The Angel Returns

by Andrew Crumey

From Mobius Dick (2004)


Not an easy journey for a woman of my age, but I made it twice. The first time, in May of 1855, I found Schumann unwell, though not beyond hope. A year later, all hope was gone. Dr Richarz had clearly done a fine job on his most illustrious patient, having made him every bit as sick as the good doctor always guessed him to be.

Richarz is supposed to be one of the more enlightened physicians, but Endenich is a dismal place. A dreary courtyard leading to a dreary house, where a dozen or so patients have their days of madness measured out in grains of sedative. Schumann's suite was upstairs, offering a view of nearby Bonn he sickened of, and a piano he played seldom, and badly. On my first visit he longed only for escape. On my second, it was clear that one exit alone was left to him.

Richarz is amiable, incompetent, and somewhat deaf. Overwhelmed by the success of his unique private hospital, he has had to delegate much of the work to subordinates trained at public asylums; warders who think it therapy to sit silently with their mournful charges in local taverns. At least Schumann was spared this. Instead, while still able, he was taken for long, pointless walks: visiting Beethoven's birthplace, or picking violets at the roadside.

"There was really no need to come again, Frau von Arnim," Dr Richarz said, mildly flustered, as he received me in his office. "Your journey is entirely unneccessary." Medical notes burdened his desk in disarray. He sat down and tried putting them in order, peering at me over his spectacles as he rustled the stiff, useless documents.

"So much paperwork, Herr Doktor," I observed.

"Indeed," he said, squaring and at last mastering the heap before disposing of it in a drawer he slammed shut. "The essence of science is exactitude. Precision of habit," he elaborated, now contemplating the open lid of his silver ink-well, becoming quickly distracted by it, "engenders... precision... of..." He closed the lid, fell silent.

"Thought?" I suggested.

"Exactly, madam," he declared, recapturing his thread. "Precision of thought. The kernel of science. The artist's mind, on the other hand, is characterised, so to speak, more by... by..." The position of the ink-well on his desk appeared to be causing him some disquiet; he slid the object from left to right, as if unsure which hand was meant to dip a pen in it.

"Vagueness?" I offered.

"What's that you say?" Richarz peered at me. "Madam, I'm afraid you'll have to speak up a little."

I therefore suggested to him, mezzoforte and with clarity: "The artist's mind is characterised by imprecision."

"Really, what nonsense!" Richarz chuckled heartily to himself, almost breaking into a chesty cough. "Madam, though you have known the affections of the greatest artists of our age, it seems your feminine charms have served only to make those artists hide from you the very root of their genius. No, my dear Frau von Arnim, the artistic mind has, at its foundation, something very precise indeed. I mean the condition of melancholy."

Then he sat back, creaking heavily in his chair, and from his waistcoat drew a snuff-box with which he began to fiddle. In this way he could at least forget about the matching silver ink-well, which had by now come to rest in the middle of his desk, directly before his myopic gaze.

"Yes, madam, melancholy," he said grandly. "Of course, I readily grant that a thousand men might have all the sorrows of Werther, and none of the talent. Melancholy is, as we scientists say, a necessary but insufficient condition of genius. Moreover there appear to have been one or two artists throughout history in whom the melancholic disposition has been suppressed to such an extent, and with such uncanny skill, that to their earthly companions these men of genius seemed almost happy. Oh yes, I could describe a dozen case histories - poets, composers, painters - all of whom were men of public laughter and good cheer. But look into the dark privacy of their souls, madam, and you will always find a streak of despair where none suspected it; and this hard, thin sliver bears the very sap of genius."

"Which brings us, does it not," I reminded Dr Richarz, "to our friend Robert Schumann?"

The doctor, having spilled more snuff than he had rubbed, now poked some into his nose. "His is a very typical case," Richarz told me, his eyes watering, though not with emotion. "His sap, so to speak, has run dry. It is the inevitable concluding state of his condition." He spoke with the satisfaction of one who has completed a difficult calculation, arriving at exactly the required total.

"If he has reached the final stage," I said, "does this mean his wife Clara can expect to see him discharged soon?"

