Madness vs. genius: Kogan to discuss Schumann’s eccentricity |

Madness vs. genius: Kogan to discuss Schumann’s eccentricity

Eben Harrell
Pianist/psycologist Richard Kogen. photo submitted

As any local Aspenite who shares the town with them for two months of the year can tell you, musicians can be a little strange. And we like them that way.In our popular conception of musicians, their eccentricity, bordering on the insane, is inseparable from their genius – think of the conflict between the scattered genius of Mozart and the ordered mediocrity of Salieri in the Hollywood movie “Amadeus.” But is there a reason for this? Is there a link between extraordinary talent or creativity and mental illness? Aspenites will get a chance to explore these questions more fully this evening when Dr. Richard Kogan, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and Julliard-educated pianist, presents a lecture and performance titled “Music, Mood Swings, and Madness.”

His performance, free and open to the public, will kick off the Aspen Music Festival’s “Schumann: Supernova?”, a six-part minifestival on the life and works of Robert Schumann. The concert will be presented in conjunction with the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports Aspen Valley Hospital and other health-care organizations in the valley. After the performance, Kogan will host a $100-per-person benefit reception for the foundation.He said mental illness affected the work of many composers – Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, even Gershwin. But he also says mental illness is most pertinent to the work of Schumann, an early romantic composer who struggled all his life against a neurosis Kogan believes to have been bipolar disorder.Kogan, a concert pianist with a private psychiatric practice in New York City, will intersperse piano pieces by Schumann with stories and discussions about the composer’s life. Schumann’s story is a tragic one – he sought treatment all his life only to have his illness misdiagnosed and written off as simply artistic eccentricity. Toward the end of his life, bloodletting and isolation were some of the treatments he endured. He died in an insane asylum at 46 after slowly starving himself to death, a haunting precursor to Kafka’s “Hunger Artist.”

“There are fascinating biographical dimensions to his music,” Kogan said. “His manic depression translates into great periods of creativity followed by patches of desolate silence where he composed nothing. And his illness translated into his music. For example, his fragmented thinking [is reflected by] abrupt transitions in his music.”In his lecture, Kogan will also examine how music can be therapeutic, especially in the treatment of mental disturbances.”Music had an organizing influence on Schumann,” Kogan said. “To create music one has to be at least somewhat sane. In fact, in his depressed times Schumann used to practice writing fugue/counterpoint exercises to help him regain balance. The act of making music would be sufficient to pull himself from depression.”

Kogan said he is confident modern psychiatry could have brought Schumann’s madness under control – “we could have prolonged his life.” But asked whether a cocktail of pills – lithium, Ritalin, Valium, etc. – would have stifled Schumann’s creativity, Kogan deferred.”That’s a tough one,” he said. Richard Kogan will perform tonight at Harris Hall at 8. A champagne and dessert reception will follow the performance. Tickets for the reception are $100 per person and can be purchased tonight or by calling 544-7371.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is

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