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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merry christmas

In honor of the season, today we share the song “Geistliches Wiegenlied,” or “Sacred Lullaby” (Op. 91, no. 2), written by Johannes Brahms for alto, viola, and piano. The viola obbligato is the melody from a famous Christmas carol, “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein”–and Brahms even wrote the lyrics underneath the viola line.

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Here the song is performed by Jessye Norman (voice), Wolfram Christ (viola) and Daniel Barenboim (piano).

Die ihr schwebet
Um diese Palmen
In Nacht und Wind,
Ihr heilgen Engel,
Stillet die Wipfel!
Es schlummert mein Kind.

Ihr Palmen von Bethlehem
Im Windesbrausen,
Wie mögt ihr heute
So zornig sausen!
O rauscht nicht also!
Schweiget, neiget
Euch leis und lind;
Stillet die Wipfel!
Es schlummert mein Kind.

Der Himmelsknabe
Duldet Beschwerde,
Ach, wie so müd er ward
Vom Leid der Erde.
Ach nun im Schlaf ihm
Leise gesänftigt
Die Qual zerrinnt,
Stillet die Wipfel!
Es schlummert mein Kind.

Grimmige Kälte
Sauset hernieder,
Womit nur deck ich
Des Kindleins Glieder!
O all ihr Engel,
Die ihr geflügelt
Wandelt im Wind,
Stillet die Wipfel!
Es schlummert mein kind.

You who hover
Around these palms
In night and wind,
You holy angels,
Silence the treetops,
My child is sleeping.

You palms of Bethlehem
In the roaring wind,
How can you today
Bluster so angrily!
O roar not so!
Be still, bow
Softly and gently;
Silence the treetops!
My child is sleeping.

The child of heaven
Endures the discomfort,
Oh, how tired he has become
Of earthly sorrow.
Oh, now in sleep,
Gently softened,
His pain fades,
Silence the treetops!
My child is sleeping.

Fierce cold
Comes rushing
How shall I cover
The little child’s limbs?
O all you angels,
You winged ones
Wandering in the wind.
Silence the treetops!
My child is sleeping.

Many thanks to you faithful readers and contributors! Hope you have a blessed, safe, refreshing holiday season!

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.

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