Richarz was suddenly deaf again, and ignored my question. Wiping a moist eye, he told me, "For some time now we have been offering only basic supportive care. He refuses to eat, and has almost completely lost the power of speech, or of comprehension. Such vegetative degeneration is wholly to be expected, given the causative factors and overall pathology. He'll be dead in a month or two." Richarz turned his head and gazed complacently towards the window's sickly light. "It's all very sad, of course," he said. "But Schumann's end, one might say, is something of an occupational hazard, as much as the hardening of a miner's lung. Genius and melancholy, inseparably bound, are like... how should I put it...?"

"Two sides of the same coin?" I suggested.

"What's that? A coin? Yes, Frau von Arnim, you circumscribe it very amply indeed."

The asylum of Dr Richarz had been earning a great many coins from Schumann's illness, most of them donated by sympathetic friends and fellow musicians, since Clara's earnings as a pianist could not cover the heavy costs in addition to feeding seven children. The last of them, Felix, was born three months after Schumann came to Endenich. Now Robert had been here for more than two years, and in all that time, Richarz had never allowed Clara to see him. It was a drive of several hours: too far to undertake, Richarz insisted, unless strictly necessary. At first he told Clara that emotional stimulation would only further damage the composer's fragile organism. More recently, Richarz had advised all visitors to stay away, so that they need not witness his patient's irreparably pitiable condition.

"A coin, yes," Richarz murmured. "You speak with the voice of a poet, Frau von Arnim. You, who have known Goethe."

During my previous visit, Richarz quizzed me endlessly about my most famous friend. Was Goethe's melancholy manifest, the doctor wanted to know, or else suppressed? Tell me, Richarz had asked, pen in hand; was Goethe's love, in your opinion, a form of self-punishment?

Then there was Beethoven, of course. Richarz had diagnosed his period of "organic instability" quite precisely. It occurred, he informed me, only a few years after I brought Beethoven and Goethe together for their historic meeting. And do tell me about Liszt, Richarz had added, showing me the piano Franz once played, which Schumann now ignored. For Richarz, these names - men whose company and even love I shared - were merely illustrious specimens, in need of proper cataloguing.

During that first visit, I made it clear to Richarz I was only interested in discussing Schumann. But Richarz was after bigger game, and now once more he raised the hallowed icon of my greatest love.

"We should not speak of Goethe," I told him. "It would be indelicate of me; like the gossiping of a physician about a patient."

Richarz was not too deaf to raise an eyebrow; he knew my meaning. His wagging tongue had made it common knowledge round here: Schumann's wife had taken as lover the promising and beautiful young Brahms, whom Schumann himself unnaturally doted on. Family problems, Richarz reckoned, were what had made Schumann throw himself into the Rhine only months after Brahms showed up on their doorstep in Düsseldorf and made himself at home. A domineering wife whose performing success eclipsed Schumann's own failed career as conductor; and now she was unfaithful too. My friend Joseph Joachim tried to save him, but it was too late. Joachim and Brahms are allowed to visit Endenich, but not Clara.

"Gossip is a vice that does not tempt me," Richarz said smugly. "I leave that to the fairer sex. But regarding Goethe, whom you knew so intimately, I was thinking only that the two-sided coin with which artists pay for their immortality is a pact the author of Faust must clearly have understood. He, more than anyone, must have known the deep, dark chasm of despondency from which all art springs."

I left Richarz to pursue this reverie in the seclusion of his own meandering thoughts, but soon found the doctor quoting the poet's words: "Brief joy must be our lot, that woes overwhelm. A flicker of happiness is all we can hope for, Frau von Arnim, followed inevitably by darkness. Such is Faust's realisation. Granted his every wish, he has Helen woken from the Trojan dead: the most beautiful and desirable woman in all history. Yet what can he enjoy with her, except a moment of dream-like pleasure? And after that, oblivion."

Richarz looked at me with the hollow wisdom of a man who takes as truth exactly whatever he has found written in some other man's book.

"I wonder who Goethe's Helen really was," Richarz then asked teasingly. "Who was the lost love he raised from the past in his great poetic drama? Or does Goethe perhaps mean Eternal Woman: the spirit that drives men to art, and to despair?" Richarz waited for me to answer; I gave him none. So he continued, "Goethe's early love for your mother is a story as famous and touching as the one you yourself have told of his later affection for you." Still I remained silent. "And Beethoven, of course, had his own Immortal Beloved, did he not? Some allege it was you, madam, who plunged the composer into the depression that inspired him. My, what a veritable stable of earthly muses!"

Again Richarz chuckled, and again I ignored him. Yes, I - Bettina von Arnim - was Goethe's lover: my late husband Achim and the whole world knew it. Nature never meant me to be a wife, or a widow; and if now, an old woman past my seventieth year, I should still find myself charmed by a fine young man such as Joseph Joachim, what of it? Richarz would no doubt be shocked beyond words were I to admit to him my love for the musician who was himself spurned by my own daughter. But I have lived long enough to know that in this world anything is possible, and that everything, if only it can be understood, can be forgiven. Goethe loved my own mother before he ever fell for me; and I do not dismiss the idea that love can leap generations in the other direction too, so that after a daughter, a mother is loved, even if she is old.

Very well then, I have adopted young Joachim, just as the Schumanns have adopted young Brahms. And yes, it is only out of consideration for Joseph that, like him, I have visited Endenich; just as Brahms visits, only in order to please Clara. But do we then conclude, as Richarz apparently does, that the melancholy of geniuses is precipitated always by the fickleness of women?

"Why do you resist visitors such as myself and Clara," I asked him, "but not Brahms or Joachim?"

Richarz rocked uneasily in his chair. "I would prefer those gentlemen not to waste their time coming here, however I am in no position to resist. They have a legal right of access."

"And Schumann's own wife does not?"

"Madam," Richarz said, "please do not put me in the position of having to speak of matters which might embarrass you."

I was having none of this. "Dr Richarz," I told him, "I am 71 years old, a widow, an author of considerable renown, and a woman who has seen all that the world has to offer. If there's anything you could possibly say that would embarrass me, I think I'd be quite interested to hear it!"

Richarz, his mouth hanging open with surprise, was saved by a knock at the door.

"Ah, this must be Dr Peters," Richarz exclaimed with some relief. "Come in!"

The fellow who entered was tall, thin, grey faced, and wore the sorrowfully expectant look of an undertaker. He greeted me civilly, then seated himself near the window.

"Dr Peters is in charge of Schumann's day-to-day treatment," Richarz explained to me. "He can tell you far more than I, about the patient's demeanour."

I looked from one man to the other, not knowing which of them I trusted less. Peters was waiting for someone to prompt him.

"How is he today?" I finally asked.

Peters was unsure how to answer. "As before," he eventually told me.

"We shall wait until Schumann is soundly asleep," Richarz explained to me, "before going up to see him."

I was puzzled by this. "Would it not be better for me to see him awake?"

Richarz and Peters looked at one another, then again at me.

"No," said Richarz. "It would not." Then he turned to Peters again. "Have there been further hallucinations?"

"Yes, sir."

"And is their content unchanged?"

"It is, sir."

I began to understand that Richarz's dialogue with his subordinate was a way for him to ease his own embarrassment in clarifying for me the nature of Schumann's latest illness.

"Tell me, Dr Peters," Richarz continued, "would it be accurate to say that the patient's hallucinations principally concern an individual, or individuals, of the female sex?"

"It would, sir."

"And would it therefore possibly be inadvisable for any living individual of that sex to be present while such hallucinations were in progress?"

"Indubitably, sir."

Richarz clearly felt he had said enough. He straightened his waistcoat with a victorious air, then slid his ink-well definitively to the edge of his desk.

I turned and said to the cadaverous Dr Peters, "Does Robert imagine he is with his wife?"

Peters was uneasy, and spoke quietly. "It's hard to say, madam." He looked to Richarz for encouragement, received none, and hence was forced to continue. "The patient came to the conclusion some time ago that his wife - as she has never written or visited - must be dead. Since then, he hasn't been eating. We have to use a tube."

"A tube?" I exclaimed, loudly enough for Richarz to hear.

"That's enough, Dr Peters," he instructed. "We should not expose our distinguished guest to the distasteful physical details of our patient's medical treatment."

