Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), one of the most prominent violinists of the Romantic era, was not only one of the Schumanns’ closest musical friends, but also became one of Brahms’s most important collaborators. Brahms dedicated his violin concerto to Joachim, and requested that Joachim write the first movement’s cadenza. In fact, when Brahms had first appeared at the Schumanns’ door in 1853, he had carried with him a letter of introduction and recommendation from Joachim himself.
Because they knew each other for most of their lives, Joachim’s letters prove a rich resource for descriptions of Brahms’s personality. In a letter to Gisela von Arnim (the woman Joachim wanted to marry but was never able to–but that’s another story), dated November 27, 1853, Joachim writes:
How enviable is a nature like Brahms’ on whom work has the most soothing effect. He is sleeping peacefully now, after his day’s work, on my sofa in the next room, where he has already camped out for 2 nights — I am glad to think he is getting so much at home with me that he hardly ever leaves my rooms — when I have worked I am quite out of tune with everyday life. Brahms has been here since Friday, when, on coming back from a late walk, I found the young green and gold tiger lying in wait for me, greener than ever by reason of his laurels and newly gilt by publishers who are printing all his things. He was in splendid spirits and talked far into the night of old friends in the town of booksellers [Leipzig]. You have really seen deep into his nature — he is egotistic and always on the look out for something to his advantage — but at any rate he is sincere in the expression of his feelings, with none of the false sentimentality with which others of his kind like to deceive themselves — and then anything he does seize is only used to help him in his efforts to become a great artist — that is saying much when one compares him with others. And I love him for it — you do not know what disgusting vanity I come across among my colleagues.
In another letter to Gisela von Arnim about a year later, October 20, 1854, Joachim again comments on Brahms’s personality, this time with a little more criticism. He also includes a surprising musical appraisal: while coldness and indifference to passion would be considered negative comments nowadays, Joachim seems to think positively of these attributes in Brahms’s playing and compositions.
As for Brahms, who put up here on the black sofa for a few days, I did not really feel at ease with him, although I once more realised all his good, his unusual qualities. I believe Herman has spoilt me–and whereas I used to live, purposely, in a kind of twilight, so far as my friendships were concerned, so as not to be disillusioned in that which I cared for–now my reason insists on seeing what my affection feared to discover. Brahms is egoism incarnate, without himself being aware of it. He bubbles over in his cheery way with exuberant thoughtlessness–but sometimes with a lack of consideration (not a lack of reserve, for that would please me!) which offends because it betrays a want of culture. He has never once troubled to consider what others, according to their natures and the course of their development, will hold in esteem; the things that do not arouse his enthusiasm, or that do not fit in with his experience, or even with his mood, are callously thrust aside, or, if he is in the humour, attacked with a malicious sarcasm. This immediately raises a barrier between him and his companion, who has been rejoicing in the society of the happy, brilliant young man whose whole personality is stamped with intellectual power. I often had to summon my sense of justice to prevent the warmth of my feeling from cooling down. He knows the weaknesses of the people about him, and he makes use of them, and does not hesitate to show (to their faces, I admit) that he is crowing over them. His immediate surroundings are quite apart from his musical life, and from his attachment to a higher and more fantastic world. And the way in which he wards off all the morbid emotions and imaginary troubles of others is really delightful. He is absolutely sound in that, just as his complete indifference to the means of existence is beautiful, indeed magnificent. He will not make the smallest sacrifice of his intellectual inclinations–he will not play in public because of his contempt for the public, and because it irks him–although he plays divinely. I have never heard piano playing (except perhaps Liszt’s) which gave me so much satisfaction–so light and clear, so cold and indifferent to passion. His compositions, too, are an easy treatment of the most difficult forms–so pregnant, rejecting all earthly sorrows with such indifference. I have never come across a talent like his before. He is miles ahead of me.
Brahms always considered Joachim to be a vital mentor and teacher, although Joachim was only two years older than he. Their lives were closely intertwined: they traveled in the same circles, knew the same musical greats; they were two of Clara’s staunchest pillars of support during Robert Schumann’s tragic last years. They wrote each other, encouraged each other, and taught each other–and then, in 1883, after a lifetime of friendship, Joachim’s divorce proceedings broke them apart.
Here’s what happened: Joachim suspected that his wife Amalie was having an affair with Brahms’s publisher, Fritz Simrock. Poor Brahms could see that his friend Joachim had been blinded by jealousy, and, being the perpetually sincere character that he was, chose to write Amalie and offer his support in the situation.
With no thought have I ever acknowledged that your husband might be in the right. At this point I perhaps hardly need to say that, even earlier than you did, I became aware of the unfortunate character-trait with which Joachim so inexcusably tortures himself and others….The simplest matter is so exaggerated, so complicated, that one scarcely knows where to begin with it and how to bring it to an end.
This letter was used in court during the divorce proceedings to help Amalie’s case. Unspeakably hurt, Joachim ended his friendship with Brahms–although, ever the professional, he continued to support his former friend’s musical career. Years of silence passed. And then, in 1887, in a most touching gesture, Brahms wrote his Double Concerto in A minor for Joachim and cellist Robert Hausmann. The work plays with the motif F-E-A, a reincarnation of Joachim’s own motto, Frei aber einsam (“Free but lonely”), upon which the “F-A-E” Sonata had been built 34 years ago by Schumann, Brahms, and Schumann’s student Dietrich.
The work is not necessarily one of Brahms’s “greatest hits”–it’s thicker and perhaps less accessible than his violin sonatas, or symphonies, or piano concerti. Public reception was tepid; even Clara Schumann wrote that the writing was not well-suited for the solo instruments. But the love remains, and there is something heartbreakingly sweet about Brahms’s unwillingness to let the friendship go; something absolutely poignant about extending the olive branch through music, the thread that had woven his and Joachim’s lives together in the first place.