And our man Mendelssohn was no exception.
Ah, coffee! The drink adored by artists around the world for centuries: musicians, painters, philosophers, writers….Without the late-night spurts of energy fueled by this fragrant, smoky black drink, who knows how much more barren our libraries and museums would be?! (Pardon my hyperbole…maybe I’ve had a little too much myself this morning.)
Coffee came from the Middle East to Europe through the trading ports of Venice, and even Pope Clement VIII could not resist its allure, saying, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage!” Thus, in 1600, he declared coffee Christian, ignoring protests to ban the “Muslim drink,” and opened the door for coffee to saturate the West. (Thanks, Pope Clement. You the real MVP.) Coffee houses throughout Europe quickly became popular places for social gatherings, and the Zimmermannsche Kaffeehaus–or “Café Zimmermann”–in Leipzig is one of the most famous, for hosting public concerts in which many of J.S. Bach’s secular cantatas were performed…including:
The Coffee Cantata.
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:
Listen to a piece by Schumann, and you will gain more insight into his complex, troubled, creative, affectionate soul. Unapologetically chromatic harmonies; achingly gorgeous inner melodies; eerie, disorienting rhythmic displacements; obsessive motivic repetition and development–these are the elements so distinctive to his personal style (not to mention the quotations from other composers and the different versions of Clara’s name, encoded, that pop up every so often).
And out of all the lives of the great composers, Schumann’s is perhaps the most heartbreaking because of his last two years, which were a tragic spiral into the dark abyss of mental illness. The little paragraph your history textbook devotes to the end of his life is most likely cold and clinical, and probably goes something like this: “Schumann’s mental health began to deteriorate near the end of his life, and he was institutionalized in 1854 after a failed suicide attempt. He died two years later, in 1856.” What your textbook will probably leave out, for the sake of brevity, is that the voices in Schumann’s mind had begun to take a dark and demonic turn; that he was terrified that he would hurt his seven children, or Clara, who was pregnant with the eighth; that Schumann’s whole community–composed of musical greats like Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms–was in shock after Schumann jumped off that bridge, and was scrambling to protect Clara from the awful truth. Eyewitness accounts from the time, recorded in letters and diaries, brings everyone back to life in painfully vivid clarity.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832)–(and tell me that isn’t the most German name you’ve ever encountered)–played an astoundingly large role in the world of German Romantic music, especially considering that he was not a musician himself. His poems were set to music by multitudes of composers, and many of these settings have become revered classics in the vocal repertoire.
But while we probably best remember settings such as Schubert’s–much has been made, for example, of the genius in his setting of Gretchen am Spinnrade when he was just 17 years old–it’s quite likely that Goethe would not have approved of Schubert’s blatant text painting. He wrote to his composer friend Zelter on May 2, 1820: