"A Passionate Friendship" - Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms
Updated: Jul 11
I think it’s time for a love story. My music offering today highlights two amazing composers who shared a deep love, yet never married.
Clara Schumann, (née Wieck) and Johannes Brahms met in 1853. “Hannes” was 20, Clara was 34. With special letters of introduction in hand, young Hannes arrived on the Schumann doorstep in Dresden in October of 1853. Clara’s husband Robert invited him in, and Hannes began to play some of his own compositions on the piano. After only a few minutes, Robert laid a hand on his shoulder and said, “Wait, I must bring my wife to hear this.” As Clara entered the room, Hannes became nervous to play, well aware of her reputation as a brilliant concert pianist.
The result of this afternoon was a long and deep friendship with Brahms and both the Schumanns. They invited him to live with them, which lasted several months, up until February of the following year when Robert was committed to an insane asylum. Robert was editor of a musical literary journal, called Neue Zeitscrift, (trans. “New Magazine.”) Before he took ill, he wrote great accolades to Brahms’ talent, proclaiming him to be the successor to Beethoven.
Clara was not allowed to visit Robert at the asylum, so Brahms became her liaison, visiting him frequently. For the next year and a half and continuing after Robert’s death, Clara and Hannes’ friendship strengthened and flourished. He continued to live in Dresden, studying Robert’s library and helping Clara with the children - 8 of them! However, Brahms soon felt that being physically close to Clara was getting in the way of his focusing fully on composing so he moved back to Hamburg. Their friendship was nurtured with many letters, and he often sent his compositions to her for her comment and approval. There were clearly words of affection in their correspondence, though many of their letters were destroyed by Clara’s daughter after her mother’s death. This “passionate friendship,” as it is sometimes called, continued for some 40 more years.
Clara’s work presented here, Romanze in B minor, was written in 1856, but was not published in her lifetime. At the top of the score, she inscribed, “Christmas 1856,” and at the end, “fondest memories, Clara.” To whom her thoughts were directed is somewhat ambiguous, but given that Robert died in July of 1856, I would guess it was to her husband. Yet, there are a few bars in the second phrase that are undeniably a quote from Brahms’ F minor piano sonata, Op. 5 - a piece that he played for the Schumanns that first day they met in 1853.
All of Brahms’ last piano works - Op. 116-119 - were written between 1891 and 1893 and represent his most intimate musical style. His A Major Intermezzo, Opus 118, no. 2, touched me deeply from the moment I first heard it. There is undeniably so much love in this one short piece that it can’t help but touch anyone’s heart who hears it. Hannes’ beloved Clara died in May of 1896, and he left the earth just 11 months later.
When I was working on my DMA at Memphis State, a number of pianists were asked to play several hours of Christmas music at the Mall of Memphis. There was a nice little round stage on the first level with a baby grand piano in the center, with three balconies open all the way to the roof of the mall. The concert started with cute little kids playing carols, and ended with us Memphis State piano students. Needless to say, most shoppers went about their business, not really paying attention to the live music. Some were mildly amused by the children at the beginning and then maybe thought those of us who played later was just piped-in mall music.
I chose to play a mix of carol arrangements and classics, and included this intermezzo. Noting the shoppers’ indifference, I didn’t really feel like I was performing, so I just enjoyed the nice piano and acoustics of the space. Because I had the intermezzo memorized, I was able to close my eyes for most of the length of the piece. As I finished, I was astonished to see the three levels of railing surrounded by people applauding!
THAT’S the power of great music. That’s the power of this piece and Brahms’ love for a woman. This was one of the most special moments of my life as a pianist, and firmly established in my heart my goal as a musician to use my talent and skills to move people with the music that I love so much….
It is my prayerful hope that these pieces do that for you.
Clara's Romance in B minor: