Quadrant Music

Reflections on a Timeless Love

It is not uncommon for the great composers—at least, those who laboured after the beginning of the classical era—to be judged on the strength of their symphonies. There is some good sense in this for, after all, the symphony is the instrumental form that is typically the grandest in scale and ambition and thereby affords the greatest range of expressive possibilities. I have always found it somewhat incongruous, however, that it is a form that generally does not feature the piano. The piano is the single most important tool of the composer and, arguably, the most expressive of all instruments. Although I love symphonies and other musical forms which exclude the piano, such as string quartets, I sometimes feel that piano music is the key that most directly unites us with the soul of the composer.

The piano, of course, is just one of the things that connects the lives and music of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann (née Wieck) and Johannes Brahms. Love is the thing that binds them more deeply still. The story is well known in its essentials, though some of the particulars can only be guessed at, and the complex emotional reverberations of the story only surmised. It is an incredibly moving story of love won, of madness, of death, of triumph, of failure, of love frustrated and withdrawn, of loyalty and betrayal, of perseverance and endurance and, ultimately, indomitable artistic creativity. There are villains, there are heroes. It is not hyperbole to suggest that it encompasses the full range of human emotion and experience. And it all unfolds against the backdrop of some of the greatest music ever composed (or performed).

This essay appeared in December’s Quadrant.
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Each of the protagonists is a giant. Robert Schumann was perhaps the quintessential romantic figure: a passionate man, an influential critic, and a towering though tortured composer who would finally succumb to madness. Clara Schumann was perhaps the most gifted pianist of her age. She too was a talented composer, even if circumstances precluded her from fully exploring her potential. And then appeared Johannes Brahms, the prodigious young composer who became the Schumanns’ protégé and who loved, and was loved by, both Robert and Clara. Brahms would spectacularly fulfil the potential the Schumanns saw in him.

In 1835, the year he fell in love with Clara Wieck, Robert Schumann was an aspiring composer and music critic. He was twenty-five years old. A hand injury had precluded him from pursuing a career as a concert pianist. As a publisher, he had founded a journal, enthusiastically championing Chopin and new romantic composers. (I am reminded of Quadrant’s new music pages.) Tragically, he was also showing signs of the mental illness that would prematurely claim his life.

In 1835, Clara turned sixteen. She was the daughter of Schumann’s piano teacher, Fredrich Wieck. Clara was already a famous pianist, her domineering father having largely succeeded in his ambition of “creating” the world’s greatest pianist. For her part, Clara claimed to have been in love with Schumann since the age of fourteen. He and Clara courted and became secretly engaged. But, in 1837, Clara’s father rejected Schumann’s marriage request. A fierce, public battle ensued and in 1839 Clara petitioned the courts of law for permission to marry without her father’s consent. This time love conquered, and Schumann and Clara prevailed to marry in September 1840, one day before her twenty-first birthday—that is, one day before she would have won her freedom from her father.

Schumann established himself as a truly great composer while Clara continued to perform to much acclaim. Clara’s success was the more conspicuous and Schumann, undoubtedly, found this somewhat unsettling. But Schumann’s successes were substantial and enduring in their own right; fittingly, the piano works he wrote for Clara to perform are among his grandest achievements. And yet, while their love was passionate and genuine, they were not destined to live out the fairytale ending their love deserved. Schumann’s mental health became increasingly fragile—in all likelihood, his bipolar tendencies were exacerbated by syphilis—and he, Clara and the world were cruelly robbed of his prodigious talent.

The little-known twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms entered the Schumanns’ lives in September 1853 when, armed with a letter of introduction from Ede Reményi, he visited their home in Düsseldorf. Schumann invited Brahms to play the piano for him; the young composer answered with his First Piano Sonata. Schumann soon interrupted the performance. He ran to fetch Clara and then asked Brahms to continue. The Schumanns were astounded by Brahms’s talent and immediately insisted that he stay with them for a month. Robert promptly published an article proclaiming that Brahms was the future of German music and was “fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner”. Whether Schumann’s extravagant praise was a blessing or a curse for Brahms is open to debate; my view is that it was almost certainly both, and just about in equal measure. Brahms wrote to Schumann, “You have made me so extremely happy that I cannot attempt to express my thanks in words. May God grant that my works will soon be able to prove to you how much your love and kindness have uplifted and inspired me.”

History has shown that Schumann was right in his identification of Brahms’s genius. Perhaps what he did not foresee, though, was that Brahms chose to utilise that genius in a way which arguably looked as much to the past as it did to the future. Brahms revered Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert—as much as he did Schumann—and his great achievement was to effectively synthesise passionate romantic expression with the discipline of classical forms. Indeed, Brahms would come to view himself as perhaps the last in a line of composers of a fading tradition, rather than one of the first in a new modern line. This is essentially true, although I would argue that Dvorak and Rachmaninov continued the tradition after Brahms with considerable distinction.

By the end of February 1854, Schumann had been institutionalised following a suicide attempt. Most cruelly, Clara was forbidden to visit him, for fear of aggravating his condition. Although he showed signs of sporadic improvement, he remained committed until his death in July 1856. He was only forty-six years old. Brahms proved himself to be a steadfast and true friend throughout the tragic ordeal, rushing to support Clara and her children upon Schumann’s institutionalisation. There seems to be no doubt that Brahms fell deeply in love with Clara during this period; understandably, his feelings caused him a good deal of anxiety and guilt. Clara’s approach towards Brahms no doubt intensified during this period too, but it is not known whether their relationship transcended the platonic. Following Robert’s death, the couple did take a vacation together to consider their future; the result was that Brahms moved away from Clara to live in Hamburg. According to Eugenie Schumann, her mother was hurt by Brahms’s withdrawal, and never able to understand it. Jan Swafford, Brahms’s most recent significant biographer, has written:

There are more ironies in this first and greatest, if not precisely last, love of Brahms’s life. If he would not marry Clara, neither would he marry anybody else—in his heart he could never leave Clara, nor she, him. For the rest of their lives they would maintain their strange but inescapable connection. They spent holidays together. They hugged and kissed.

But the two may well never have been physically intimate with each other. They did maintain a lifelong written correspondence; alas, Brahms, conscious of his legacy, arranged for their letters to be destroyed. The fragments that remain testify to the tenderness of their bond.

So, why did Brahms retreat from Clara? He had a difficult time with women. In fact, most consider him a misogynist. Brahms himself blamed his difficulties on the fact that as a teenager he was ill-treated by the prostitutes of the waterfront bars, venues in which his father had forced him to perform. Brahms would turn to prostitutes for sexual satisfaction throughout his life. He was briefly engaged to one Agathe von Siebold; in the aftermath, he claimed that, although he loved her, he would not be chained. This, too, I think, provides an important insight into Brahms’s character. He valued freedom, by which I think he meant the freedom to compose, the freedom of having nothing come between him and his work. There is no doubt, however, that freedom of this kind comes at a cost. In his old age he would complain to his friends (ironically enough) that Clara was the only true friend he had ever had. He would go on to say that after her death there was no reason to go on living. It should be noted that Brahms always honoured his connection with Schumann as well; in 1873, he wrote that “the remembrance of Schumann is sacred to me. I will always take this noble, pure artist as my model.”

And what of Clara? She threw herself into her career after Schumann’s death and worked tirelessly to ensure her husband’s compositional legacy was properly protected and promoted. She was driven to work in significant part because of the financial concerns that came with being the head of her large family. Clara was the very definition of strength and resilience. She would endure more painful losses than anyone ever should. In addition to her beloved Robert, her four sons were each the victim of tragedy. Emil died at sixteen months. Ludwig was committed to an asylum in Colditz at the age of twenty. Ferdinand became a morphine addict and predeceased Clara by five years. Even the youngest, Felix, who was born after Schumann’s institutionalisation, succumbed to tuberculosis and predeceased his mother by seventeen years. A daughter, Julie, would also predecease Clara, dying giving birth to her third child. Clara herself died on May 20, 1896, aged seventy-five. The funeral was especially traumatic for Brahms, whose affection for Clara had to a degree sustained her throughout her familial traumas, and his own health began to deteriorate soon after her death. He would follow her to the grave on April 3, 1897.

The French pianist Helene Grimaud perhaps provides the most apt musical portraits of our three protagonists. Her album Reflections (2005, Deutsche Grammophon) reveals an expressive and thoughtful musicianship, as well as a psychological regard for the composers and their music. Reflections comprises the following works: Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54; Clara’s “Er Ist Gekommen”, Op. 12, No. 2 and “Warum Willst Du Andre Fragen”, Op. 12, No. 11, as well as her Am Strande; and both Brahms’s Cello Sonata in E minor, Op. 38 and Two Rhapsodies for Piano, Op. 79.

Brahms did not approve of the trend towards programmatic music; that is, music that purports to render a narrative beyond the music itself, and he likely would not approve of Grimaud’s offering, the very title of which invites refection on the lives and loves of its subjects. I agree with Brahms in that musical expression is an end in itself and in a sense it neither requires, nor allows, further explanation. And yet it is true that each artistic creation is a product of, or manifestation of, the soul—or the deepest held values—of the artist. And what exalted souls are these three! Jan Swafford has stated:

Whatever the chaos in Brahms’ mind (“chaos” his own word, describing his feelings as a teenager), he negotiated his life with extraordinary discipline, common sense, integrity and honesty. The chaos of emotion shackled and subdued by a relentless sense of form and discipline: that is Brahms’ art in a nutshell. Likewise, his life. And the most familiar and beloved note in his art is the note of yearning.

Whether or not you consider “yearning” the defining leitmotif of Brahms’ music, I think there is a real sense in which one can view all great art, and perhaps all the great deeds in our lives, as products of yearning. To truly live as a human is no matter of mere survival. It is a continual process of striving for something greater than the present. To create, learn, grow and love. And to ever strive to fulfil our potential; these virtues are the essence of our humanity. The lives and art of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms show us that in so striving, it is possible that we may one day achieve—in work, love or deed—the perfectly sublime.

Jason Monaghan is a lawyer, publisher and writer, living in Sydney

4 thoughts on “Reflections on a Timeless Love

  • john mac says:

    Thankyou for this article , very enlightening and yes , even as a guitar and cello lover ,I think the piano is the greatest instrument ever produced .

  • David Isaac says:

    Thank you for this meditation on music, friendship and love. One might be tempted to suggest that old Herr Wieck may have been right to try to bar his daughter’s marriage given the ill-fate of his son-in-law and grandsons. But then of course such tragedies were fairly commonplace until the mid-twentieth century.

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