Editor, McLerran Journal
Who was Robert Schumann?
Robert Schumann (1810-1956) was a German Romantic composer who wrote primarily for piano, voice (lieder), and orchestra. He was married to the much more successful and talented Clara Wieck and is also credited with being a mentor to the young Johannes Brahms. Schumann’s most enduring works include the Symphony No. 1 in Bb Major (1841), Piano Quartet in Eb Major, Op. 47 (1842), and Konzertstuck, Op. 86 (1849). Despite his enormous success as a composer, Schumann suffered from severe bouts of depression and endured his first major nervous breakdown in 1844 at the age of only thirty-four (Abraham, 2019). By his early forties, he had also begun to suffer from serious ear pains, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and the deterioration of his nervous system (Abraham, 2019). In March of 1854, Clara admitted him to a private medical institution near Endenich where he remained until his death only two years later (Abraham, 2019).
The Finger-Strengthening Box
The commonly accepted version of the story is that Robert, struggling with his piano technique, and presumably also wanting to impress Clara Wieck, fashioned a finger-strengthening contraption out of a used cigar box. This simple device was designed to stretch one digit at a time backwards while the other fingers were able to move. Unfortunately, this practice had the opposite of its intended effect and resulted in permanent damage to Schumann’s right hand and the end of his piano performance career. While this might seem like an obviously bad plan to contemporary musicians, Schumann was not the first one to devise this type of contraption.
The most famous hand-strengthening device of the early 19th century was called a Dactylion. It was designed by the famous pianist and composer Henri Herz and involved a pair of parallel wooden bars with a set of ten rings, one for each finger (Predota, 2018). The contraption attached to the keyboard and was meant to “loosen and strengthen the fingers” by providing a customizable amount of upward resistance while the player practiced (Predota, 2018). Another popular finger-strengthening tool of the early 1800’s was the Chirogymnast invented in 1840 by Casimir Martin, a French piano-maker (Predota, 2018). Martin cleverly sought the endorsements of acclaimed pianists like Franz Liszt, Ignaz Moscheles, and Charles Neate (Noyello, 1845). These virtuosos publicly supported the use of this ingenious invention which, according to Liszt, “appears to be destined to render possible to the majority of Pianoforte players the execution of a certain class of musical compositions of our great modern masters” (Noyello, 1845). It is no surprise then, with this type of professional support from the internationally-renown pianists of the period, and considering also his immense insecurity about being an inferior player to his wife, that Schumann would at some point be tempted to procure one of these devices. It is unclear whether he purchased one of these existing models or attempted to fashion his own version, but it appears that his fingers were damaged by a similar type of upwards pulling and over-exertion (Predota, 2018).
It is interesting to note that some scholars, like Eric Sams of The Musical Times, have suggested that Schumann’s decreased hand dexterity might have instead appeared as a result of his advancing syphilis and the related mercury-based treatments common at that time. Such exposure to mercury is known to have a weakening effect on the patient, specifically in the hands, or cause tremors, which would have explained Schumann’s injury without the presence of a finger-strengthening device (Sams, 1972). This theory, however, was quickly abandoned after Sams received communications from Professor Alan Walker of McMaster University concerning new evidence found in the Leipzig state archives in 1967 and published in a dissertation by Hans-Joachim Rothe (Sams, 1972). This new information provided a concrete and detailed account of Schumann evading service in the municipal guard with medical affidavits (in both 1841 and 1842) from his physician, Dr. Reuter, stating that “the use of a finger-strengthening device […] led to further deterioration” of his already weak right hand (Sams, 1972).
Regardless of exactly how Schumann ruined his hand, the lesson in this situation is clear; there are no shortcuts to the mastery of a musical instrument. While there are a number of contemporary versions of the finger-strengthening device, few of them stretch the fingers backwards or apply much pressure, if any at all, to the hands. Certainly it is understood now that these tools are not a replacement for diligent practice and attention to detail.
Contemporary Finger-Strengthening Tools (If You Dare)
Abraham, Gerald E.H. (2019). Robert Schumann. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia
Britannica, Inc. Web. June 25, 2019. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Schumann>
Bennett, James. (2017). Weird Classical: When Schumann Ruined His Fingers- and His Concert
Career. WQXR Blog. WQXR Classical Music Station. New York Public Radio. New York, NY. Web. 25 June,
Predota, Georg. (2018). Dactylion. Interlude. Music Blog by Juliette Liu. Web. 25 June, 2019.
Predota, Georg. (2018). Chirogymnast. Interlude. Music Blog by Juliette Liu. Web. 25 June,
Sams, Eric. (1971). Schumann's Hand Injury. The Musical Times,112 (1546), 1156-1159. Web.
June 25, 2019.<https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/954772.pdf?refreqid=
Sams, Eric. (1972). Schumann’s Hand Injury- Further Evidence. The Musical Times. P.456. Web.
Centro Studi: Eric Sams. 25 June, 2019. <http://ericsams.org/index.php/on-music/essays/on-
Novello, Alfredo J. (1845). The Musical World: A Record of Science, Literature, Intelligence, and Criticism
Connected With the Art. Vol XX. The Office of the Musical World. London, UK. Web. 25 June, 2019.