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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the January 8, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Music That’s Manic & Brilliant
Mental illness has afflicted several great composers.
Yet Robert Schumann was able to convert his suffering into brilliant
works that have moved generations. So should mental illness go untreated
among composers? Richard Kogan, a unique combination of both a psychiatrist
and a pianist, is the man to ask.
Kogan, a New York City psychiatrist and director of the Human Sexuality
Program at New York Presbyterian-Weill-Cornell Medical Center, is
a renowned international concert pianist and orchestral soloist. He
has appeared in solo performances with the Boston Pops Orchestra a
dozen times, in lecture-performances at the United Nations, at Carnegie
Recital Hall in a benefit for the National Alliance for Research of
Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), and at annual meetings of the
American Psychiatric Association. He performs regularly in a trio
with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Lynn Chang.
Combining his vocations, Kogan has begun giving presentations that
show the effects of mental illness on creative process in the lives
of great composers. On Sunday, January 12, at 3 p.m., he presents
"The Brilliant Music of Robert Schumann," a musical exploration
of the connection between Schumann’s manic-depression and his creative
genius. Proceeds from the lecture recital benefit the Mercer chapter
of the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI). The program
takes place at the College of New Jersey Music Building in Ewing.
A reception and dinner follows at the campus Atrium in Eickhoff Hall.
Kogan performs a selection of Schumann’s music to demonstrate how
Schumann translated the intense emotions of the manic states of his
illness, and his disorganized, racing thoughts and turbulent energy
into brilliant compositions. "Bipolar disorder can magnify normal,
human emotions into larger-than-life proportions," Kogan explains
during a phone interview.
Kogan says Schumann biographies reveal manic periods with bursts of
creativity followed by crashes, periods of melancholy during which
he couldn’t compose at all. That’s bipolar disorder.
A timeline shows how Schumann’s musical output correlates with his
mental state. In 1840 and 1849 the composer was hypomanic and his
musical output soared; he produced 24 brilliant compositions in 1840
and 27 in 1849. During these manic periods, says Kogan, Schumann might
have 22-hour days, suffused with energy, and only an hour or two of
In 1844 he was severely depressed, and produced nothing. Twice he
attempted suicide: in 1833, when he produced two works, and in 1854,
when he produced nothing. The composer produced no new work after
1853. "Schumann could not only not compose during his crippling
depressions," says Kogan, "he was intermittently tortured
by auditory hallucinations involving demons making grotesque music."
Schumann’s musical output cycled through his moods.
"He’d have manias, depressions, and normal moods in between,"
says Kogan. "He might write some in the normal moods, and virtually
nothing in the depressions, but when he wasn’t depressed he remembered
what it felt like to be depressed, and would write that into his music."
Schumann died in 1858, locked in an insane asylum, of self-starvation
and perhaps of tertiary syphilis.
While Schumann’s depression came and went, Tchaikovsky "was depressed
all the time," says Kogan, "and used his depression to fuel
his creative process. He poured out his anguish in music. Or he’d
create fantasy worlds."
Would Schumann not have composed had he not had the illness? Kogan
has thought a lot about that. Today lithium "is pretty effective
in smoothing out the highs and lows of bipolar illness," he says.
"Schumann desperately sought help for his mental illness. He tried
hydrotherapy, hypnosis, blood-letting, and the induction of blisters.
I’m pretty sure that he would have tried lithium, or the kind of psychotherapy
we have now. Yet I sense that he would have monitored the effects
that any kind of treatment had on his creative process. With the highs
smoothed out, he would have been less compelled to write great music.
I feel he would have stopped taking the drug."
Other musical geniuses afflicted with mental illness include Beethoven,
Chopin, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Gershwin, and very possibly also
Handel, Berlioz, and Mahler. Kogan lectures on many of them, and recently
spoke on how Tchaikovsky’s lifelong depression fueled his creative
process. He believes Tchaikovsky poured out his anguish in music and
created fantasy worlds like the First Piano Concerto or the ballets,
including "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake," which
were fantasy worlds of beauty, charm, and grace completely different
from his inner melancholy.
Some of the composers, long dead, are diagnostic mysteries. Schumann,
though, is different, says Kogan, because he kept meticulous diaries
throughout his life and wrote many letters which have survived. In
his diaries and letters Schumann wrote how he felt about his music,
and — in great detail — how much he loved his wife, Clara,
a magnificent pianist. He used his diary to record every single time
the couple made love, says Kogan, who adds: "They had probably
the most profound, creative partnerships in the history of Western
classical music. Schumann only became famous after his death. She
outlived him by 40 years and played his music." The couple had
How does Kogan’s position as director of a sex clinic fit in with
music? "Sex and music share a lot of the same language, rhythm,
harmony, fantasy, climax," he says. The four stages of lovemaking
— desire, arousal, climax, and afterglow — are often paralleled
in the structure of music. Good musicians know that instinctively.
"Good music, like good sex, relies on prolongation, on delaying
the satisfaction," says Kogan. He became interested in the study
of sex when, as a psychiatric resident at New York University, he
discovered many of his patients were having trouble with sex.
Music also has the power to heal, providing an outlet for raging emotions,
Kogan says. "Music and medicine are both about healing. Schumann’s
music was an extremely important outlet, which probably prolonged
his life and gave it a much higher quality." Composing was therapeutic
for Tchaikovsky also. "Music was not just an expression of suffering,
but a lifeline," Kogan says. "He said many times that music
kept him sane."
