The November Lark Notes consist largely of this three part essay, The Schumanns, Symphonies, and Brahms. Stay tuned for the rest. Enjoy, and remember you can buy your tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians’ performance of Brahms 2 here.
In early November 1853, a twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms read the latest issue of the music journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. On the front page was an article by Robert Schumann hailing him as the savior of music.
I have thought…someone must and would suddenly appear, destined to give ideal presentation to the highest expression of the time, who would bring us his mastership not in the process of development, but springing forth like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove. And he is come, a young blood by whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. He is called Johannes Brahms…
It had only been six months since Brahms had left his home in commercial Hamburg to tour Germany as an unknown accompanist. Only five weeks had elapsed since Brahms had met Robert Schumann for the first time, along with his wife, the radiant sad-eyed Clara, one of the greatest pianists of the nineteenth century.
Schumann’s article sent Brahms reeling.
A few months later, in the wintry depths of February 1854, Robert Schumann threw himself into the Rhine. His effusions had been the precursor to a horrific mental breakdown. Robert himself asked that he be sent to an asylum for treatment; Clara was left behind pregnant and alone. In a rush of gallantry, Brahms came to her side. Suddenly he found himself de facto master of the house, stepfather to his idols’ children. Robert’s madness, and his extended stay in institutional purgatory, made possible arrangements that might otherwise have been looked upon askance. In the evenings, Clara and Johannes mourned their mentor by playing music, often Robert’s. To minds like theirs, sharing music is more intimate than sex.
This is the environment in which Johannes Brahms first seriously wrestled with the idea of writing a symphony. And people wonder why it took him so long to finish it.
Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 in Hamburg. His father was a bass player who performed in ensembles of varying quality. His forty-four-year-old mother had resigned herself to spinsterhood before his father proposed. It was a strange household for a musical savior to spring from.
The boy loved music from the beginning. He studied piano with a man named Eduard Marxsen, whose teachers had known Mozart and Schubert. Such connections became increasingly auspicious during Brahms’s childhood. The discipline of music history was just coming into its own, and men like Mozart and Schubert had ascended into a Parthenon of public opinion. Especially after Beethoven, everyone wondered who would – who could – come next in the sacred unbroken chain of Great Composers. When Felix Mendelssohn died in 1847, Marxsen wrote to friends that “A great master of the musical art has gone hence, but an even greater one will bloom for us in Brahms.” So from an early age Brahms felt a storied past breathing down his neck. The sensation would prove to be a paralyzing one.
Robert Schumann’s annunciation of Brahms-as-savior insinuates there was something that music needed to be saved from. The Schumanns believed the danger came from revolutionary hijackers. In the mid-nineteenth century, composers like Liszt and Wagner were exploring shocking new ideas about what music meant and how it was constructed. They ditched formal structures like symphonies in favor of genres like tone poems, and they thought music would benefit from being buttressed by poetry, literature, art, and philosophy. They and their music were larger than life, and they were attracting huge bands of acolytes. Exasperated critic Eduard Hanslick wrote in 1862, “Liszt’s and Wagner’s compositions have the force of military commands. As soon as any work by one of these gentlemen appears, a small literature of explanatory articles, brochures, etc. follows in its footsteps.”
Despite the ecstatic tone of Robert’s Zeitschrift article, both Schumanns were leery of art that indulged in cults of personality. Echoes of that philosophical divide extended to how Clara Schumann (a musical conservative) and Franz Liszt (a musical revolutionary) approached the piano. Clara was understated in performance, her nickname “the priestess”; Liszt was a born showman. Clara’s playing emphasized the importance of following the notes on the page; Liszt was known to dramatically vary tempos and add unwritten cadenzas. Clara was a woman, and women were regarded as vessels of genius, rather than creators of genius themselves. After her marriage, Clara did not often perform her own works, preferring to interpret others’. Liszt, on the other hand, was a potent symbol of masculinity, and he envisioned his professional role as far broader than that of performing pianist. For as long as he was on the concert platform, his own works were an integral part of his repertoire. Both pianists enjoyed long illustrious careers, but the world was well aware they approached music in very different ways.
So when Robert proclaimed Brahms a musical savior a couple weeks after meeting him, he was not merely promoting the career of a young man he admired. He was conscripting Brahms into the so-called “War of the Romantics“…and leaving him unarmed in the middle of the battlefield. In doing so, Schumann bet that “absolute music” could carry just as much of an emotional and intellectual punch as “program music” – that formal structures like sonatas and symphonies still held relevance in the modern nineteenth century – and that this inexperienced long-haired boy from Hamburg would be the one to prove his point.
It was a tall order. And no one, least of all Brahms, knew if he could deliver.
Click here for part two.