Tag Archives: Clara Schumann

Review(ish): Minnesota Orchestra and Garrick Ohlsson in Brahms and Beethoven

This weekend at the Minnesota Orchestra was a love fest.

Love. What a loaded, completely inexplicable word. You can love institutions. You can love art. You can love people as friends or as lovers. Or as both. Your love can be sacred or carnal or some kind of crazy bewildering hybrid. It’s a verb with a thousand meanings, each definition, each possibility more confusing than the last.

I’ve thought a lot about the love that Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms shared. I find it fascinating. I find people’s responses to it fascinating. It was, by and large, a positive force in both their lives. Love of Clara certainly inspired Brahms, and I wonder if Clara would have retained her sanity after her husband’s break with it, had Brahms (and his brilliance) not been in her life. But because there is doubt they made physical love, many people regard their relationship as somehow abnormal or dysfunctional. It’s certainly idealized less than the love that Robert and Clara shared…I’m assuming because it didn’t follow the neat little dramatic trajectory that Robert and Clara’s did. Brahms and Clara lived with ambiguity for decades. And they managed to find a power in the messiness of it.

The emotions that ambiguity unleashed are explored in Brahms’s first piano concerto, which opened the Minnesota Orchestra’s program this weekend. Brahms struggled with the concerto’s musical material throughout his early twenties. He also struggled with a love for Clara, who was in turn struggling with mourning her husband’s sanity and eventually life. In 1856, a few months after Robert died, Brahms wrote to her the famous quote that invariably appears in this concerto’s program notes: “I am also painting a lovely portrait of you; it is to be the Adagio.”

The outer movements are flashier. The first especially has more meat. But the heart of this concerto is the movement devoted to Clara. This weekend, Minnesota’s hushed strings made this music radiate warmth and soul and…that inexplicable, indefinable word, love. This music has a very sacred air to it, and we were honored to have Garrick Ohlsson be our priest to lead us through the sacrament. The notes passed like ghosts, suspended and turning in the air.

But there is a danger in thinking of this music as solely ethereal. In an intermission interview on Minnesota Public Radio, Ohlsson shared a historical tidbit I had never heard before.

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The Schumanns, Symphonies, and Brahms, Part 3

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.

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The Schumanns, Symphonies, and Brahms, Part 2

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.

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The Schumanns, Symphonies, and Brahms, Part 1

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.

The article that changed Brahms’s life

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.

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