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When a Friendship Is More Than Friendship: The Tender Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms

“I would gladly write to you only by means of music, but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.”

When a Friendship Is More Than Friendship: The Tender Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms

Half the beauty of life lies in its complexity — in those experiences whose depth and dimension cannot be sliced, flattened, and contained into neat categories. Nowhere is that complexity greater, richer, nor more replete with nuance than in the emotional universe of human relationships, the most expansive of which defy and interpolate between the various labels we try to impose on them. Those relationships we call platonic are difficult enough to taxonomize, but when a friendship becomes punctuated by the pulse-beat of romantic love, when two people cease to know what to call each other and know only what they mean to each other, the level of complexity crescendoes and can become either destructively shrill or transcendently symphonic.

Those rare symphonies of connectional complexity, like the relationships between Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman and Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, continue to enchant and fascinate me. One such uncommon connection blossomed between the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896) and the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897).

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, 1853

The two became acquainted in 1853, when Clara’s beloved husband, the famed composer Robert Schumann, was struck by Brahms’s musical genius and took him under his wing. In a letter to Brahms’s father, Schumann called him a “darling of the Muses.” He then wrote an impassioned piece for one of the era’s leading music journals, extolling the young musician’s creative ingenuity and prophesying his forthcoming fame. For this Brahms was immensely grateful and wrote to his “Revered Master”: “You have made me so extremely happy that I cannot attempt to express my thanks in words. May God grant that my works will soon be able to prove to you how much your love and kindness have uplifted and inspired me.” He wished for himself to “always be worthy” of Schumann’s confidence in his talent.

But only four months after the Schumanns met Brahms and bestowed upon him their generous patronage, Robert suffered a nervous breakdown. On February 27, 1854, he climbed a bridge and threw himself into the river Rhine. He was rescued and dragged ashore, then immediately committed to a private psychiatric institution, where he spent the remaining two years of his life afflicted with auditory hallucinations and other psychological infirmities. But he remained so fond of Brahms that when Clara sent him a portrait of the young composer, Schumann wrote to Brahms saying that he had placed it “under the looking-glass” in his room — an assuring suggestion that he saw much of himself in his protégé.

Robert Schumann

Schumann never recovered from his mental illness and died in the asylum on July 29, 1856, leaving Clara to raise their three sons and four daughters as a single mother and a working artist who provided for them through her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to put them through school.

During Robert’s illness and confinement at the asylum, Clara began corresponding directly with Brahms. He soon grew to be her closest confidante and most beloved friend. The doctors at the asylum had forbidden her to visit, for fear of overstimulating the ailing Schumann’s frail nervous system, so Brahms even served as a messenger between Clara and her husband. In the darkness following Robert’s death, he became Clara’s sole source of light and their friendship took on a new dimension. Clara would later write in a letter to her children:

You hardly knew your dear Father, you were still too young to feel deep grief, and thus in those terrible years you could give me no comfort. Hope, indeed, you could bring me, but it was not enough to support me through such agony. Then came Johannes Brahms. Your Father loved and admired him, as he did no man except [the violinist Joseph] Joachim. He came, like a true friend, to share all my sorrow; he strengthened the heart that threatened to break, he uplifted my mind, he cheered my spirit when[ever] and wherever he could; in short he was my friend in the fullest sense of the word.

Indeed, between them stretched a fullness of affection defying confinement and classification, blurring the line between the filial and the romantic, between friend and lover, so that rather than two distinct territories divided by a borderline, a rich and radiant spectrum is revealed.

A century and a half later, the Pulitzer-winning poet Lisel Mueller would devote a beautiful poem to this remarkable and unclassifiable relationship, found in her collection Alive Together:


Johannes Brahms and
      Clara Schumann

The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth-century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.

But we do overhear a great deal of this singular tenderness in their surviving correspondence, collected in the out-of-print 1973 gem Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms (public library).

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms

At the outset of their correspondence, Brahms addresses Clara Schumann as “Honoured Lady,” perhaps because he saw her more as a benefactress than as an object of love. But beneath his grateful admiration, a slow-burning infatuation with his guardian angel soon takes hold of his heart. In a letter from August of 1854, 21-year-old Johannes writes to 35-year-old Clara while touring across Europe:

I should not have enjoyed a single moment of the trip. The [cities] which otherwise would have thrilled me with joy, leave me cold, so dull and colorless does everything seem to me.

