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On a rainy day in February 1854, Robert Schumann walked out of his house wearing only his robe and slippers and tried to drown himself in the Rhine. Fishermen pulled him out before he could succeed, but a week later he checked himself into a mental institution, leaving behind his wife Clara and his seven children. 

Schumann had a long history of depression and anxiety, and he had been increasingly suffering from what Clara described in her diaries as “aural disturbances.” Sometimes he heard only a single repeated high pitch (an A); other times he heard entire performances of pieces that would sit on their final chord until he managed to pull his attention elsewhere. 

Schumann’s doctors did not permit Clara to see her husband off the day he departed for the asylum. She did, however, manage to deliver a bouquet of flowers to him as his coach arrived. He absentmindedly clutched the flowers for a long time before suddenly smelling them and smiling. Then, like his beloved Ophelia in Hamlet, Schumann proceeded to hand out flowers to each person in his carriage, and ensured that one was sent back to Clara as well. 

In creating Ripple the Sky, the poet Greg Alan Brownderville and I were inspired by these events. The text sews together snippets of Ophelia’s “mad songs,” Schumann’s own words from his and Clara’s diaries and letters, and original words by Brownderville.

— Jacob Cooper