Did Schumann and the other composers accept their illnesses because
of the great periods of creativity the illnesses brought? "Most
of these composers sought treatment," Kogan says. Tchaikovsky,
depressed his whole life, died (perhaps a suicide) at 53. "Anti-depressants
might have kept him alive," he says, "But the more depressed
he was, the more urgently he composed. I have a feeling that if these
composers had taken [today’s] mood stabilizers and found they had
an adverse effect on their creativity, they would have been non-compliant."
Kogan speaks thoughtfully: "I think not only Schumann but many
of other great composers I’ve studied were more motivated to create.
That was the most important thing, even more important than feeling
The dual influences, music and the mind, on Richard Kogan began early.
His mother, a music teacher, recognized his musical talent and his
perfect pitch when he was four years old and started him on piano
lessons. He began performing at age seven and played many concerts.
He studied piano at Juilliard from ages six to eighteen. In those
same years his father, a gastroenterologist, took him along
on medical rounds. "So many of the stomach ailments my father
dealt with had psychological underpinnings," Kogan says. He became
interested in the mystery and complexity of the human mind.
Richard Kogan is the second of five children. He was born in 1955
in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where both his parents, Lee and Edgar Kogan,
still live. He grew up there and attended the Pingry School, then
in Hillside. He went on to Harvard rather than to a conservatory because,
he says, "I didn’t want to restrict my education just to music.
I wanted to learn about other things, particularly the mind."
Kogan, Ma, and Chang met as teenagers at the Juilliard School and
all three went on to Harvard, where Kogan and Ma were roommates. The
music trio has endured for a quarter century. Studying medicine since
his undergraduate pre-med days at Harvard, Kogan has continued all
the while as a musician. As an undergraduate, he won first prize in
a Chopin competition of the Kosciuszko Foundation, then won the Concert
Artists Guild Award and the Portland Symphony National Piano competition.
He went on to Harvard Medical School, where the dean created a special
five-year schedule so that Kogan might travel and play concerts along
with his studies.
"Combining a career path as a concert pianist, which was extensive,
and a career as a physician, a psychiatrist, is quite demanding,"
he acknowledges. Now 47, Kogan is married and has three children.
While he had been playing the great composers’ compositions
since he was a child, Kogan only saw how they correlated to their
inner lives when he was past the age of 40 and a psychiatrist. "A
few years back, four or five," he says, "I happened upon something
which has proved to be quite satisfying: the merger between these
two fields." He gave his first lecture-recital five or six years
"As a musician," he explains, "I read a few biographies
of composers, Beethoven, for instance. He was a man of volatile, tempestuous
moods, even psychotic behavior, and suicidal thoughts. When he discovered
he was losing his hearing, he contemplated suicide, then decided to
dedicate himself to becoming an even greater composer. Drawn into
his silent world, he became more effective as a composer."
"Thinking about him as a man who struggled, I saw similarities
to the struggles of my patients. All the time I see people who contemplate
suicide, who deal with adversity. What I realized in learning more
about Beethoven’s life — and I’ve played his music since I was
six — was that I became a much better performer. Learning about
the urgency of some of his struggles helped me as a musician. It also
helped me as a psychiatrist. Beethoven’s music was an incredible example
of sublimation. He used adversity to achieve a type of greatness through
George Gershwin, says Kogan, was believed to be depressed and was
treated by a psychoanalyst for two years before he died in his 30s.
Gershwin actually died of a brain tumor which was not correctly diagnosed
until the day he died in connection with brain surgery. Kogan says
Gershwin’s depression was probably caused by the tumor and had a significant
impact on his creativity.
"Gershwin wrote `Porgy and Bess,’ probably his most melancholic,
most profound, work while he was gripped by this depression,"
says Kogan. "Until he became depressed, he mainly wrote just upbeat,
snappy love songs."
While the mental illness of some of the world’s greatest composers
has given the world a great deal of its finest music, Kogan says that
is no reason that it should go untreated.
"First of all," he says, "mental illness causes so much
suffering. Part of the mission of NAMI and part of my responsibility
as a psychiatrist is to attempt to ease the extraordinary suffering
that is caused by mental illness. But as somebody who cares for patients,
I believe it is imperative that we strike a balance. Working with
patients is not about just fixing what’s broken, but helping patients
live up to their potential."
Kogan faces a quandary daily in treating artists, writers, and musicians.
"People who are too content in a bland sort of way may not be
driven to create," he says. "I think there is a profound relationship
between mental illness and creativity. It’s possible that with very
careful treatment Schumann’s depressions could have been treated so
he could have been more productive during those depressed times without
sacrificing the brilliant flights of fancy and imagination he had
during his manic periods."
Kogan does not think that all great musicians, artists, and writers
are mentally ill. "There have been some great composers —
Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn — who seem to be relatively free of significant
psychopathology. But I think a disproportionate number were. And are.
Manic depressive, or bipolar, disorders, are extremely over-represented."
Coping with these crippling disorders, the great composers enrich
the lives of generations of listeners. As Schumann said: "To send
light into the darkness of men’s hearts — such is the duty of
— Joan Crespi
Kogan, the College of New Jersey, Ewing. Benefit concert for NAMI,
reception, and dinner, $150; concert, $35. Call 609-777-9766 or E-mail
NightOutNAMI@aol.com Sunday, January 12, 3 p.m.
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