The Art and the Hours – Ghost Stories

by Br. Gilbert Heater, OSB

Music is a profound and transcendent mystery, piercing the innermost places of our heart and moving us in ways that are simultaneously more fundamental and more exalted than words. With that in mind, I want to share a piece that is close to my soul, a heart-rending masterpiece that perfectly expresses that curious concatenation of melancholy and joy, of presence and longing in a way that only music makes possible. Robert Schumann’s Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) was his final composition, written just before his committal to the Endenich asylum where he would spend the last two years of his life. He suffered from what was likely bipolar disorder exacerbated by mercury poisoning, an illness that slowly stripped away all he loved, leaving him unable to compose or even talk to his beloved wife Clara.

            Late one night, in a hallucinatory trance, Schumann claimed to hear angels dictating this exquisite choral theme to him. He completed these five variations over the course of the next week (interrupted by an attempt to drown himself in the icy Rhine). He seemed unaware that he had already used this beautiful melody in several of his earlier works, but in this final appearance it takes on a distinct harmonic colour and an extraordinary intimacy. The variations never stray very far from the original theme and rather than dissecting and exaggerating the smallest motif as was the style au courant, Schumann teases out different aspects of the soundscape so that each variation sounds more like an echo than a new creation. Variation 1 (2:02) adds a triplet counterpoint in the middle voice and the second variation (3:34) develops the theme into a tender and touching canon. In variation 3 (5:12) the melody descends into the left hand and is overlaid with a delicate and ethereal filigree. The fourth variation (6:51) is cool, precise, and brittle giving way to an uneasy conclusion (9:00) layered with a disconcerting chromaticism which seems to give each voice its own identity, perhaps a musical expression of the dissonance and divergence of his own psyche.

            It is impossible to know if Schumann intended to end the piece as he did or whether he was simply incapable of writing any more. Regardless, I think this music is the purest expression we have of who Schumann was. It allows us to see into a heart that suffered in the terrible and tragic fear of losing its connection with reality; the despair of a mind unable to trust even its own thoughts. And yet, we hear a sense of peace, a connection with a beauty that penetrates deeper than even the limitations of his mind, an expression of an immortal soul that perdures despite the failings of the flesh. We glimpse the surging of a heart transfixed by the reality of truth and goodness and beauty unconstrained by its loss of lucidity and logic.

            Robert dedicated this final work to Clara and it was, perhaps, his last communication with the person he most loved. Clara carefully guarded this piece and it lay unpublished for nearly a century. She never said why, but I think she kept it secret because it was written for her: it was Robert’s final dedication to her, the most vulnerable and intimate and impoverished expression of his heart, an outpouring of love that could not be expressed in any other way. It was, perhaps, a kind of relic, a sacred condensation of his love and life. And I have picked this beautiful recording by Piotr Anderszewski because he is unmatched in his ability to capture this sense of devotion and reverence.

            This piece makes me aware of the ghosts in my own heart, the tenuous and tenebrous thread of my soul that builds its art upon the hours of my life, encompassing the resonating remnants of the past, the ever-fading filament of now, and the loves that linger and ripen in the depths of my heart. There is a spirit that moves in darkness and silence and solitude, a stability of peace unstrictured by the limitations of our earthly frailty. Schumann claimed to hear the song of angels and perhaps he was right. For there is indeed a Ghost in each of us who intercedes with sighs too deep for words.