I interrupted angrily. "Are you telling me that Schumann is being force-fed?" Searching the faces of the two men, I saw nothing but indifference. "Has isolation from his family made him lose the will to live? What kind of doctors are you? This is not care, it's mediaeval torture!"

"Enough!" Richarz silenced me, then continued more calmly though with evident irritation. "This is no place for hysterical outbursts. We have ways of alleviating such conditions. I assure you, madam, that if you were as fully qualified and informed about the matter as we are, then you would not use such slanderous language." He stood up; Dr Peters did likewise. "I shall leave you for a moment, Frau von Arnim, while I and my assistant go upstairs to assess the patient. I hope that when we return you will have reconsidered your opinions about our establishment. Otherwise I shall have no alternative but to terminate your visit."

Then he came out from behind his desk and marched stiffly to the door, followed by Peters who closed it behind them, leaving me to try and guess what state poor Schumann must be in.

Twelve months earlier, when I had last visited, I had found very little wrong with him apart from an excess of nervous energy that the boredom of his confinement had greatly aggravated. On that occasion too, Richarz would not allow me to see him until I had first endured a long delay whose only purpose, it seemed, was to make sure I knew whose will it was that shaped things here.

Then, as now, Richarz had begun with a lecture. "The human mind," he informed me, "is somewhat like...." And he lapsed into his habitual academic silence, leaving me to try and supply the necessary metaphor.

"A book, Herr Doktor?" I suggested.

"What's that? No, no," he said. "A book is written in advance and demands only to be read."

"Then is the human mind like the author of the book?"

Dr Richarz laughed. "Since you are an author yourself, Frau von Arnim, I can see that the analogy must be appealing. But no; we are not the conscious authors of our thoughts. Why, even from his earliest years, Schumann claimed to possess two separate personalities with separate wills of their own. And he heard the voices of angels, dictating music to him."

"Does he hear them still?" I asked.

Richarz frowned then. Now, waiting for my second encounter with his patient, I recalled that frown and wondered what it meant. Were those angels the stuff of his latest visions?

Joseph Joachim has the face of an angel. So does Brahms, of course. They will be the great men that some old lady like myself one day remembers; and in Brahms's case, that greatness was bestowed by Schumann himself, in print. "New Paths", Schumann called the article where he announced the arrival of a Messiah to counter the Wagnerites. "He is come, a young blood by whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. He is called Johannes Brahms." Not bad, as first reviews go. And that's all it takes to launch a career. Oh, people like Richarz can ponder their lofty nonsense about genius and melancholy, but I've seen enough of the world to know how it is that people make it on to the pedestal in the first place. Opinions are formed by intelligent people such as Schumann, or myself. Then they are repeated by common fools like Richarz who turn them into great truths. If Brahms were not so handsome, would Schumann have been quite so indiscreet in his admiration? If Brahms had not knocked unannounced on Schumann's door one day and made himself a house guest, would anyone ever have heard of this girlish twenty-year-old; this blond blue-eyed lad who they say perfected his piano technique in a Hamburg brothel?

It doesn't take much to put an angel among the stars. In Brahms's case, as in so many others, it was merely a case of the right word from the right authority. Schumann's prophecy is sure to fulfil itself, and one day busts of Brahms, grown old and famous, will adorn respectable parlour pianos everywhere. Of course I'd heard the rumours: that for Brahms and Clara, Schumann's imprisonment here was quite convenient. Or even that the seventh child whom Robert never saw is not his own. I leave such matters to the likes of Richarz: the quacks and scholars who need great men as fleas need dogs.

Still no sign of him and Peters. They were making me wait, just like before. Such games must afford them welcome entertainment in a place where mental stimulation of any kind is strictly banned. Even Richarz's office, where I sat, was largely bare. Uncluttered surroundings, Richarz told me, make for an uncluttered mind. What he really meant, I think, was empty.

Schumann published his article about Brahms only a fortnight after the young Apollo walked into his life. And a few weeks after that, Schumann conducted his last concert. Joachim told me what a disaster it was. In the rehearsals, Schumann kept dropping the baton, eventually having to tie it to his wrist with string. The Düsseldorf orchestra had seen Schumann grow increasingly erratic in recent months, but now he reached the limit. He was dropping sheets of music from the lectern; he didn't know where he was. An important horn solo never happened, since Schumann had lost count of the bars and failed to cue the player. Could love alone so turn a head? Was the angelic Brahms, lounging now on Schumann's hearth-rug, the demon who made Schumann's words clog in his mouth?

The musicians begged Joachim to conduct the evening's performance, but he refused: he could never do such a thing to a friend. So Schumann raised the baton that night, and it was a shambles. Afterwards he was effectively dismissed from his post.

So when Schumann published his article on Brahms, he was not only heralding the arrival of a new genius but also announcing the end of his own career. He was passing the crown to his heir; passing his wife too, perhaps. Three months later he leapt into the Rhine, was dragged out by fishermen, and his incarceration at Endenich began.

Richarz kept me waiting the first time, just like he did again now, possibly hoping I would give up and leave. "Frau von Arnim," he said to me on that previous visit, "how exactly can I explain to you, in terms you might understand, just what it is that the human mind most closely resembles?"

We'd already dismissed books and authors. "A cabinet of precious jewels?" I wondered.

He thought about it for a moment. "Not really."

"A flower?"

"Heavens no."

"A city?"

Dr Richarz appeared to like this; he rubbed his chin, but then said, "No, I don't think that will do."

"Is the mind perhaps like melting snow; or the wheels of a carriage?"

I don't know how many metaphors I offered him; I could feel my own poetic stock run almost to exhaustion when at last the doctor's face became illuminated by a happy thought.

"I have it!" he declared. "The human mind is like... is like the universe itself!"

Well, this was good to know.

"You do recall, after all," he said, "that our great poet once set himself the task of writing a novel about that very subject."

Yes, of course I knew of Goethe's failed ambition, but I was not to be drawn back to Goethe again. "If the mind is like the whole world," I said to Richarz, "then I can see why your task as healer of minds is as futile as the poet's lofty goal." Of his novel about the universe, Goethe managed little beyond an essay on granite.

"The world; the spirit," Dr Richarz enthused: "our philosophers have shown beyond doubt that they are identical and commensurate; that they are inherent within one another and stand in a necessary relation of indiscernible identity..."

"Yes, Herr Doktor," I said patiently. "I am quite familiar with Hegel and Fichte and Schopenhauer. But I do sometimes wonder if there really is any more wisdom in them than in the tales of elves and fairies my grandmother used to tell me on her knee."

Dr Richarz laughed loudly. "My dear Frau von Arnim," he chuckled, "You are one of the most esteemed literary figures of our times; and your late husband, if I may be so bold as to say, must have been one of the luckiest men alive. But really, madam, though you have commerced with geniuses like a shooting star amidst the heavenly constellations, you speak, after all your years of rich experience, with the simple, delightful voice of a schoolgirl."

That was when he got up and left me; cordially, on that occasion, but with just as much determination to make me wait. That's what we do at my age: wait. We count the days and think how many have been counted for us already.

Schumann had already been here a year when I made my first visit. In that time he had made what Richarz considered modest progress, thanks to warm baths, enemas and walks in the woods. Joachim, on the other hand, told me Schumann was so starved of company he had nearly forgotten how to speak. A whole hour passed until at last I saw him then: poor Robert, coming into the room, his face instantly transformed when he saw me, rushing to embrace me and at first barely able to form a sentence. Once he mastered his tongue, he was like a musician long separated from his instrument, the words beginning to pour from him. Soon he was talking almost too quickly for me to grasp what he was saying, about places he visited in the past, about his family, and above all about the wonderful music of Brahms.

After that first visit, I wrote to Clara straight away, told her my concerns about Richarz and his establishment. Clara came to Endenich, spoke with Richarz, then went home again without even seeing her husband. In the interests of what she considers right, she can show the cold determination of a well-sharpened blade.

Joachim saw how Clara teaches her pupils. A young girl was there at the Schumanns' house one day for a piano lesson; a girl with some mechanical talent but not the slightest shred of musicality. The kind, in other words, whose parents provide real musicians with a living.

