joachim and brahms

Brahms (seated) and Joachim.

Brahms (seated) and Joachim.

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:

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schumann’s last years: part one

Robert Schumann, by Hetty Krist, 2010.

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.

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always be learning

The man who graduates today and stops

I and many of my friends are at a crossroads right now as we think about life after graduation. Whether or not we can be accepted into graduate programs, win orchestra jobs, or find solid teaching work–for many, these are uncertainties that may be made clear in the few months before commencement or may remain hazy for years. Whatever life may take us, I think we can take some inspiration from the attitude of great musicians like Brahms and Joachim:

My dear Friend–Thank you for your letter and the two enclosures….I am to remind you that to-morrow afternoon (2 o’clock?) the [Schumann] children are passing through Hanover. We are loading them up with bread and butter and oranges here; you are to see to the coffee. And then I want to remind you of what we have so often discussed, and beg you to let us carry it out, namely, to send one another exercises in counterpoint. Each should send the other’s back every fortnight (in a week’s time therefore) with remarks and his own work, this to continue for a good long time, until we have both become really clever.

Why should not two sensible, earnest people like ourselves be able to teach one another far better than any Pf. [Professor?] could? But do not merely reply in words. Send me your first study in a fortnight….I am looking forward hopefully to the first batch. Let us take it seriously! It would be very pleasant and useful. I think it is a delightful idea. –Always yours,

Johannes.

(Brahms, in a letter to Joachim from Düsseldorf, February 26, 1856)

Let’s be lifelong students, always seeking to learn with and from each other, whether or not it’s within the walls of a classroom. Here’s to the future!

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music worth a thousand words

At mid-day on the 15th a letter came from the doctor with enclosures. I handed it to Frau Schumann in fear and trembling!  Were her leters being returned or was it a reply? She opened the letter, and could hardly stammer, "from my husband"; she could not read it for some time. And then, what unspeakable joy; she looked like the Finale to Fidelio, the F major movement in 3/4 time. I can describe it in no other way. One could not weep over it, but it fills one with a deep and joyful awe.

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Joseph Joachim on September 17, 1854, after Robert Schumann’s institutionalization.

And the F major movement in question:

O Gott! O welch’ ein Augenblick!
O unaussprechlich süßes Glück!
Gerecht, O Gott, ist dein Gericht!
Du prüfest, du verläßt uns nicht.
O God! O what a moment!
O inexpressibly sweet happiness!
Righteous, O God, is Thy judgement!
Thou dost try, but not forsake us.

Sources:

notes from the past: the letters between robert and clara

robertclaraschumann

A reminder of how even the greatest artists struggle with insecurities:

“The theater paper in Dresden recently wrote that my concert there was pretty much sold out–how shocking! And as far as improvising is concerned, I can take Willmers on any time. I’m scared to death about my trip to Paris; when I hear someone like Thalberg or Liszt, I always feel so insignificant, and I’m so dissatisfied with myself I could cry! If I had enough strength and could pull myself together, then I could accomplish much more, but I am too much in love; I simply can’t live for my music alone as Father wants; I can love music only through you, and that’s why I often have other things on my mind–you know what I am trying to say.” – Clara Wieck, to Robert Schumann, December 1838

Source: The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann, edited by Eva Weissweiler (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994).

notes from the past: composers on composers

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

Haydn

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

Joachim

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)

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notes from the past: the letters between robert and clara

robertclaraschumann“I’ve just received some letters from Vienna regarding Liszt. He caused a stir as Vienna has never known. He is truly an artist whom one must see and hear for oneself. I regret that you won’t meet him because you two would really get along well. He likes you very much. He ranks your compositions far above Henselt’s, above everything that he knows in our time. I played your Carnaval for him (I also played it for Ms. Cavalcabo); he’s delighted with it. ‘He’s a genius,’ he said; ‘that’s one of the greatest works I know.’ You can imagine my joy.”

