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.”
By Maria Popova
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).
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
Published February 21, 2017