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Open Features: Music And Melancholia

Peter Wintersgill informs us that some of the greatest composers suffered from psychiatric ailments.

This is a brief look at the psychiatric ailments of some of the great composers. Two committed suicide; four suffered from severe depression; three had other assorted ailments; and three were suffering from manic depressive illnesses.

Their mood swings are compared with their periods of intense composition. For some composers it seems that they are most productive immediately after a phase of depression.

Among the examples of composers suffering from depression are Handel, Schumann and Mozart. Two examples of composers whose depression led to suicide are Clarke and Warlock.

Jeremiah Clarke (1670 -1707)

Clarke is known to have been subject to bouts of depression. During one bout brought on by an unhappy love affair, he shot himself.

Peter Warlock (1894 -1930)

Warlock, or Philip Heseltine to give him his proper name, was subject to marked mood swings throughout his adult life. He had bouts of severe depression when he was unable to compose, followed by manic phases, when he composed a great deal. He died of coal gas poisoning at the age of 36.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840 -1839)

He suffered from depression coupled with having to cope with other problems including his homosexuality. His depressive bouts often occurred during the winter, but were made worse by external events, e.g. criticism and bereavement.
During a prolonged attack after criticism of his Piano Concerto Number 2, he composed virtually nothing for three months Much the same occurred after the deaths of close friends. So there were reactive elements in his mainly endogenous depression.

Later in life, his bouts of acute depression merged into a low grade state of chronic depression. He married, rather reluctantly, at the age of 37. The marriage brought on a nervous collapse and he parted from his wife after only three months, never to meet again.

Edward Elgar (1857 -1934)

Elgar was described in his youth as "prone to fluctuations of mood, but the prevailing mood was one of acute unhappiness". Here again there were depressive bouts following external events like bereavement.

Thus, he was severely depressed following the death of his wife in 1920, to the extent that he virtually never composed again. However, it was noted by his family and friends that his major compositions followed immediately after his depressive episodes. Although he had many friends and led a full social life, he was a basically insecure man, with a poor opinion of himself and his works.

Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)

Another recurrent depressive, Balakirev had severe bouts in 1861 and 1871, when he had suicidal ideas and longed for death. When he was 21 he had 'inflammation of the brain', which was probably encephalitis. This left him with recurrent headaches and 'nervous stomach disorders'. His father had gambled away the family fortune, leaving Mily to support his sisters and he often fell into debt.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)

A recurrent depressive in his youth, Gurney later developed paranoid schizophrenia. He was invalided from the army in 1918 with shell shock, and in 1922 he was admitted to a mental hospital, where he died 15 years later.

Hugo Wolf (1860 -1903)

Though Wolf had depressive tendencies, his main disability arose from neurosyphilis, which first manifested itself in 1897. He developed the delusion that he was replacing Mahler as Director of the Vienna State Opera. He was also noticed to have Argyll Robertson pupils, so characteristic of neurosyphilis.

After his suicide attempt he was admitted to an asylum, where he died four years later of general paralysis of the insane (GPI). That he was able to compose for so long can be explained by the fact that the centre for composition lies in the temporal lobes, whereas GPI affects primarily the frontal lobes.

Anton Bruckner (1824 -1896)

Bruckner was a complex character. Another chronic depressive with mood swings and reactive features, he also suffered from obsessional neurosis. He had three bouts of severe depression: (1) 1867, when he was in hospital for three months; (2) 1887, following severe criticism of his Eighth Symphony; and (3) 1895-96, when he had religious mania, leading on to terminal depression.

He was obsessional, feeling impelled to count everything - the number of notes in each bar, bars in each phrase, leaves on a tree, etc. A fellow patient in hospital was unable to wear a certain dress, because whenever she did, Bruckner would start to count the number of pearls on it.

Alexander Scriabin (1872 -1915)

Scriabin was another obsessional neurotic. He would spend hours brushing his hair and moustache, "preening himself like a young girl in love", before coming down to greet his guests. He would invariably wear gloves whenever he paid the tradesmen. He had very precise handwriting, such as is found in obsessional personalities.

He came under the influence of a form of oriental mysticism known as theosophy. On one occasion he is said to have tried walking on the surface of Lake Geneva - without success, be it noted.

George Frederick Handel (1685 -1759)

Another cyclothymic individual, Handel had three bad bouts of depression. The first, in 1735, aged 50, was associated with "rheumatism", which may of may not have been a mild stroke. He went to Tunbridge Wells to take the waters and after a stay of five weeks he returned much improved. He wrote his cantata Alexander's Feast during his recovery.

Two years later, again whilst suffering from a bout of depression he lost the use of his right arm, probably due to a stroke. Handel visited Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) and improved so much that some nuns, passing the cathedral, where he was playing the organ, were amazed. A short time later he wrote a funeral anthem and two operas - Faramondo and Serse.

Six years later Handel suffered another bout of depression, again accompanied by a stroke. Horace Walpole wrote "Handel has a palsy and cannot compose". During his recovery Handel wrote the opera Semele and the Dettingen Te Deum and Anthem. There was a tendency for major works and groups of works to be during the period of recovery from depressive episodes.

Robert Schumann (1810 -1865)

Another endogenous depressive with mood swings, Schumann also had reactive features, in that some of his depressive bouts followed bereavements. He recognised his own mood swings, and invented two characters Florestan (representing his active manic self) and Eusebius (representing his passive depressive self). These two gentlemen appeared in the musical journal he edited.

He became very depressed when his mother died, improving rapidly when he got engaged, when he wrote a major group of piano pieces. His mood swings became less marked and less frequent after his marriage to Clara in 1840.

During a tour of Russia in 1844 with Clara (a talented pianist), he felt that he was playing "second fiddle" to her and during this time he was unable to compose at all. The following year he suffered another bad bout recovering during the summer, when he wrote his piano concerto and second symphony. Again there was a tendency for composition to coincide with recovery from a bout of depression, although Schumann certainly produced compositions at other phases of the cycle.

W.A. Mozart (1765 -1791)

That Mozart was a childhood genius is well known. His cyclothymic temperament and depressive tendency, however, are perhaps not so well known.

Following his mother's death in 1778 he went through a marked depressive phase which was closely followed by a very productive period. During the autumn and winter of that year he wrote Symphony 31, a double concerto, a ballet (Les Petits Riens), as well as a mass of chamber music.

Following another 'down' phase in 1875 he produced the Marriage of Figaro, three concerti (two for piano and one for horn) as well as sundry piano pieces. In 1788 after another 'down' phase he wrote his last three symphonies, a choral work, and more piano and chamber pieces.

The final spurt, consisting of a piano concerto, 40 dances, and a few songs and piano works, came in the first three months of 1791, overlapping his terminal depression. He died in the December of that year, aged only 35. Once again the busiest periods of composition flow closely after the depressive phases.


One might expect at first that creative ability would be at its height at the peak of a mood swing, i.e. during the manic phase. While it is true that ideas do flow at a faster rate then, it is also possible that they flow too fast. Creative ideas, be they musical, literary or artistic, should come at a moderate speed, otherwise they may be gone before they can be captured.

On the whole, therefore, it seems that the most favourable time for composition, in a cyclothymic individual, may well be immediately following a depressive phase. It may well be, therefore, that mood swings together with a tendency to depression, are an advantage to a creative artist.


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