This pupil was sitting bolt upright as required. All unneccessary movement of her limbs had been solved long ago by making her balance coins on the backs of her hands while playing the preludes of Bach. Now, whether it was a Beethoven sonata or a Schubert waltz beneath her fingers, this girl glided over it with an aloofness born of terror. Should she ever dare love what she played, the imaginary coin might slip from her hand, and she would feel the sharp lash of Clara's displeasure.

On this occasion they were playing Robert's music, Joachim told me. The pupil had mastered Kinderszenen before she was twelve or thirteen; Joachim listened as she played 'Chiarina' and 'Estrella' from Carnaval, then watched as she was coached in the suite Kreisleriana, which, like the Nachtstücke and Fantasiestücke, takes its title from the composer's beloved ETA Hoffmann.

Joachim sat and listened while the girl began the final movement, so humorous and macabre: a ghost story in music. It depicts Hoffmann's fictional hero Johannes Kreisler creeping softly through the night. Joachim says that when he once heard Robert play it, it made the hairs on his neck stand up. Clara's pupil, unfortunately, could not produce the same effect.

Schumann instructs in the score that the left hand be "light and free". According to Joachim, Clara's pupil was taking the instruction quite literally; she was playing with the intended rubato, making the left and right hands almost disconnect. Joachim thinks this spectral finale shows Kreisler haunted by his double; or perhaps the lower stave is Kreisler while the upper is his cat Murr, the comical feline philosopher, tripping over moonlit rooftops. Either way, Joachim says, the player's hands must be allowed a degree of independence, as if telling two different stories at once. But Clara was having none of it.

"The left," she bluntly announced, interrupting her pupil. "Observe all note-values carefully."

The flustered pupil was allowed to continue. It sounded even worse than before.

"Halt!" Clara cried, so suddenly that the pupil gave a start, tearing her hands from the keyboard as if it were a hot stove. Such was Clara's own distress at the incompetence she had to deal with that for a moment she could not find her words. "I was not hitherto aware," she finally said, grandly, "that my pupil is come of the people of Nineveh."

The girl looked down at her lap, where her useless hands were folded, with an air of resignation.

"Do you not know your left from your right?" Clara said witheringly. "Do you not know how to count? Do you not understand that when I ask you to observe the note-values in the left hand, it is not my wish that you should instead shorten yet further the already unpleasant staccato it pleases you to peck out with your right?"

Joachim says the girl was almost crying by now. He wasn't surprised.

"Young lady," Clara said to her, more softly but with undiminshed firmness. "We are here not to make merry, but to serve a higher purpose in which our own insignificant feelings and sentiments can have no place." Then Clara sat down at the other piano. "Let me show you how it must be."

She began to play the same passage, her hands gliding with absolute confidence and control across the keyboard, and Joachim said it was like the sudden opening of a window, such was the purity and exactness of Clara's touch. It was the sound of a truly great musician; yet it was a voice that was hers alone. Clara's way of teaching is to try and make all her pupils sound just like her. In other words, to drain from them every last drop of individuality, turning them into brilliantly polished imitators.

Joachim, dispirited, stood up and excused himself from the lesson. He had heard enough, he said to Clara; a remark that apparently left her pupil weeping inconsolably once he had vacated the room, since she had hoped to receive the famous young violinist's blessings on her own musical career. What he had heard, he told me, reminded him more of the chess-playing automaton that once amused Voltaire.

Clara won't allow her pupils to make their own mistakes; instead she makes them faithfully reproduce her own. But there can be no art without love, Joachim told me, even if it is a love that is flawed; and I knew from his eyes that he was thinking of Gisela, my daughter who refused his offer of marriage, though I advised her to accept. There must be love and despair, he said, humour and anger, reason and madness, jealousy and pride. Kreisleriana has all of these.

When Schumann wrote it more than fifteen years ago, he dedicated it to Chopin, whom he had praised in print just as he would later hail Brahms. Chopin, I'm told, took one look at the score and said the cover was very pretty. That is the scorn of a true artist: like the way Goethe shrugged off Beethoven, when I brought them together.