I will go home and play music and read to myself until you appear, and I can do so with you. If you wanted to please me very much indeed you would let me find a letter in Düsseldorf… If the great longing that has possessed me during the last few days has any influence on my playing etc. it ought soon to enable me to cast a spell over people.

Five days later, in a sentiment that offers a counterpoint to Aldous Huxley’s memorable assertion that “after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Brahms writes:

I would gladly write to you only by means of music, but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.

And yet his devotion is unpossessive, holding Clara’s happiness as its highest object — a happiness darkened by her worries about her husband’s fate at the psychiatric institution. To relieve her restless anxiety, Brahms travels to the asylum himself to check on Robert Schumann and reports back to her with as much assurance as he can wrest from the circumstances:

His look is friendly and bright, his movements are the same as ever, he keeps one hand constantly to his mouth, and smokes in short puffs as he always used to.

He infuses with romantic air even the news of his visit to this grim and dispiriting place:

Herr Sch. then turned to look at the flowers and went further into the garden towards the lovely view. I saw him disappear with a glorious halo about him, formed by the setting sun.

In these early letters, there is almost a sense of deification — Brahms seems enamored not with Clara alone but with the Schumanns as a unit that embodies what he perceives to be the loftiest qualities of the human spirit:

Even I, before I knew you, imagined that such people as you and such marriages as yours could only exist in the imagination of the rarest people.


People … do not deserve that you two, Robert and Clara, should be on earth at all, and I feel uplifted when I think that I may see the time when people will idolize you — two such wholly poetical natures. I almost wish that the world in general might forget you so that you could remain all the more sacred to the elect…

By November of that year, Clara herself is insisting that Brahms address her by “thou” — the second person singular reserved for an intimate friendship. By the following March, Brahms not only begins using her first name, but addresses his letters to “My dearly beloved Clara” and, by June, simply to “My Clara.”

In a letter from August of 1855, Brahms writes to his Clara:

Clara, dear Clara… I feel ever more happy and peaceful in my love for you. Every time I miss you more but I long for you almost with joy. That is how it is. And I knew the feeling already but never quite so warm as it is now.

The following May, he amplifies the warmth to a heat:

My Beloved Clara,

I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you and tell you all the good things that I wish you. You are so infinitely dear to me, dearer than I can say. I should like to spend the whole day calling you endearing names and paying you compliments without ever being satisfied.

At the end of another letter, penned after Clara and her four youngest children had come to celebrate Christmas with him in Düsseldorf, he signs:

With heartiest wishes for your welfare, and begging you to kiss me,

Your Johannes

Four months earlier, Richard Schumann had died in the mental asylum. Clara had been forced to begin mourning his loss while witnessing his deterioration, but his death delivered a shock of grief for which no one could prepare. Brahms’s affectionate devotion became her only comfort. She threw herself into popularizing her late husband’s compositions, which she performed unwearyingly around Europe as she single-parented their seven children. But she was equally enchanted by Brahms’s own genius — she praised and encouraged his work privately, and extolled and recommended it publicly. This mutuality of artistic admiration became a centerpiece of their layered love.

In a letter from July of 1858, penned after she had made yet another spirited recommendation of Brahms’s work, Clara protests that her creative opinion isn’t influenced by “blind enthusiasm” for him and writes tenderly:

That I am often mightily captivated by the wealth of your genius, that you always seem to be one on whom heaven has showered its fairest gifts and that I love you and honor you for so many magnificent qualities — all this is true, dearest Johannes, and has taken deep root in my heart. So do not try to kill it all in me by your cold philosophizing — it is impossible.


I have always considered myself so fortunate to be able to be to you a friend who understands you, and who is in a position to recognize your value as a musician and as a man.

Indeed, what at first appeared as one-sided infatuation and idolization on behalf of Brahms has by this point deepened into a profound symmetry of affection. At the end of her lengthy letter, Clara adds:

I am waiting for another letter, my Johannes. If only I could find longing as sweet as you do. It only gives me pain and fills my heart with unspeakable woe. Farewell! Think kindly of Your Clara.

Write me as often as you can. One requires to be cheerful during a cure and whence would good cheer come to me if not from you?

