Frédéric Chopin regularly saw “ghosts” and “creatures” emerge from his piano as he performed in mid-1800’s Europe. His style was termed rubato and refers to expressive and rhythmic freedom by a slight speeding up and then slowing down of the tempo of a piece at the discretion of the soloist or the conductor.

However, although Chopin passed on at a young age of 39 from what has been documented as cystic fibrosis, what caused these dramatic hallucinations during performance and unorthodox style? Was it migraines? Maybe schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder?

In a study published this week in Medical Humanities, the authors feel that temporal lobe epilepsy is a more likely explanation as it can produce complex visual hallucinations, which are usually brief, fragmentary, and stereotyped, just like those Chopin said he experienced.

Temporal lobe epilepsies are a group of medical disorders in which humans and animals experience recurrent epileptic seizures arising from one or both temporal lobes of the brain.

A number of well-known writers and artists are known, or in many cases suspected to have had temporal lobe epilepsy, aggravated, in some cases, by alcoholism. They include Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll), Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky (whose novel The Idiot features a protagonist with epilepsy, Prince Myshkin), Gustave Flaubert, Philip K. Dick, Sylvia Plath and contemporary author Thom Jones. Peter O’Leary has also discussed this in his “Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness.”

The formers of the document dissected the composer’s own descriptions of these hallucinatory episodes, and accounts of his life, given by friends and pupils.

In a letter written to the daughter of George Sand in September that year, Chopin describes the moment during a performance in England, 1848, he saw creatures emerging from the piano, which forced him to leave the room to recover himself.

George Sand took to Spain once in 1838, and she described the monastery where they stayed as being “full of terrors and ghosts for him,” and various incidents in which Chopin appeared pale, or with wild eyes, and his hair on end.

There are other accounts, both by George Sand, and by one of Chopin’s pupils Madame Streicher, of similar incidents, and the composer’s own description of a “cohort of phantoms” in 1844.

The authors comment:

“A condition such as that described in this article could easily have been overlooked by Chopin’s doctors. We doubt that another diagnosis added to the already numerous list will help us understand the artistic world of Frédéric Chopin. But we do believe that knowing he had this condition could help to separate romanticized legend from reality and shed new light in order to better understand the man and his life.”

Chopin’s commonly discussed bouts of melancholy have been attributed to bipolar disorder or clinical depression, the hallucinatory episodes to which he was also prone have tended to be overlooked, suggest the authors.

Complete Research Document: Medical Humanities

Written By Sy Kraft, B.A.