The Schumann Paintings
The Gift – Endenich – Theme in E flat
In the autumn of 1853, after years of failing physical and mental health interspersed with periods of lucidity and prolific work, Robert Schumann took a dramatic turn for the worse, sliding rapidly into severe psychosis. He floundered painfully in his performances as the conductor of the Dusseldorf orchestra, and lost his position there – for the final, though not the first time. At home, his moods fluctuated wildly. At times he was tormented by terror and auditory hallucinations, hearing a single note played over and over again with maddening persistence. At other times he heard beautiful music, which he claimed was brought to him by angels, and by the ghosts of Mendelssohn and Schubert.
The keyboard mounted on this painting is engraved with Robert’s “Theme in E-flat,” composed in February of 1854. Shortly after he wrote this piece, his terror and hallucinations increased. At the top of the painting is a written account by his wife, Clara, of a typical night for the two of them during this period. One day he wandered out of his home, dressed in only a bathrobe, and threw his wedding ring, and them himself, into the icy Rhine River. (Was he attempting suicide, or merely trying to fetch his ring back?) He was rescued by some fishermen, and on the fourth of March, he was taken to a private asylum in Endenich, and turned over to the care of one Dr. Franz Richarz. Dr. Richarz believed in a humane approach to the mentally ill – he also, however, believed that in order for a patient to get better, he must be isolated from his family. And so Robert Schumann’s final years were spent in relatively comfortable surroundings, but isolated from his beloved Clara.
In this painting, Robert is imagining that Clara has come to visit him. He pictures her as she appeared when they were first married, before the sadness and troubles that were to overtake them. How he loved her then! And, perhaps more significantly, he loved who he was, by her side, reflected in her eyes. In his imagination, she has brought him a gift of a spinet, so that he may continue composing (though of course Dr. Richarz had already provided him with a piano). Only his hands are visible, hauling the spinet on a rope up to his window, as she watches from the courtyard, wishing to see his face.
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