In a letter from February of 1861, Clara touches on another essential element in their bond — their shared artistic integrity:

You cannot imagine how sad I am when I feel I have not put my heart into my playing. To me it is as if I had done an injury not only to myself but also to art.

I have been talking as if you had been patiently sitting listening at my side all the while. If only it were so! Oh, write to me often, my beloved friend! You know how you can show your love in this way, particularly when I can feel that you do it willingly and from your heart. Greet your dear ones for me and for yourself a thousand greetings from Your devoted Clara.

Rather than crumbling with the erosive passage of time, the way an infatuation does, their love only deepened as the years wore on. In a letter from the spring of 1872, nearly twenty years after they first met, Brahms writes on Easter Monday:

My beloved Clara,

I always enjoy festivals in solitude, quite alone, with perhaps just a few dear ones in my room, and very quietly — for are not all my people either dead or far away? But what a joy it is to me then to remember how big with love is a certain human breast. For, after all, I am dependent upon the outside world — the hurly-burly in which we live. I do not add my laughter to its medley of voices, nor do I join its chorus of lies, — but it is as if the best in man could shut itself up, and only half of him sallied forth dreaming.

How fortunate you are, or, I should say, how beautiful, how good, how right! I mean that you bear your heart as a conscious possession, securely; whereas we are obliged every minute to conceal ours. You see everything so warmly, with such beautiful serenity, just like a reflection of yourself; and then with the same serenity you give unto each his due. All this sounds so stupid, and I cannot say what I think; although it would be even more stupid to speak of lilies and angels, and then to come back to you and your sweet nature.

It is with this loving sweetness that Clara shares in Brahms’s growing success. In the spring of 1874, shortly after the Bavarian king Ludwig II awarded him the prestigious Maximilian Order for Science and Art, she writes:

Just received your letter, so I can thank you for it at once. The joy it has given me may well compensate you for the pains it cost you to write. What I like more particularly is that you frankly acknowledge the pleasure which such recognition must give you. It cannot be otherwise; an artist’s heart must feel warmer for it. And I must say that to witness your growing fame constitutes the happiest experience that the latter years of my life could bring.

Now please sacrifice a little more time and send me a few words after the festival. Think of the lonely friend who is concentrating all her mind upon you now, and to whom every stroke of good fortune that reaches you is an added joy. Your old Clara.

When Clara Schumann died at the age of 76, Brahms survived her by only eleven months.

Complement the thoroughly satisfying though, regrettably, almost impossible to find Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms with other stirring love letters by Kahlil Gibran, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Hannah Arendt, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Mead, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, and James Thurber.


Nina Simone on Time

A meditation on the one dimension of human existence that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts.”

Nina Simone on Time

“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” wrote the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard as he contemplated our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s just as Einstein, Gödel, and the rise of relativity had begun revolutionizing our understanding of time. “Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges proclaimed a generation later in his exquisite 1944 refutation of time. “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

If Borges’s words sound like a song lyric, it is because there is something singularly musical about our perception of time — we speak of our daily rhythms, abide by the metronomic ticking of the clock, and feel the flow of time like one feels the flow of a melody. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the elusive and indomitable nature of time preoccupied not only the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and writers, but also one of its greatest musicians: Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Nina Simone (February 21, 1933–April 21, 2003).

Nina Simone, 1969

On October 26, 1969, at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City, Simone performed a version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” written by the English folk-rock singer-songwriter Sandy Denny and popularized by Judy Collins. The version was released a year later on her live album Black Gold and was later included in The Essential Nina Simone.

Simone, who was at least as devoted to civil rights as she was to music, considered this “a reflective tune” that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts,” for it deals with the supreme unifying force of all human existence: the shared experience of time’s inescapable flow. She introduced her cover with a beautiful, simple, profound prefatory meditation on time — please enjoy:

Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say, “What is this thing called time?” What is that, the clock? You go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock and your coffee by the clock, and you have to get on the plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on and on.

And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then, one day, you look in the mirror — you’re old — and you say, “Where does the time go?”


Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving
How can they know that it’s time to go?
Before the winter fire, I’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know that it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
For I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

But I am not alone as long as my love is near me
And I know it will be so till it’s time to go
All through the winter, until the birds return in spring again
I do not fear the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Complement with the psychology of how we experience time, T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to the nature of time, and James Gleick on how our fascination with time illuminates the central mystery of consciousness.


How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself

“People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing.”

How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself

In 1926, having just divorced her first husband at the age of twenty-five, the American poet, critic, essayist, and short story writer Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) moved to England and founded, together with her friend the poet Robert Graves, a small independent press. Like Anaïs Nin’s publishing venture, all of their early publications — which included work by Gertrude Stein — were typeset and printed by hand.

In 1930, Riding and Graves moved their offices to Majorca. That year, 29-year-old Riding wrote a series of letters to 8-year-old Catherine — the daughter of Graves and the artist Nancy Nicholson. Originally published by a Parisian press in a limited edition of 200 copies each signed by the author, Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (public library) endures as a small, miraculous book, reminiscent in spirit of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and in style and substance of the Zen teachings of Seung Sahn or Thich Hhat Hanh. With great simplicity and unpretentious sincerity, both comprehensible and enchanting as much to this particular little girl as to any child or even any wakeful grownup at all, Riding addresses some of the most elemental questions of existence — how to live a life of creativity and integrity, why praise and prestige are corrosive objects of success, and above all what it means to be oneself.

Laura Riding

Riding eventually returned to America in 1939, remarried and became Laura (Riding) Jackson, continued to write, and lived to be ninety — a long life animated by the conviction that language is “the essential moral meeting-ground.” When she reflected on these letters three decades after writing them, she remarked wistfully that she might no longer be inclined to write “such easy-speaking letters, treating with so much diffident good-humor the stupendous, incessantly-urgent matter of Virtue and the lack of it,” by which she meant “the eternal virtue of good Being, not the mortal virtue of good Custom.” And yet, mercifully, she did once write them, and they did survive, and today they continue to nourish souls of all ages with their unadorned wisdom and transcendent truthfulness.

In the first of the four letters, a meandering meditation on young Catherine’s remark that grownups sometimes seem to “know everything about everything,” Riding explores the nature of knowledge and its essential seedbed of self-knowledge. She writes:

A child should be allowed to take as long as she needs for knowing everything about herself, which is the same as learning to be herself. Even twenty-five years if necessary, or even forever. And it wouldn’t matter if doing things got delayed, because nothing is really important but being oneself.

Nearly a century after Kierkegaard extolled the virtues of idleness and two decades before the German philosopher Joseph Pieper argued that not-doing is the basis of culture, Riding urges young Catherine not to worry about being accused of laziness and considers the basic goodness of simply being oneself:

You seem to spend a lot of time dreaming about nothing at all. And yet you are, as the few people who really know you recognise, a perfect child… This is because when you seem to be dreaming about nothing at all you are not being lazy but thinking about yourself. One doesn’t say you are lazy or selfish. If a person is herself she can’t be a bad person in any way; she is always a good person in her own way. For instance, you are very affectionate, but that’s because you are a good person. You are not a good person just because you are affectionate. It wouldn’t matter if you weren’t affectionate, because you are a good person. You are yourself, and whatever you do is sure to be good.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

In a passage that radiates a prescient admonition against the perils of our modern Parenting Industrial Complex, Riding adds:

It is very sad then that so many children are hurried along and not given time to think about themselves. People say to them when they think that they have been playing long enough: “You are no longer a child. You must begin to do something.” But although playing is doing nothing, you are really doing something when you play; you are thinking about yourself. Many children play in the wrong way. They make work out of play. They not only seem to be doing something, they really are doing something. They are imitating the grown-ups around them who are always doing as much instead of as little as possible. And they are often encouraged to play in this way by the grown-ups. And they are not learning to be themselves.

In an essential caveat that teases out the nuance of her point, Riding notes that rather than selfishness or narcissism, such thinking about oneself is the only way to conceive of one’s place within a larger world and therefore to think of the world itself. In a sentiment that calls to mind Diane Ackerman’s wonderful notion of “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” Riding offers an almost Buddhist perspective:

People are by themselves in being themselves, but together with everyone and everything else in being everything. And this is what makes a world, and people in it. Things that don’t think about themselves aren’t people; they are just everything. And by themselves they are nothing. And even all together, as everything, they are nothing because they know nothing about everything. We are something because we think about ourselves. And being part of everything we think about everything too and make something of it.

