Here’s the second part of the November Lark Notes, an essay called The Schumanns, Symphonies, and Brahms. If you want to see a Brahms symphony in the flesh, buy tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians’ concert here. Part I is here.
In 1850 Robert Schumann had accepted a music directorship in Düsseldorf. His time there was unfulfilling. Bluntly, he wasn’t suited for the job. Worse, ill health led him to become increasingly withdrawn. In rehearsals with the local chorus, Clara provided piano accompaniment and made suggestions to the singers when Robert was uncommunicative. Although Clara didn’t – or couldn’t – acknowledge it, his career was in decline. Robert, his energy waning, saw Brahms as someone who could take up his cause and bring it further: a Joshua to his Moses.
Accordingly, both Schumanns immediately began encouraging Johannes to write on a larger scale. In his famous article, Robert wrote, “If he will sink his magic staff in the region where the capacity of masses in chorus and orchestra can lend him its powers, still more wonderful glimpses into the mysteries of the spirit-world will be before us…” In her journal Clara wrote, “A great future lies before him, for when he comes to the point of writing for orchestra, then he will have found the true medium for his imagination.” There was something to that assessment. The piano works that Johannes had played for the Schumanns were big and bold, and it was tempting to imagine what such genius might produce for orchestra.
Maybe given time and health, Robert could have helped Brahms give voice to a symphony. But Robert had neither time nor health. On 27 February 1854, while Clara was consulting with a doctor, Robert slipped away and jumped into the Rhine. He was saved by fishermen. Clara only caught a glimpse of him before he was taken to an asylum. The next time she’d see him would be two years later on his deathbed.
Brahms was living in Hamburg, but he immediately dropped everything to rush to Clara’s side. On March 3, he – and his music – arrived in Düsseldorf. And what music! The sounds of masterworks echoed through the house: solos, duets, trios. One of the pieces Brahms brought along was a draft of his B-major trio. Clara was initially skeptical of the piece, but a few months later she came around (perhaps not coincidentally after hearing some hopeful news about Robert). Her hope about Robert was to be short-lived, but her love for Brahms’s music sustained her.
Spring came, but there was no change in Robert’s health. The unspoken question weighed heavy on everyone’s minds: would he ever return? Without him, the household was stuck in purgatory. Clara was racked with grief. Robert had been her friend since childhood, and she simply couldn’t imagine life without him. The only thing that brought her joy in her despair was Johannes and his music. “There is something so fresh and so soothing about him; he is often so childlike and then again so full of the finest feelings… And as a musician he is still more wonderful. He gives me as much pleasure as he possibly can…and he does this with a perseverance which is really touching…”
Confusing and horrifically inconvenient as it was, the feeling was mutual. In fact, the young genius from Hamburg had fallen in love with the great pianist. Brahms confessed to their friend violinist Joseph Joachim, “I believe that I do not have more concern and admiration for her than I love her and am under her spell.” He found himself in the awful position of loving someone he couldn’t have unless his beloved mentor died.
A few weeks before she gave birth to her son Felix, Clara performed for Johannes her “Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann.” The year before, she’d taken a brief wistful piece by Robert, transformed it in a series of variations, and then presented the whole to him as a birthday gift. The variations had been composed the previous summer: before the baby, before the breakdown, before Brahms.
Clara’s performance of the variations hit Brahms hard. He knew he ought to fulfill Robert’s prophecy and write a grand symphonic work. But instead he became obsessed with the Schumanns’ slender love theme. In the weeks leading up to the birth of Clara and Robert’s baby, he wrote his own series of variations: devastatingly beautiful, impossibly mature. What was his purpose in writing them? Comforting Clara? Competing against Robert? Maybe he didn’t know. The variations didn’t end with triumphant virtuoso fireworks, as most do. These ended with the softest dynamic mark: a whispered reassurance, triple pianissimo.
As Clara was recovering from Felix’s birth, Brahms gave her the manuscript to the variations, with the inscription “Short Variations on a Theme by Him. Dedicated to Her.” Clara wrote in her diary, “He sought to comfort me, he composed variations on that wonderfully heartfelt theme that means so much to me, just as last year when I composed variations for my beloved Robert.”
In the most trying hour of her life, Brahms gave Clara Schumann music. There was no more meaningful gift.
That summer, her husband still in the asylum, the future of her family uncertain, Clara embarked on a whirlwind tour of Germany. For Clara, the most effective antidote to grief was work. Which isn’t to say grief wasn’t her constant companion. At her recitals, she would sob backstage between pieces, then dry her tears and return to the platform. Robert had never liked her touring, and it was torture knowing he wouldn’t approve, if he’d been well enough to know what she was doing. She relied on Brahms’s emotional support to keep her going.
In the midst of Robert’s illness, he, Clara, and Johannes began a hesitant correspondence. Brahms, always more open in his music than in his words, sent Robert his Schumann Variations. Robert approved, and then thanked him for the kindness he’d shown Clara. “She speaks of it constantly in her letters,” Robert wrote. Did he suspect what lay behind that affection? Did he care? Clara sent more of Brahms’s music. Once again, Robert renewed the call for Brahms to compose a Big Work: “Now on to overtures and symphonies! … A symphony or opera, which arouses enthusiasm and makes a great sensation, brings everything else more quickly forward. He must.”
Brahms didn’t know how to tell him that there wouldn’t be any overtures or symphonies…at least not any time soon. Robert’s prophecy, instead of inspiring him to new heights, had served to paralyze him.
Robert Schumann died in July of 1856, possibly of self-starvation. A few weeks later, after the initial shock had subsided, Brahms, his sister, Clara, and a few of the Schumann children took a trip to Switzerland to try to come to terms with the loss.
Although no record exists, it is tempting to assume that sometime during the trip Clara and Johannes discussed their future. Marriage was obviously an option. But – reservations remained. Brahms was a man of his time, and it was inconceivable to him that Clara would be the primary breadwinner. He was certainly in no position to support a large household. He also knew that becoming a great composer, as Robert and Clara so dearly wanted him to do, would consume everything: his time his energy, his money…his self, in a way. Would he have enough left over for Clara and her children?
Clara too had her doubts. She hated being pregnant. Every time she realized another baby was on the way, her diary entries immediately became despairing and melancholy. She had turned 37 in 1856: she faced years of potential confinements. Not to mention, her invigorated concert schedule had reminded her how dearly she loved performing. Being a widow gave her the freedom to tour and to play with as little guilt as possible.
There were just too many doubts to overcome. If there was any proposal of marriage during the trip, it was turned down. Whether consciously or not, they’d made the decisions to pursue their own separate careers.
So on an autumn day in October, Clara accompanied Johannes to the train station. They bid each other farewell there, and so Brahms left. Afterward, “I felt as if I were returning from a funeral,” she wrote.