Andrés Orozco-Estrada, music director of the Houston Symphony, was the driving force behind the symphony's new Schumann Festival.

Robert Schumann was one of the Romantic era’s most prolific and gifted composers. He was also very likely bipolar, says Dr. Richard Kogan, artistic director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Program in New York City.

“Schumann may be the best representative of genius and mental illness,” Kogan tells Houstonia, noting that many artists used creative expression to grapple with emotional disorders. “Schumann had very rapid mood swings but there was no language for that then. The feeling was that he was just one of those crazy artists from the romantic era.”

Schumann, of course, was much more than that—something the Houston Symphony explores in its first-ever Schumann Festival, which runs throughout the next two weeks. Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada has been the driving force behind the festival, which itself is an effort to shine a light on the complexity of Schumann’s creative process.

"The music we listen to is often the product of troubled minds,” Kogan says, “this festival reflects that."

The festival’s size and scope are extraordinary, with 11 events ranging from concerts to lectures to tours that are being held at six different locations across the city. Guest artists include cellist and MacArthur “Genius grant" Fellowship recipient Alisa Weilerstein, Houston Grand Opera Studio tenor Richard Trey Smagur and Alley Theatre actor Jay Sullivan, who will portray Schumann onstage. 

Kogan, who himself is a Juilliard-trained and Harvard-educated psychiatrist and concert pianist, will host a presentation and performance titled "Music, Mood Swings & Madness" on Feb 8. During the program, he’ll offer insight into Schumann’s mental health, including his two imaginary friends, Florestan and Eusebius; his sporadic but often prolific writing; and his rather wretched death in a psychiatric asylum. Kogan, will also perform the "Andante Cantabile" movement from Schumann’s Piano Quartet with select members of the Symphony members.

British classical pianist Benjamin Grosvenor

Image: Patrick Allen

Later that night, British classical pianist Benjamin Grosvenor will perform Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16, a musical dialogue between the spirited Florestan and meditative Eusebius.  

“When he was 20 or so, he conjured up two imaginary companions and they comforted him in times of stress. He called them Florestan and Eusebius,” says Kogan. “When adults conjure up imaginary companions, it’s either a sign of a very active imagination or psychosis.”

Schumann’s psychosis is evident not just in specific works but in the flow of his creative output. The composer wrote three string quartets in a period of barely more than a month; one year, he wrote some 140 songs, says Kogan, calling it a staggering amount of productivity.

But he often had trouble concentrating, adds the psychiatrist, and there were long stretches where Schumann couldn’t compose at all, which was distressing to him.

“Schumann, Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Brams, these were all flesh and blood human beings who had internal struggles,” says Kogan, “and their music became a manifestation of those struggles."

Feb 6–16. Tickets prices vary. Various locations. 713-224-7575. More info and tickets at houstonsymphony.org

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