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.
A blog series in which a musician shares which three pieces they would choose to listen to, if they were hypothetically stranded on an island and could only listen to those three pieces for the rest of their life. Want to contribute? Contact me here!
This week, I share my own choices (and realize how cruel it actually is of me to limit people to only three pieces when I ask them this question)!
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.
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)
Bach can be one of the most difficult musical giants to grapple with. His works go beyond those of many other composers’ in their demands on mental acuity and musical finesse, and it’s no secret that many students struggle to find an appreciation for Bach, particularly when Baroque aesthetics and conventions seem so far removed from the modern world. For some, a love for Bach has to develop slowly over a longer time, with accumulated exposure to the expressiveness of his musical lines and the grand purity of his harmonies–and the growing realization of how deeply his music is steeped in the vibrant colors of his society, of dance or church or court.