Perhaps when Brahms arrived on Schumann's doorstep, a genuine artist would have had the upstart kicked back on to the street. But Schumann let him in, this beautiful young brothel pianist who signed his musical works "Kreisler" after his favourite fictional character. Yes, Brahms too is besotted with Hoffmann's supernatural tales: he arrived at the Schumanns' house like a creature of Robert's imagination made magically flesh. Some say Brahms was moved to visit after coming across the score of Kreisleriana, which he read as if it were about himself. So perhaps the ghostly figure in the last movement is Brahms, light and free, preparing to creep up on Schumann years later. Preparing to enter the house, steal the wife, sink his teeth into Schumann's neck and drink the master's blood. This was the ghastly vision Clara wrested from her pupil, then played so smoothly.

But what had happened to Richarz and Peters? What could be taking them so long, upstairs with their patient while I sat waiting like a servant? Twelve months previously, Schumann had been allowed down to see me. Now he was permanently confined to bed, slowly starving himself to death.

The door opened and I saw Richarz. "Frau von Arnim," he said. "Are you prepared to see the patient?"

I gave a silent nod.

"And do you undertake to restrain yourself in the patient's presence from any form of behaviour which might exacerbate his condition?"

Again I nodded.

"Then you may come with us," he told me, and I rose to follow the doctor upstairs.

"Does he ever compose now?" I asked Richarz as I clasped the bannister and slowly mounted the steps, feeling every year of my long life in the stiffness of my joints.

"He has jotted a few scraps," Richarz told me, turning to watch my ascent behind him, though not offering any help. "Herr Brahms collects everything, yet none is worthy of inclusion in the composer's collected works. Herr Brahms considers it better to destroy these last sad outpourings."

We reached the top of the stairs where I regained my breath. So Brahms was already editing the complete edition. All that was left was for Schumann to die and then the last inconvenient detail would be resolved. The composer's life had effectively ended only a few weeks after his last concert, when he threw himself into the Rhine. That was when his life as an artist - the only one anybody cares about - was extinguished.

We reached Schumann's door, where Peters stood waiting. There was a metal panel fixed upon it, which Peters slowly drew aside, making a sound like the grinding of a knife. A peephole was revealed through which the captive could be observed.

"Look for yourself, Frau von Arnim," Richarz told me.

Peering into the room, I saw a figure lying unconscious on the bed. His face was not visible to me; all I could see was a thin hand projecting from the bedcovers, which I would not have recognised as Schumann's had I not known whose it was.

"I wish to be allowed inside," I told Richarz.

"I would prefer the patient to be left undisturbed," the doctor told me; but I had no more time for his prevarication.

"Unlock this door for me," I said to him. "Until you do, I promise you I shall not move from this spot."

Richarz was annoyed, but another glance at Schumann convinced him the patient was safely sedated, and so he instructed Peters to let me in. With a jangling of keys, Peters opened the heavy door and the three of us went inside and approached the bed. I stood flanked by the doctors as we gazed silently upon the pitiful sight.

Schumann's face was changed. It was the emaciated mask of an unburied corpse. I gave an involuntary gasp of horror.

"You can see why it would have been better for you not to come," Richarz whispered. "And why his family must be spared such a spectacle."

Then, as I watched, I realised that Schumann's lips were trembling, almost imperceptibly. He was trying to speak. I bent to listen.

Richarz hissed at me, "Madam, please!" But it was too late. Before he could restrain me, I had brought myself close to the bedside, stooping to feel the composer's faint breath on my cheek as I listened for his words.

"Robert," I said, "it's me, Bettina."

"This is most unwise!" Richarz anxiously whispered, trying to draw me back.

"Robert, your family and all your many friends send their warmest greetings."

Richarz and Peters were tutting behind me like a pair of old fishwives. I silenced them. Robert was saying something. At first I thought he was complaining about a lack of air; I tried to loosen the top button of his nightshirt. Then I heard more clearly what he was saying. Angel.

"I'm not an angel, Robert. I'm your friend Bettina."

His words became clearer; perhaps only because I was growing accustomed to the weakness of his voice. "Where?" he said. "Where angel?"

He must be looking for Brahms; his eyes were partly open now. Pale and watery, they directed themselves towards a table behind me, and when I turned I saw on it some pages of music that Brahms must have assembled there for destruction. Did Schumann perhaps want me to save them?

