notes from the past: composers on composers

Eugene de Blaas, “The Friendly Gossips” (1901)


On Mozart: “My friends often flatter me about my talent, but he was far above me.”


On Liszt: “Liszt left me last night. One illusion after the other is vanishing as I go through life ; that pains me, not because I become more and more solitary, but because it makes one sad to regard with pity the things one used to look up to with awe and reverence and hardly dare to criticise. With his gifts of heart and mind Liszt might spread happiness around him — and in
spite of this he requires the most complicated machinery to hide from himself that he is, indeed, unhappy owing to his confusion of mind. There is a tendency to restlessness in his every action that has something unholy about it, in spite of all his moral aims. If only I could heal him!” (In a letter to Gisela von Arnim, June 1854)

“Shame on those who are bent on succeeding and cannot refrain from heightening the effect and making themselves cheap with groans and shrieks of woe to heaven because they know they are misusing their powers. . . .I have much to tell you, dear, sympathetic friend, about Liszt and other matters. I have not been so bitterly disillusioned for a long time as I was by Liszt’s compositions [footnote: on December 6 Liszt had conducted some of his Symphonic Poems and choral works at a concert given by Stern’s Orchestral Society]; I had to admit that a more vulgar misuse of sacred forms, a more repulsive coquetting with the noblest feelings for the sake of effect, had never been attempted. At the conductor’s desk Liszt makes a parade of the moods of despair and the stirrings of contrition with which the really pious man turns in solitude to God, and mingles with them the most sickly sentimentality, and such a martyr-like air, that one can hear the lies in every note and see them in every movement. …I shall never be able to meet Liszt again, because I should want to tell him that instead of taking him for a mighty erring spirit striving to return to God, I have suddenly realised that he is a cunning contriver of effects, who has miscalculated.” (In a letter to Clara Schumann, December 1855)

On Schumann: “Schumann’s character, which I have been able to study closely for the first time, seems to me splendid. His slightest words bear witness to his absolutely uncompromising honesty, combined with a charming sympathy, and at the same time he has such a naive innocence that, in knowing him more intimately, one cannot but feel at ease with him. It is as if Florestan’s foster-brother stood before us in the flesh. His mind is always so full of music that I can bear him no grudge for being unwilling to let outside matters clash with these sounds, although it was owing to this that I, for instance, misunderstood him sometimes at first. There is no conceit in him, but his thoughts are noble.” (In a letter to Arnold Weimer, September 1853)

“The day before yesterday Brahms telegraphed to me that Schumann was dangerously ill, and I came here yesterday. His wife was here; when we got to Endenich at 4.30 in the afternoon he had just passed away. On the last day he appears to have sunk softly and gradually to sleep. His face was gentle and peaceful; my last impression of the beloved master is grave but calm; his life was pure as few others have been.” (In a letter to Gisela von Arnim, July 30, 1856)


On Schumann:”The ‘Carneval’ and the ‘Fantasiestucke’ have interested me excessively. I play them really with delight, and God knows that I can’t say as much of many things. To speak frankly and freely, it is absolutely only Chopin’s compositions and yours that have a powerful interest for me. The rest do not deserve the honor of being mentioned…at least, with a few exceptions,—to be conciliatory, like Eusebius.” (In a letter to Robert Schumann, May 1838)

On Rubinstein: “I am glad that you, dear friend, after some ‘jerks and wrenches,’ have come together again with the pseudo-Musician of the Future, Rubinstein. He is a clever fellow, possessed of talent and character in an exceptional degree, and therefore no one can be more just to him than I have been for years. Still I do not want to preach to him—he may sow his wild oats and fish deeper in the Mendelssohn waters, and even swim away if he likes. But sooner or later I am certain he will give up the apparent and the formalistic for the organically Real, if he does not want to stand still.” (In a letter to Franz Brendel, December 1854)

Clara Schumann

On Brahms: “My dear Friend — Your letter and enclosure gave me very real pleasure. You must have known this when you wrote, for you will have felt with me the sadness of yesterday which I had to spend without him [Schumann], the man I love above all else….

“Brahms is writing this with me. I am learning to understand his rare and beautiful character better every day. There is something so fresh and so soothing about him, he is often so childlike and then again so full of the finest feelings. His is a youthful and open nature combined with a manly earnestness of purpose. And as a musician he is still more wonderful. He gives me as much pleasure as he possibly can, as you can imagine, and he does this with a perseverance which is really touching; it often oppresses me to think of how much he is giving me and of how very, very poorly I can repay it!” (In a letter to Joseph Joachim, 1854, in the midst of Robert Schumann’s rapid deterioration)


On Mendelssohn: “I haven’t gone to Mendelssohn’s much; he’s probably come here more often. He remains the most eminent person I’ve ever met. People say that he isn’t being sincere with me. That would hurt me since I know I have only noble feelings toward him and have proved that. Tell me what you know when you have a chance; then I’ll at least be careful, and I don’t want to waste my time if I’m being slandered. I know exactly how I compare to him as a musician and could learn from him for years, but he could also learn a few things from me. If I had grown up under circumstances similar to his and been destined for music from childhood, I’d surpass each and every one of you–I can feel that in the energy of my creations. Well, each life has its distinctive features, and I don’t want to complain about mine.” (In a letter to Clara, April 1838)

On himself: “In Prague I’m supposed to have said (according to your father), ‘I can write a symphony like Mozart’s G minor in my sleep’–some liar thought that up. You know how modest I am regarding anything having to do with the masters.” (In a letter to Clara, December 1838)

On Thalberg: “Thalberg is supposed to come, too. Let’s be very friendly to him. He’s really the finest artist in Vienna, and sooner or later we will have to get along with him.” (In a letter to Clara, April 1838)



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