormented hero of Byron's epic poem.

"We'll explore the music in terms of the duality of personalities in Schumann," the conductor said. "And he wrote the Second Symphony when he came out of his most severe depression. He was hearing trumpets in his head, trumpets in the key of C. The symphony opens with a fanfare for trumpets in the key of C."

Listeners unfamiliar with Schumann's history of mental illness might not recognize any symptoms in his music, which abounds in memorable melodies and is structured with great imagination. But the tell-tale signs of an unusual creative mind appeared early on in his career, including what may be his most brilliant and absorbing piano piece, "Carnaval."

During the BSO program, the dual personalities that haunt "Carnaval" will be examined by a specialist with dual talents — New York-based psychiatrist and pianist Dr. Richard Kogan. (A pre-concert talk will be given by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who has written about her own bipolar disorders.)

"Schuman was having mood swings in his early 20s," Kogan said. "He had panic attacks, a fear of losing his mind. He became delusional. 'Carnaval,' a suite of 21 pieces, was composed during a period of elevated bipolar tendencies. It is a catalog of bipolar symptoms."

The composer incorporated that bipolarity directly into the score of "Carnaval," which shifts perspective between his "two imaginary companions — Eusebius, who represents his depressive self; and Florestan, his manic self, a more hyper, aggressive individual," Kogan said.

The BSO program aims to put a spotlight on Schumann the man as much as the musician.

"To be a romantic artist and mentally ill was almost a given in the 19th century," Alsop said. "People would often feign mental illness because it was considered a must-have. So it's interesting to be dealing with someone who actually was mentally ill and very, very frightened about it."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

"Schumann's Beautiful Mind" will be performed at 8:15 p.m. Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; 7 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Hall. $28-$88. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.

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