"Angel," he said again. "Came before."

"Madam," Richarz interrupted, "please do not encourage the patient's fantasies."

Yet Robert's voice grew more urgent and insistent. "The angel will come again," he said. "She promised me."

He wasn't speaking of Brahms after all. "Clara is well," I said, hearing a groan from Dr Richarz. But she, too, was not the angel Robert spoke of. Instead he grew still more excited.

"Is it as wife she comes?" he said. "Comes she as queen?" It was a line remembered from long ago.

"You see the extent of his delusion," Richarz said gloomily, and as Robert had now fallen silent and closed his eyes, I raised and straightened myself to hear the doctor's explanation.

"You might recall," Richarz told me, "that Schumann laboured for many years over a musical setting of Goethe's Faust. He completed and published some scenes before he became ill. The project has not died in his imagination."

I was amazed. "Is he still composing further scenes? And is this the music Brahms is destroying? Surely it would be an outrage for such an important work to be suppressed!"

Richarz shook his head. "No, madam, it would be a scandal were these last degenerate scraps ever exposed to public scrutiny and ridicule."

Still I protested, so that Richarz was finally forced to explain himself fully. "Schumann is no longer the man you knew," he said. "The power of composition has left him, along with all his other faculties. He has even forgotten his own identity. Instead he has become a player in the drama he once dreamed of scoring. Yes, madam: he thinks he is Faust. He even has visions of Helen meeting him here in this room." Beside him, Peters gave an embarrassed cough. "There you have it: the squalid truth of his condition."

While still trying to absorb this extraordinary information, I heard Robert begin to speak once more. I stooped to listen.

"Helen!" he said.

"What do you want, Robert?"

"Music. More music."

Now I understood. Schumann had often spoken of how he heard music dictated by angels. Brahms had come into his life as the embodiment of one such angel; here in Endenich, he had found another, born of fragmentary memories in his disintegrating mind. I went to the table and looked at the scribbled pages of music. I was saddened by what I saw: the most blatantly discordant, most hopelessly unmusical harmonisations one could imagine, in which all twelve notes of the chromatic scale were thrown upon the stave in equal measure, without any regard for the jarring cacophony that would result were such a random arrangment ever to be played.

I went back to Schumann's bedside and asked him, "Where does the music come from?"

"From Helen."

No; it came more likely from Mephistopheles. I could see now why Brahms was right to destroy it.

Richarz said to me, "We must let the patient rest. Do not inflame his hallucinations."

Robert was lapsing back into unconsciousness. "Did Helen visit you today?" I asked him.

Suddenly his eyes became focussed. "Yes," he said clearly.

It chilled me. For a moment it was as if the dream were real: as if a ghostly visitor truly were the author of his strange pages.

Then the sedative reasserted its gentle power. His eyes rolled in their sockets, and soon he was sleeping. In his last days, Schumann was being granted the mercy of having forgotten about Clara, the children, and all the loves of his life.

It was time for me to leave. As Richarz and Peters escorted me from the room, I did not look round for a final glimpse of the sleeping patient. Better to remember him in happier times. I knew, as the carriage took me away from Endenich, that Schumann could have no more than weeks to live. Clara was finally summoned when death was certain, and it is said that he recognised her face before drawing his last breath.

That was three years ago. Brahms and Clara remain unmarried; Joachim will never understand my love for him. We are each a little closer to the grave. Yet still I wonder where it really came from: that strange, demonic music on Schumann's table; that hellish un-art of sheer chance. Richarz sought an answer as soon as Schumann's corpse grew cold, laying it naked on a slab and sawing open the skull, finding there only the same bloody pulp that harbours all our thoughts and dreams, of reason or of madness. Whatever Schumann saw and heard could not be scooped by the crude tools of science.

He imagined he was Faust: a creature of poetry and of destiny. He thought himself divine, when really he was damned. In his meaningless scribbles, whatever their source, was there perhaps a message and a warning to us all?


Extract from The Angel Returns by Heinrich Behring. English translation by Celia Carter. Cromwell Press, British Democratic Republic, 1949