Contributions to a Pathography of the Musicians: 1. Robert Schumann

Confinia Psychiatrica, 2, 65-94, 1959

by Eliot Slater and Alfred Meyer



    In his monumental study of human genius, Lange‑Eichbaum (1956) has pointed out how much there is of the subjective in the very concept itself. "Genius" is a matter of public reputation, and is not measured solely in terms of achievement or ability. The geniuses of one age may not be so regarded in the next; and there is a rise and fall in fame which has little to do with objective appraisal. Lange‑Eichbaum has also pointed out the extent to which any mental abnormality shown by the candidate for the title of genius affects the subjective factor in judgment. For if it is present, it provides hints of the mysterious, the strange and the awesome, which, playing on the personality like a light from beyond this world, inevitably impress the beholder.

    It is a fact that, when we come to consider the personality of some Great Man, we are likely to lose some of our capacity for a cool judgment. We always try to understand other human beings with the aid of introspection; to some degree we identify ourselves with them, and compare their characters and way of behaving with our own. Doing this with one of the great, we have the feeling of being dwarfed. If we feel drawn to the man and his work, we are likely to take him for a hero and to shut our eyes to blemishes. If, however, we find his personality strange or difficult to understand, then we may only be able to bear the comparison by trying to cut down the man or his work to our own scale. We can do this more easily if at some point we are able to look down on him from above, from a superior level of sanity, or social competence, or moral integrity.

    Nevertheless an impartial study of such people is a matter of great importance. We should know whether great achievements arise only from a disharmony or a pathological fault, or whether they do not always require some element of more than normal health and vitality in a personality however otherwise diseased. We should know what are the conditions necessary for talent to develop and for it to show in achievement; what are the ills to which the man of gifts is liable; what is the effect upon him of encourage­ment and frustration, of strain or illness, of tragedy, of success. For in this of all ages the reminder may be permitted that, for any life or progress in our society, we depend on those who have some more than average talent, great or small; from unleavened mediocri­ty there can come nothing but spiritual stagnation.

    For the answering of such questions as these there is little value in the conventional type of study, in which the author has made his own selection of great men; it is not possible to guard against a personal bias in this method. A fundamental advance on such work is provided by Adele Juda's book Hochstbegabung (1953). This is the first venture into a systematic pathography in this field, and provides material on which reliable conclusions could be based. Juda took as her subjects 113 artists and 181 men of science, and in­vestigated their lives and their medical histories, as well as those of their relatives, ancestors and descendants. The probands were chosen for her by experts in the fields of achievement in which the probands had themselves worked; thus her composers were chosen for her by musicologists, her chemists and her mathematicians were chosen by chemists and mathematicians. These experts were required only to supply the names of persons, speaking the German tongue, who had been the ablest and most creative in their field, of all born since the year 1650. Choice was based on achievement only, regardless of whether the proband was normal or abnormal, whether or not he merited the title of genius. [1]

    The results of Juda's very thorough investigation, which she did not see into publication, are presented in the form of statistical expectations. These run: in the artists, schizophrenia 2.8%, manic-­depressive 0, unclear endogenous psychoses 2.0%, psychopathic personality 27.3%; in the scientists, schizophrenia 0, manic­depressive 4.0%, unclear endogenous psychoses 0, psychopathic personality 19.4). Psychopaths were rarely "erregbar" (excitable) or "haltlos" (unstable), comparatively frequently "Sonderlinge" (eccentric) or "Thymopathe". There was then a little, but only a little, more psychosis in both groups than could have been expected if they had been members of the general population. But iii both groups there was about double the normal expectation of psychopaths. This is a decisive counter­demonstration to the vulgar belief that men of genius are by and large mad or half‑mad, and it shows that not only is normality of personality compatible with the highest achievement but also that the majority of men of the greatest achievement are normal. It still leaves open, however, as a problem requiring the closest study, the relationship of "genius" with abnormality of personality.

    In the course of her work Juda collected a large amount of valuable biographical material, sorted psychiatrically, and supple­mented by her own appreciation. This material, in so far as it relates to the probands, has been most kindly placed at our disposal by the late Professor Bruno Schulz, of the Genealogical Department of the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatric in Munich. Further­more, we have been absolved from the usual requirement that the names of probands should not be published or divulged. This is both necessary and permissible for a number of reasons. It is necessary because we propose to go into biographical details, and it is essential that our statements should be open to criticism and correction if needed; it is permissible because the probands are all historical figures who have already been the subjects of biographical and pathographic publications. For our work the data which were ob­tained by Juda have been supplemented mainly from a variety of sources in the English language, which will appear in the biblio­graphy.


    Juda's material of German‑speaking composers consists of the persons named in Table 1, together with one other who has been omitted, as he is still alive. Of these people, some had their names proposed by all of Juda's assessors, and are marked with an asterisk in the list, some only by a majority. Out of the entire list of 27 persons, Juda considered that 10 were psychiatrically abnormal. Those whom she classed as psychopaths of one or another kind were: Friedemann Bach, Gluck, Liszt, Mahler, Pfitzner, Schubert, Johann Strauss the younger, and Wagner; those whom she classified as psychotic were Gluck, Schumann and Wolf. In addition to these three, we consider that two others, Handel and Mozart, should be taken into consideration, as the possibility of a psychotic illness does arise. The diagnostic problem of the nature of the psychosis, if any, is not of any difficulty in the cases of Gluck, Mozart and Wolf; but with Handel and Schumann there are difficulties which will have to be resolved before the general problem of an enhanced tendency to psychosis in the composers can be considered. In the paper which follows the case of Schumann is particularly discussed. In a second paper we propose to consider the evidene of psychosis or neurological disease in Gluck, Handel, Mozart and Wolf; and in a third paper we hope to take up the central problems of the relation­ship of creativity to abnormality of personality.

[I] However, it should be noted that none of the representatives of the modern twelve‑note school were included.