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:
Fernand Khnopff, “Listening to Schumann,” 1883
Schumann’s last years, as described in eyewitness accounts. This is part two; read part one here.
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.
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,
(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!
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)