Norman Lebrecht on shifting sound worlds
I assess the latest evidence in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.
Hello Norman: in WSJ you write: Who or what drove Schumann to madness and early death? Syphilis is discounted by Mr. Geck on good circumstantial evidence. He tends toward the brain-tumor theory, unaware (apparently) of the writings of Kay Redfield Jamison on Schumann’s progressive bipolar disorder.
I am a physician, neurologist and in the sixties i did some threehundred autopsies as a pathology intern. I therefore read Schumanns story a little differently.
After Schumann death there was an autopsy and we have a detailed autopsy report. A brain tumor who killed would have been seen also then. There was nothing of the sort. The brain tumor hypothesis is clearly nonsense.
However there were signs of chronic inflammation of the meninges (thickened envelopes of the brain), as one sees in Syphilis or other chronic inflammations of the brain. Years before his death Shumann suffered from frightening episodes of speech disturbance and also of tinnitus and distorted hearing, both symptoms one frequently encounters in brain Syphilis. In the end stage his brain function seems to have been severly reduced, as is again typical for late brain Syphilis. Syphilis was very common at these times, famous fellow-sufferers were Heine, Nietzsche, Ulrich von Hutten etc.
All the cited elements point to a severe organic inflammatory brain disease and in the absence of bacteriological proof one ends up with Syphilis by sheer probability.
I saw Gecks book in German two years ago and had the impression that – in the face of heavy evidence – he turns a blind eye to Schumanns Syphilis, probably to protect his hero from the smear of Venereal disease. But as a physician I cannot do that.
Of course concurrent manic-depressive traits or even disorder are possible, this is also frequent in very creative artists. But this cannot account for the autopsy findings nor for the hearing and speech troubles or the severely reduced cerebral function in a relatively young age.
Always enjoying to read your posts
Lukas Fierz, M.D., Neurologist, Switzerland
That’s very interesting. Are the 1850s autopsy records trustworthy?
best wishes, Norman
Does this not stand to reason also in light of the accounts of Schumann’s debauchery?
The autopsy was done by his physician in Endenich, Dr. Richarz. Concerning reliability: Until a brain tumor kills a patient it has to have the size of an apple. Dr. Richarz would have seen that. What Dr.Richarz however described was a thickening of the meninges (brain envelopes), which could not easily be separated from the brain substance and also a loss of brain substance. We do not know about the competence of Dr.Richarz, but physicians often did autopsies on their patients and pathology was then already an established science since its foundation by Morgagni in 1762.
Anyway what Dr.Richarz described would be what you expect in brain Syphilis (in English: Progressive Paralysis of the insane).
Since 1994 the Archives of the Berlin Academy of arts has also the clinical notes of Dr.Richarz from 1854-56. These are 16 folio-sheets with small handwriting on both sides describing Schumann pathetic state in detail: He attacked and hit doctors and attendants, persistently removed his clothes, urinated on the floor and roared loudly during hours. He spoke unintelligibly and had the pupillary signs of Syphilis. These notes came through heritage from Dr.Richarz to the composer Aribert Reimann.
Its all in the book: Robert Schumann in Endenich (1854–1856): Krankenakten, Briefzeugnisse und zeitgenössische Berichte, herausgegeben von Bernhard R. Appel, mit einem Vorwort des Komponisten Aribert Reimann. Schott-Verlag 2006.
In medicine as in war intelligence you never can take anything for granted. Before believing you want converging and confirming evidence. But in Schumanns case everythin fits for Syphilis: Primary infection, early warning symptoms, pupillary signs, cerebral decay of organic-psychotic type and autopsy findings.
Yes, some Schumann adepts just cannot swallow his. Also the above mentioned book contains two medical essays, one to prove and another to disprove brain Syphilis, the latter one by a Dr.Peters and rather uninformed and unconvincing.
Hope this helps and all the best
Lukas Fierz, M.D.
Thank you, Lukas. That is indispensable.
@Dr. Fierz: I read that Schumann took mercury to treat his syphillis, and I always wondered what that might have done to him in regards to what was very likely bipolar disorder. Do you have an opinion on this?
Nobody uses Mercury today, I have no experience with it and cannot comment.
It is interesting how we like to protect our musical heroes from the possibility that they may have been not as we would have wished them to be morally. I remember reading many years ago a writer discounting the possibility that Beethoven’s deafness was caused by Syphilis. The grounds for the defence were something like the writer of the great ninth symphony could not possibly have contracted such a disease. The problem is that musical genius is no proof against the contraction of a contagious disease. As Lukas says, we must look on the matter medically not through the eyes of emotion or admiration. Medically Schumann was just as likely to catch syphilis as the next man if he adopted the sort of lifestyle that was conducive to it.
Author, novelist, broadcaster, cultural commentator.
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