Here’s the last part of the November Lark Notes, the third part of an essay called The Schumanns, Symphonies, and Brahms. Part I here; Part II here. Buy tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians’ show here.
It took many years, and many pieces, for Brahms to come to term with the Schumann prophecy.
His first piano concerto, dating from 1859, was his first large-scale work featuring an orchestra. Portions of it had come from the sonata for two pianos in d-minor. Many historians have noted that the initial theme of the first movement bears a resemblance to a fall: Schumann’s leap into the Rhine, perhaps? He admitted openly to Clara that the glowing second movement was a portrait of her. As for the last movement, he was so conflicted about what to do, he unabashedly copied the form of Beethoven’s third piano concerto.
When he finally got around to writing his first published work for orchestra alone, he tried calling the piece a symphony, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. So he hedged his bets: he labeled the D-major serenade a “Symphony-Serenade.” But he soon realized he was kidding himself, and he so he scratched out the word Symphony entirely. He wrote to Joachim: “I had such a beautiful, big conception of my first symphony, and now! – ” The dash said it all.
He was getting nowhere with the highly anticipated Big Work. During this frustrating time he circled back to Clara for intellectual and emotional companionship. In January 1861 he wrote to her, “I sometimes wish to see [you] for the first time again, so that I might be able to fall in love with you all over again. But all the same things are well as they are. Don’t you feel the same?” Practical as ever, she returned, “I by no means wish you to see me again for the first time in order that you may be able to ‘fall in love with me’ (if indeed that can ever have happened); rather love me dearly, truly, and for ever and ever – that is the best of all.”
In 1862, she received a packet of music from Brahms: “imagine the surprise!” she wrote Joachim, “the first movement of a symphony.” It was indeed. Unfortunately, she’d have to wait over a decade for the music to be finished and performed. Once again, Brahms had gotten stuck. He began to look like a horse in quicksand.
Brahms had never trusted his ability to orchestrate. He picked up what he could from studying others’ scores, and he was lucky to have a brilliant string-playing adviser in Joseph Joachim, but he always felt more at ease with the piano. He worked hard, however, at gaining a deeper familiarity with other instruments, and throughout the 1860s the chamber and orchestral works began piling up…many of them masterpieces.
Ein deutsches Requiem was a milestone in his creative development. There he masterfully wielded not just an orchestra, but a chorus, too. The premiere was scheduled for Good Friday 1868; he would be on the podium conducting. It was clear that no matter how the Requiem was received, his life afterward would be forever altered. If the piece was a success, it would help win him the financial security that might lead to a symphony. If it bombed, he’d have to spend a great deal of time and energy digging from beneath the fallout.
In the spring of 1868, he and Clara had been quarreling – in part over her breakneck touring schedule – and she had told him she couldn’t attend the premiere. But then at the dress rehearsal the night before the concert, she appeared. A mutual friend had begged her to come and, depressed and exhausted, she’d relented and boarded a train for Bremen. Before the performance, he walked up the aisle triumphantly with Clara on his arm. She took her seat and Brahms ascended to the podium to conduct. The work was a great success, and Clara was reduced to tears.
In the summer of 1873 Brahms wrote the Variations on a Theme by Haydn. If it was his goal to write a statement piece for orchestra before finally embarking on a symphony, then mission accomplished. The technique Brahms displays is of jaw-dropping quality. With this work, which usually lasts a little over a quarter of an hour, he succeeded in blending old and new, classicism and romanticism, technique and emotion, all in a mature, unmistakably Brahmsian voice. The years of tireless labor were finally paying off.
With the Haydn variations in particular, Johannes Brahms had thrown down a gauntlet. Finally the time was right for a symphony.
In 1875, he turned down an invitation by saying, “Your letter was a great temptation to leave my pretty house…but all the same I stay sitting here, and from time to time write highly useless pieces in order not to have to look into the stern face of a symphony.” He was able to ignore the “highly useless pieces” (i.e., the C-Minor Piano Quartet and String Quartet in Bb Major) long enough to finally emerge with a draft.
At 43, entering middle age, Johannes Brahms was finally ready to fulfill the prophecy of his youth. He would make the case that music didn’t need a complicated program attached to it to be deeply meaningful. He would attempt to resurrect a storied genre that Wagner had declared dead. And, most personally, he would write something to make Clara and the memory of Robert proud.
He finished the first symphony in August 1876 while summering near Clara. She was originally hesitant about the initial two-piano reduction, but by the time she heard the piece live in her hometown of Leipzig in January 1877, she had changed her mind. “The last movement, with its inspired introduction, made an extraordinary impression on me…then it gradually brightens in the most marvelous manner until it breaks into the sunny motif of the last movement, which makes one’s heart expand like a breath of spring air after the long, dreary days of winter…”
Biographer Jan Swafford writes:
The year he completed the First Symphony is the same year Wagner brought the titanic Der Ring des Nibelungen to the stage, in his own theater at Bayreuth. Brahms’s achievement was no less stunning in his terms: to compose at the top of his skill and imagination despite the tramp of giants thundering around him, to epitomize his singular integration of Classical formalism and Romantic expression, to integrate Western musical technique stretching from Palestrina through Bach to Haydn and Mozart, and symphonic form from Haydn through Beethoven to Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. In sheer ambition, tenacity of purpose, and power of expression, what Brahms achieved in the forty-four minutes of the C Minor symphony rivals Wagner’s achievement in the twelve hours of the Ring.
Three additional symphonies would follow in 1877, 1884, and 1885. All were masterworks. After Brahms was finally able to commit a first symphony to paper, the others came more easily. In fact, the second symphony was written in a mere four months.
Musicologist Carl Dahlhaus once opined that Brahms ushered in “the second age of the symphony.” If his music didn’t end the war between advocates of program music and abstract music, as Robert Schumann had hoped it would, it did aid in proving the relevance and power of purely instrumental music, and helped to pave the way for later symphonic giants like Shostakovich, Mahler, and Sibelius.
Clara died in 1896 at the age of 76. The last piece she performed in public was Brahms’s two-piano arrangement of the Haydn variations. She was buried next to Robert.
Few couples did more for nineteenth century music than the Schumanns. His contributions have been well-documented, and in the process, hers tend to be overlooked. Her attempt to balance family and career encouraged untold numbers of women to pursue the art professionally. She introduced many “heavy” works to recital programs, especially those by Bach and Beethoven. Before Clara, few memorized their programs, or held solo recitals. She served as the muse and champion of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. And perhaps most importantly, she helped popularize the idea of performer as vessel: an approach that many musicians subscribe to even today, almost two hundred years after her birth. It was a legacy fit for a queen of the keyboard.
Brahms tried to get to her funeral, but a series of miscommunications made him late after a horrific forty-hour journey. Completely spent by the nightmare, exhausted with grief, he wept at the Schumanns’ grave. Afterward he confessed to a friend: “Now I have nobody left to lose.”
Four months later, Brahms was diagnosed with cancer. He died less than a year after Clara. But his music, the fruit of his emotional and intellectual collaboration with the Schumanns, lives on. That fruit is ours for the taking.