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Schumann’s Ghost Variations reveal the dark side of the composer’s art

Unfinished business today.

In last week’s Sunday Herald, I reviewed a new disc of Schumann’s piano music by Andras Schiff, released on the ECM New Series label. It includes a performance of the last piece Schumann wrote, a little theme and variations. It has the name Ghost Variations, and is seldom played. Schiff will perform it at his first recital in Glasgow next month.

It lasts just 10 minutes. It has a simple, hymn-like theme, gentle and beautiful, on which Schumann created a short set of five variations. They are exquisite, and although their style is quintessential Schumann, highly expressive and occasionally a little florid, the composer never lost sight of the theme, even when, in one variation, the music sidesteps briefly into the minor key.

The piece is scarcely known. At least one major book on Schumann omits any significant reference to its quality, but I think it’s a wee masterpiece. But it’s also a piece with a story, one that had desperate ramifications for Schumann, whose mental health was in wretched condition when he was writing the Ghost Variations in 1854, two years before his death. It also has had a shocking and tragic resonance in an incident that occurred eight years ago across the Atlantic.

By 1854, Schumann already, as one writer put it, “teetered on the brink between madness and lucidity”. He knew it: he had already pleaded with his wife Clara to have him incarcerated. On February 17 that year, Clara recorded that he got up in the middle of the night and wrote down a theme “dictated by the angels”. That is the theme you will hear Andras Schiff play. However, by next morning, Schumann, agitated, was declaring the voices of the angels had turned into the demonic voices of “tigers and hyenas” which sang “hideous music”.

Over the next week, presumably with some composure regained, Schumann wrote the set of five variations on the theme. By February 26 he was again begging Clara to have him committed.

The following day Schumann was deep in melancholy, preparing a fair copy of his Ghost Variations. At two in the afternoon he walked out of the house, headed straight for the Rhine and flung himself into the icy waters. Some fishermen hauled him out of the water and he was carried back home.

Clara was not informed of his suicide attempt and Schumann persisted in his demands to be institutionalised. On March 4 he was moved to a private asylum in Endenich where was visited by Brahms, a close family friend, but he was not allowed to see Clara. At the very end, in 1856, she finally visited him, but he was more or less unintelligible.

Much of this information is drawn from Robert Schumann: Herald Of A New Poetic Age. The author of this beautiful and deeply insightful book, published in 1997, was John Daverio, professor of musicology at Boston University College of Fine Arts.

In 2003, Professor Daverio disappeared from the campus. His body was found in the city’s Charles River, quarter of a mile from a bridge which crosses the river. There was no evidence of foul play. The police found no note. Conditions were icy. They concluded that suicide or accident was the likely cause.

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