“Once again I survived playing at the theater. The applause was as usual, but my playing seemed so bland and so–I don’t know how to put it–that I almost lost interest in continuing with my tour. Ever since I heard and saw Liszt’s bravura, I feel like a beginner. Maybe my courage will return again–I hope it’s just a passing melancholy which I often have. I know it’s not right to be so dissatisfied, but I can’t help it. The only thought that can cheer me is to live as an amateur pianist later, to give a few lessons, and not to play in public anymore. You’ll always love me, my Robert, won’t you?”

– Clara Wieck, to Robert Schumann, April 1838

Source: The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann, edited by Eva Weissweiler (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994).

liszt on the conflict between Artist and Audience (and the danger of “selling out”)

“In Leipzig even, where I played the ‘Carneval’ at my second concert in the Gewandhaus, I did not succeed in obtaining my usual applause. The musicians, together with those who were supposed to understand music, had (with few exceptions) their ears still too tightly stopped up to be able to comprehend this charming, tasteful ‘Carneval,’ the various numbers of which are harmoniously combined in such artistic fancy. I do not doubt that, later on, this work will maintain its natural place in universal recognition by the side of the ‘Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz of Diabelli’ by Beethoven (to which, in my opinion, it is superior even in melodic invention and importance). The frequent ill-success of my performances of Schumann’s compositions, both in private circles and in public, discouraged me from including and keeping them in the programmes of my concerts which followed so rapidly on one another….That was a mistake, as I discovered later and deeply regretted, when I had learned to understand that for the artist who wishes to be worthy of the name of artist the danger of not pleasing the public is a far less one than that of allowing oneself to be decided by its humors

—and to this danger every executive artist is especially exposed, if he does not take courage resolutely and on principle to stand earnestly and consistently by his conviction, and to produce those works which he knows to be the best, whether people like them or not….

The stream of custom and the slavery of the artist, who is directed to the encouragement and applause of the multitude for the maintenance and improvement of his existence and his renown, is such a pull-back, that, even to the better- minded and more courageous ones, among whom I am proud to reckon myself, it is intensely difficult to preserve their better ego in the face of all the covetous, distracted, and—despite their large number—backward-in-paying We.

There is in Art a pernicious offence, of which most of us are guilty through carelessness and fickleness; I might call it the Pilate offence.1 Classical doing, and classical playing, which have become the fashion of late years, and which may be regarded as an improvement, on the whole, in our musical state of things, hide in many a one this fault, without eradicating it:—I might say more on this point, but it would lead me too far.”

— Liszt, in a letter to J. W. von Wasielewski, January 1857 (source)

1. In reference to the Biblical Roman official who reluctantly sentenced Jesus to death in order to please the public.

notes from the past: the letters between robert and clara

robertclaraschumann“One might think you were very pale or even somewhat sickly, based on the painting [of you]. You aren’t, are you? But as I said, I’d like you to put on some weight, and I want to tell you how to do that–you have to be very cheerful, drink an occasional glass of Bavarian beer, and you must not play anything by Bellini and Chopin, and only amusing and funny pieces by your beloved. By the way, remain just as you are if you want (I already wrote you that)–you please me, truly you do–I imagine my future wife to be just like you–do you hear?” – Robert Schumann, to Clara Wieck, April 1838

Source: The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann, edited by Eva Weissweiler (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994).

musical excerpt: kinderszenen

As to the “Kinderscenen,” I owe to them one of the greatest pleasures of my life. You know, or you don’t know, that I have a little girl of three years old, whom everybody agrees in considering angelic (did you ever hear such a commonplace?). Her name is Blandine-Rachel, and her surname Moucheron. [Pet name; literally, “little fly.”] It goes without saying that she has a complexion of roses and milk, and that her fair golden hair reaches to her feet just like a savage. She is, however, the most silent child, the most sweetly grave, the most philosophically gay in the world. I have every reason to hope also that she will not be a musician, from which may Heaven preserve her!

Well, my dear Monsieur Schumann, two or three times a week (on fine and good days!) I play your “Kinderscenen” to her in the evening; this enchants her, and me still more, as you may imagine, so that often I go over the first repeat twenty times without going any further. Really I think you would be satisfied with this success if you could be a witness of it!

— Franz Liszt, in a letter to Robert Schumann, June 1839 (source)