The Schumann Paintings
Amsterdam was my home between 1994 and 1996, and my time there was haunted by three themes which at first seemed unrelated – the lives of the 19th century German composers Robert and Clara Schumann, the theory and construction of keyboard instruments, and the religious upheavals of Europe, from medieval times to the 20th century. The Schumann paintings grew at the point where these ideas finally converged.
A few blocks away from my attic apartment on the Niewezijds Voorburgwal was an antique piano restoration company, where I spent quite a bit of time, watching the workmen as they coaxed new voices from ravaged old instruments. Examining the keys and inner workings of pianos, spinets, and clavichords, I became intrigued with the word “key” and its root, the Latin word “clavis.”
The earliest usage of “clavis” seemed to refer to any tool used to split something open. Later it came to define a more refined tool; a key as we would understand it today, used to open a lock. So how does this relate to piano keys? Well, as far as anyone can tell, the earliest keyboard instruments were not in fact pianos, but pipe organs. In a pipe organ, the keyboard does in fact open valves, allowing wind into one pipe or another. The Old French term for “key bearer,” was “clavier,” and this became a term for any keyboard instrument. Later on, small pianos became known as “clavichords.” Harpsichords were first named “clavicembalum” in Italy in 1397; an upright harpsichord is also known as a “clavitherium.” From the same root, the modern German word for piano is “klavier.”
At this time I was reading about obscure religious movements in the Netherlands and elsewhere, and I soon came across another usage of “Clavis” in the document called “Clavicula Salomonis Regis,” also known as the Lemegeton, or the Goetia. The document is a list of talismans -- their actual origin is unknown, but this is the legend:
King Solomon was the son of King David and Bathsheba; he ruled Israel in the 10th century B.C.E. His reputation for wisdom has survived the centuries, and is accepted as orthodox belief in Christianity and Judaism, but what is less known is the reputation he had as a powerful magician, capable of controlling demons. It is alleged that the Temple of Solomon was built with the assistance of these spirits.
What is meant by the term “demon”? A modern etymology states that the word derives from a Greek word meaning “to divide (destinies).” A demon defined this way suggests a force in controlling one’s destiny. Solomon’s demons, as listed in the Keys, seem to have both positive and negative properties, and so it would take a great deal of learning to employ them safely when trying to influence fate.
The earliest known description of these individual entities is found in Gnostic scripture, and the German author Karl Kiesewetter claimed in 1921 that “Lemegeton” was in fact the name of a Gnostic magician. (This is largely speculative – an opposing theory is that Lemegeton is a bastardized ancient Greek word meaning “very powerful sound.”) Whatever the origin of the title, Solomon and his demons show up again and again, from Reginald Scot’s “Discoverie of Witchcraft” (1584) to Aleister Crowley’s edition of “The Goetia” (1904).
What does any of this have to do with Robert and Clara Schumann? I’ll try to explain, beginning with the example of one of Robert Schumann’s compositions.
Inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman’s mad fictional musician Kappelmeister Kreisler, Schumann’s “Kreisleriana” was one of many musical works written at the urging of the inner voices that alternatively plagued and blessed him throughout much of his life. As long as his mind remained whole enough to organize what he was “hearing,” these voices brought some of his finest work to him, sometimes fully realized and orchestrated. When his mental state began to disintegrate, however, the ghostly music brought him terrible suffering. His wife, the pianist Clara Schumann, described a tortuous night :“The night of Friday, the 17th, we had not been long in bed when Robert got up and wrote out a theme that, he said, the angels had sung to him; after doing that, he went back to bed and hallucinated all night long, his eyes open and looking to heaven; he was firmly convinced that angels were hovering over him and disclosing the most wondrous revelations, all expressed in glorious music: they extended us their welcome, and we would both be joined with them before the year was past...Morning came and with it a dreadful change! The angel voices had turned into the voices of demons with horrible music; they told him he was a sinner and they planned to cast him into Hades, in short, his condition increased literally into one of nervous convulsions; he shrieked in pain (as he told me later, it took the form of tigers and hyenas tearing at him and trying to grab him) and the two doctors, who fortunately came in good time, were hardly able to hold him. I’ll never forget this moment, I was suffering the very agonies of torture with him. After about half an hour, he was less agitated and said friendlier voices could now be heard giving him encouragement...”
Most biographers have concluded, based on extensive anecdotal evidence and medical reports, that Robert suffered from syphilis, which almost certainly killed him, and most also feel that he suffered from some sort of cyclical psychiatric disorder – manic depression or else a type of schizophrenia called “periodic catatonia.” Without disputing these findings, I would like to suggest an alternative explanation for Robert’s voices – one that takes into account the positive as well as the negative effects these voices had in the lives of both Robert and Clara in the form of music, and one that takes into consideration their exploration of magic and “magnetism.”
Like many bright, creative 19th century people, Robert and Clara were interested in the occult, and experimented with “table turning” and seances. Though sensitive and artistic, Clara had a rather conservative and disciplined mind -- I believe that this protected her during these sessions, while Robert, his spiritual sentinels incapacitated by his psychological illness, was vulnerable to possession by any invisible entity the two of them may have invoked.
Two spirits who are particularly associated with artistic pursuits and auditory hallucinations are found in the “Clavicula Salomonis Regis.” According to this document, the spirit Phenex manifests himself by “singing sweet notes” and Amdusias (or Amukias) is said to cause “trumpets and all manner of musical instruments to be heard.” These spirits, like most of those listed in this particular book, have both creative and destructive powers, and Robert’s reeling mind undoubtedly experienced it all. The voices that brought him the Rhenish Symphony also commanded him to throw his wedding ring -- and then himself -- into the Rhine river. Interestingly, the spirits of the Goetia often appear as animals (especially large cats and wolf-like animals), which could explain Robert’s tigers and hyenas. Applying Aleister Crowley’s notion that the “spirits” really represent parts of the brain, perhaps Robert Schumann unleashed a part of his brain that should have been left alone.
No biographer of Robert or Clara has ever considered the possibility of demonic possession when reviewing the difficulties in their lives. Isn’t it a bit patronizing that those who value Robert’s compositions refuse to take seriously his “ghosts”?
In these paintings I have tried to draw together all of these notions of keys, and magic, and music. Robert Schumann’s afflictions are depicted by his absence -- the image I most often use is of Clara alone, playing a variety of magical keyboard instruments, all of them capable of invoking or banishing these spirits. Her strength against these forces lay in her conservative nature, the health of her mind, and the lack of darkness in her soul. She, with the rest of the world, from that time to this, doubted the very existence of Robert’s demons. I’ll close with his own words:
“You really must believe me, dear Clara, for I wouldn’t lie to you!”
1The etymology of the word “organ” as used to define an instrument is curious, too. The earliest references are in ancient Greek, where the term “organon” denoted any tool or instrument with which to work; the “tool” might or might not be a musical one. St. Augustine wrote the earliest definition I could find of the organ as a musical instrument : “Organum is a generall name of all Instruments of Musyk: and is netheless specyally aproppryte to the Instrument that is made of many pipes; and blowen wyth bellowes.” (English translation by John of Trevisa, 1398) The later meanings of the word “organ”(i.e. the organs of the body) are post-medieval, and are likely inspired by the instrument; after all, if you cut a human being from stem to stern, what do you see? Pipes and bellows....
2This definition is found in “The Goetia – the Lesser Key of Solomon the King” edited and with an introduction by Aleister Crowley, Second Edition, copyright 1995 Ordo Templi Orientis – this book in turn sites G.J. Riley’s definition of “demon” in Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking and Pieter W. van der Horst, “Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible” (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1995) as the original source.
4From “Music and Medicine” by Anton Neumayr, copyright 1995 by Medi-Ed Press
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