In the second letter in the book, Riding picks up the subject from another angle and examines, well before the golden age of modern productivity, how our compulsive doing is keeping us from being — that is, from the essential self-knowledge out of which our entire experience of life arises. She writes to young Catherine:

There are many people who are not entirely themselves because as children they were not given time to think about themselves. And because they don’t know everything about themselves they can’t know everything about everything. But no one likes to admit that she doesn’t know everything about everything. And so these people try to make up for not knowing everything about everything by doing things.


People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing. They try to pretend that doing is thinking.

Noting that doing certainly has its uses, she considers its misuses. In a passage that calls to mind Bruce Lee’s wisdom on the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem and Anna Deavere Smith’s own letters to young artists about the true measure of confidence, Riding writes:

The wrong kind of doing is doing that people do not for comfort or fun but in order to prove to themselves and to other people that they are people. Of course, the only kind of people that people of this sort could impress would be people like them, who wished to seem people in a general way although they weren’t particularly speaking people. In a place where most of the people were like this the object of life would be busyness. And, dear Catherine, this is the way the world is. Only a small part of the doings in it are done for comfort or fun. The rest is just showing-off.

Writing only a decade after women claimed the right to vote, Riding adds:

The greatest showers-off and busy-bodies are men. And so this world is ruled by men, because it is a world not of doing but over-doing. A world of simple doing would need no ruling. It takes really very little doing to keep comfortably and happily alive. We ought not to pay much more attention to doing than to breathing.

All this extra doing interferes, in fact, with comfort and fun and makes a bad kind of laziness instead of a good kind. Good laziness is thinking — knowing about yourself and knowing also about everything when you want to… You would not be surprised if you realised that it didn’t take brains to do things. Birds, bees, ants, dogs, tress, earth, the sky — all these and everything do the most marvelous things, but they haven’t brains like ours. Never be impressed by what people do, dear Catherine. Doing is only natural.

Once again admonishing against the way in which praise and prestige come to displace the true confidence that comes from self-knowledge, she offers an incisive definition:

Praise … is the confidence in yourself that you get from people whom you have succeeded in pleasing when you haven’t any confidence in yourself.

Riding considers how self-knowledge becomes the foundational structure upon which all other knowledge is built:

If a person knows everything about herself, then she is herself, which is a part of everything. But if she can think further than this, then she can perhaps make that part into a whole, into everything — not just an everything that is everything and anything, but an everything that is herself, or, you might say, an everything that is precious instead of just ordinary. This good thing, this little everything — well, it might be a poem or anything that a thinking might be, and it would be a good thing because it wasn’t a doing.


A poem or anything like that that is thinking and not doing … is of course much harder work than making a chair, but it is work done with laziness not with busyness. By this I mean that in making a poem there is no hurry or purpose as there is in making a chair; it has nothing to do with fun or comfort, it is better than fun or comfort. Having fun and being comfortable is connected with being alive for a good long time, a year or maybe a hundred years. But making a poem is like being alive for always: this is what I mean by laziness and there being no hurry or purpose. A good poem, then, or any good thinking thing, wouldn’t try to give comfort or fun to people: it would be good because of what it was, not because of what it did, and so give people something better than comfort or fun — a feeling of laziness, of being alive for always. Only someone who knows herself in an everything way could make such a thing, but to make such a thing is nothing to be proud of or show off about. For if you are able to make a poem, it doesn’t seem a wonderful thing to do; it seems just a necessary-natural thing to do.

But this ability to make a good poem, Riding argues, springs from the same source as the ability to make a good chair — that is, a poem or chair that doesn’t show off — which is, at bottom, what also makes a good person. (Nearly a century later, the poet Mary Oliver would call that source “the third self.”) Riding writes:

A person might be able to make poems but be unable to make chairs, not because she could only make poems, but because it didn’t happen to her to make chairs. In the long run a person who could make good poems would certainly come round to making good chairs, and the other way round.

Four Unposted Letters to Catherine is an enormously rewarding read in its slim totality. Complement it with Rilke on what it takes to be an artist and the poet Ann Lauterbach on why we make art and how art makes us.

Thanks, Ann


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