Artistic genius may sometimes teeter on the brink of madness, but in the case of 19th-century romantic composer Frederic Chopin, some doctors in north-western Spain have a more straightforward explanation: epilepsy.
During his lifetime, Chopin’s tendency to drift off while at the piano was interpreted by his partner George Sand as “the manifestation of a genius full of sentiment and expression”.
But in a new analysis published this week, Spanish doctors say Chopin’s hallucinations may have been due to a temporal lobe epilepsy rather than the result of any sweeping artistic tendencies.
Manuel Vazquez Caruncho and Francisco Branas Fernandez, of the Complexo Hospitalario Xeral-Calde in north-western Spain, analysed descriptions of Chopin’s hallucinations from those close to him. They propose the French-Polish composer suffered from a type of epilepsy that produces conscious hallucinations that last from seconds to minutes. The research was published in the journal Medical Humanities, a specialist publication of the BMJ.
Mr Caruncho and Mr Fernandez cite an extract from Sand’s memoir, where she recalls returning to the home she shared with Chopin, along with her son, after a long journey delayed by flooding. The composer had been playing one of his preludes and told Sand he was lulled to sleep while at the piano and saw himself drowned at the bottom of a lake.
Hallucinations are typically seen in patients with severe psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Other romantic composers such as Robert Schumann, who was committed to an asylum, experienced auditory and visual hallucinations which some believed were the product of his musical genius.
Mr Caruncho and Mr Fernandez say Chopin’s hallucinations occurred mostly in the evening or coincided with fever, unlike those linked to psychotic disorders.
While Chopin was plagued by health ailments, including tuberculosis, severe headaches and insomnia, there is no record he was diagnosed with any neurological problems.
The Spanish experts suggest that because Chopin was able to recall his complex hallucinations in detail, they could have been caused by a temporal lobe epilepsy. They acknowledge that without brain imaging or other tests, proving it will be nearly impossible.
“We doubt that another diagnosis … will help us understand the artistic world of Frederic Chopin. But we do believe knowing he had (epilepsy) could help to separate romanticised legend from reality.”