Hector Berlioz often pondered his “disease of isolation.” Hugo Wolf described “streams of fire” running through his veins. Robert Schumann carefully chronicled in his diaries an unending series of violent mood swings, observing, “If we musicians live so often . . . on sunny heights, the sadness of reality cuts all the deeper. . . . “
These three composers were manic-depressives--clearly and without a shade of doubt, says Kay Jamison, a psychologist and director of the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic.
To back up her conclusions, and to raise public awareness of this misunderstood illness, Jamison and pianist Robert Winter are producing a rather unusual concert Sunday afternoon in Royce Hall. At that event, titled “Moods and Music,” Neal Stulberg will lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in music by Berlioz, Wolf and Schumann, as well as Handel and Mahler.
As part of the program, Jamison and Frederick K. Goodwin, of the National Institute of Mental Health, will provide commentary.
“I realize that the public tends to view psychiatry as mumbo jumbo,” Jamison says in her cramped Westwood office. “But manic-depression is one of the few places in the field that is scientific. The fact is, the disease is usually hereditary. Schumann’s father was a manic-depressive. A cousin and a sister both committed suicide, and some of his children followed in their father’s footsteps.”
The symptoms of this “high-energy disease,” Jamison asserts, seldom vary: Beginning in the late teen years, the manic-depressive will alternate between deep lows and exalted highs; an individual will experience delusions, such as hearing voices, and will often sense a fluency of thinking and bursts of creativity; a manic-depressive will maintain a strong belief in himself and be a convincing salesman, yet will often find difficulty in activities such as handling money prudently.
All those symptoms, Winter interjects, can be pinpointed in the diaries and correspondence of the composers on the Sunday agenda. For example:
Schumann: The composer’s wife, Clara, described a night in which Schumann “wrote down a melody which, he said, the angels had sung to him. . . . When morning came, the angels transformed themselves into devils and sang horrible music.” Two weeks later, Schumann threw himself into the Rhine. Jamison calls Schumann’s act “an example of a classic stage-three mania.”
Handel: He had trouble holding onto money, once going on a shopping spree in which he purchased several harpsichords. The story of “Messiah” being composed in only two weeks is well known. “But,” Winter adds, “look at the other oratorios. Almost all were written with the same maniacal speed.” And always, Jamison adds, in summertime: An abundance of light seems to stimulate periods of creative energy in manic-depressives.
Mahler: Morbid and hypochondriachal, Mahler brooded through his life. “What made him depressed? A death in the family? (His daughter died when she was 5 and his brother, Otto, committed suicide.) Illness? (He had heart trouble.) Misunderstood by the public? Everyone gets that. Yet, not everyone falls victim to his depressions,” Winter says. Mahler could be classified as a manic-depressive, Jamison adds, but, like Handel, he had a “mild form” of the disease that was “less destructive” to him.
Jamison points out that the misconception of the suicide-prone depressive as merely a victim of bad luck is one she hopes will eventually be banished from public consciousness. “A guy will commit suicide, and people say, ‘Well, gee, his girl left him.’ They are trying to normalize something that is not normal. Today, 80% of the teen-agers who kill themselves are manic-depressives. I get furious when reasons for suicide are so easily externalized,” she says.
Though Schumann came the closest to ending it all, none of the composers on Sunday’s program committed suicide. Nonetheless, Jamison cautions, the illness is not to be treated as merely a byproduct of a moody personality or an artistic soul: “One in six manic-depressives will commit suicide if untreated,” she says.
Even though much is now known about the illness--it is often treated through a combination of analysis and the use of lithium--Winter says many of those afflicted are not getting help because some individuals resist the notion that they--or those close to them--are ill.
“We view artists differently. There’s a latitude for being eccentric. I had always figured that artistic expression was literally immune from these kinds of illnesses. But the more I read and the more I thought, the weaker my position became,” Winter adds. “And then there’s the ‘Samson complex’: an artist doesn’t want to be tampered with.”
Jamison agrees: “Poets say they can’t produce without pain.”
Is it true, then, that manic-depression must be taken as simply an accepted element in the creation of great art? Would such classic examples as Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” and Schumann’s C-major Fantasy (the latter wil be played by Winter at the Royce Hall concert) have been written if the composers had been treated?
“We don’t speculate. We can only go by observations,” Jamison responds carefully. “But it is true that manic-depressives tend to have a higher degree of creativity. There’s simply a higher incidence among artists. About 1% of the general public suffers from it. But in a study I did of British poets, I found the incidence was 18%.”
Jamison says she is currently planning a similar study of contemporary musicians and composers.