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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stranded on a desert island (#2)

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)!

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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: 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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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.