This set of theme with five variations is inextricably linked with deterioration of Schumann's nervous condition that was to lead to his death two and a half years later. He was already suffering from a severe and painful hearing disorder when he dreamed or imagined that an angel (either Mendelssohn or Schubert) descended and dictated a "spirit theme" to him, which he wrote down. The always manic-depressive composer was elated and immediately started writing a series of variations on it.
It is probably a symptom of his condition that he did not recognize this theme, which was in fact one of his own. He had used it in his op 41 no 2 string quartet in 1842, in his Lieder-Album fŸr die Jugend in 1849, and, finally, in the slow movement of his violin concerto, just four months earlier. These Spirit Variations are unusual in that for the first three variations no changes at all are made to the theme itself. The first and third variations put the theme into different triplet accompaniments, while the second uses the theme in canon. It is as if Schumann was unwilling to sully the "angelic gift." In the fourth variations, at last, there is some change in the melody itself, but these are minimal. The harmonies have a curiously static effect, and the reluctance of the melody to be altered creates an impression of a memorial.
At this point Schumann plummeted to the opposite end of his manic-depressive disorder and, in despair, cast first his wedding ring and then himself into the freezing waters of the Rhine in a suicide attempt. He was rescued and taken back home, soon thereafter to voluntarily commit himself to an asylum. While still at home, the very day after the attempt, he finished the fifth and final variation. The theme is now altered, hidden, more and more submerged in other textures of the piano until it has disappeared. The music faded into the distance. The hope Schumann thought had been offered by the angels is gone.