On the afternoon of February 27, 1854, a babbling Robert Schumann ran past the tollkeeper on the Rathaus Ufer bridge in Düsseldorf, paused to take final instructions from the whispering voices that had ordered him there, and threw himself into the icy Rhine. After parting with his sanity in this spectacular fashion, he never composed another significant work. His wife, Clara, who spent the rest of her days as mournful high priestess of Schumanns Werke, visited him but once during his confinement, the day before he died.

Schumann had always lived close to the edge. The psychiatrist Peter Ostwald has noted that even as a young teen, Schumann had begun to show the symptoms of social withdrawal, loss of contact with peers, and hints of autistic reverie. The penchant for self-destruction might itself have been a Schumann genotype—his grandfather’s cousin disposed of himself in 1817 and, in suitably prophetic...

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