Music Magic From Bipolar Battles

Music Magic From Bipolar Battles

Kevin C. Madigan

Kevin Madigan is a senior reporter for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

By Kevin Madigan /

Richard Kogon for Atlanta Jewish Times
Psychiatrist Richard Kogan (photo by Kevin Madigan)

A psychiatrist made beautiful music while exploring its link to mental illness in a lecture and performance Tuesday, June 9, at Skyland Trail in Brookhaven.

The venue is a mental health treatment center, and the presenter was Dr. Richard Kogan, who is both a renowned psychiatrist and a concert pianist who trained at Juilliard.

Kogan’s musical expertise is in the classical pantheon, and his focus for this presentation was on 19th-century German composer Robert Schumann.

Kogan noted an association of genius with madness that goes back to the ancient Greeks. “Research suggests mental illness is greater in populations of artists than in the general population. Tchaikovsky was chronically suicidal and depressed. Beethoven was paranoid with delusions, and Rachmaninov dedicated his second piano concerto to his psychiatrist.”

Kogan added, “It seems perverse to stigmatize a group whose members have made such extraordinary contributions to civilization.”

Schumann “is the best illustration of the blurred boundary with insanity,” Kogan said.

Richard Kogan practices the piano skills he refined at Juilliard. (photo by Kevin Madigan)
Richard Kogan practices the piano skills he refined at Juilliard. (photo by Kevin Madigan)

He cautioned that retrospective diagnoses of historical figures create their own problems. “I have enough trouble getting the diagnosis right with living, breathing patients.”

But he said Schumann made his job a little easier because he was a voluminous letter writer who also kept extensive diaries for virtually every day of his adult life.

“He had what we in 21st-century language would call bipolar disorder,” Kogan said. “There was no language for that in the 19th century. Huge chunks of his life were given over to depression. In his last years he didn’t compose at all. Balance that against the undeniable creative advantages in which bipolar disorder magnifies everyday human life experiences into larger-than-life proportions.”

Bipolar sufferers can feel intense anguish and ecstasy, fits of rage, and unrestrained emotion. “They draw on this kind of intensity for inspiration. Aspects of hypermanic states are conducive to increased energy and goal-oriented activity, sharpened thinking, and a decreased need for sleep.”

Normally shy and withdrawn, Schumann during his manic periods would become confident and gregarious, make jokes and puns, and spend money he didn’t have. During one episode, he announced he would compose an opera, which was way beyond the scope of his abilities.

These periods would last days, weeks or even months but would always end with a crash.

Playing several of Schumann’s pieces on the piano to illustrate his points, Kogan said the composer’s work represented an astonishing array of music — capricious, anguished, whimsical, with abrupt transitions — which is why Schumann’s contemporaries had so much trouble absorbing it.

“It’s really important not to over-romanticize mental illness. Most depressed people are just far too paralyzed to write a novel or a symphony, too disorganized to put together anything that’s coherent,” Kogan said. “But some have access to another world, and I think they are motivated in some ways to create.”

read more: