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How the French Mathematician Sophie Germain Paved the Way for Women in Science and Almost Saved Gauss’s Life

“The taste for the abstract sciences in general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare… since the charms of this sublime science in all their beauty reveal themselves only to those who have the courage to fathom them.”

How the French Mathematician Sophie Germain Paved the Way for Women in Science and Almost Saved Gauss’s Life

A century after the trailblazing French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet popularized Newton and paved the path for women in science, and a few decades before the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776–June 27, 1831) gave herself an education using her father’s books and became a brilliant mathematician, physicist, and astronomer, who pioneered elasticity theory and made significant contributions to number theory.

In lieu of a formal education, unavailable to women until more than a century later, Germain supplemented her reading and her natural gift for science by exchanging letters with some of the era’s most prominent mathematicians. Among her famous correspondents was Carl Friedrich Gauss, considered by many scholars the greatest mathematician who ever lived. Writing under the male pseudonym M. LeBlanc — “fearing the ridicule attached to a female scientist,” as she herself later explained — Germain began sharing with Gauss some of her theorem proofs in response to his magnum opus Disquisitiones Arithmeticae.

Sophie Germain

Their correspondence began in 1804, at the peak of the French occupation of Prussia. In 1806, Germain received news that Napoleon’s troops were about to enter Gauss’s Prussian hometown of Brunswick. Terrified that her faraway mentor might suffer the fate of Archimedes, who was killed when Roman forces conquered Syracuse after a two-year siege, she called on a family friend — the French military chief M. Pernety — to find Gauss in Brunswick and ensure his safety. Pernety tasked one of his battalion commanders with traveling two hundred miles to the occupied Brunswick in order to carry out the rescue mission.

But Gauss, it turned out, was unscathed by the war. In a letter from November 27 of 1806, included in the altogether fascinating Sophie Germain: An Essay in the History of the Theory of Elasticity (public library), the somewhat irate battalion commander reports to his chief:

Just arrived in this town and have bruised myself with your errand. I have asked several persons for the address of Gauss, at whose residence I was to gather some news on your and Sophie Germain’s behalf. M. Gauss replied that he did not have the honor of knowing you or Mlle. Germain… After I had spoken of the different points contained in your order, he seemed a little confused and asked me to convey his thanks for your consideration on his behalf.

Carl Friedrich Gauss (Portrait by Jensen)

Upon receiving the comforting if somewhat comical news, Germain felt obliged to write to Gauss and clear his confusion about his would-be savior’s identity. After coming out as the woman behind the M. LeBlanc persona in a letter from February 20 of 1807, she tells Gauss:

The appreciation I owe you for the encouragement you have given me, in showing me that you count me among the lovers of sublime arithmetic whose mysteries you have developed, was my particular motivation for finding out news of you at a time when the troubles of the war caused me to fear for your safety; and I have learned with complete satisfaction that you have remained in your house as undisturbed as circumstances would permit. I hope, however, that these events will not keep you too long from your astronomical and especially your arithmetical researches, because this part of science has a particular attraction for me, and I always admire with new pleasure the linkages between truths exposed in your book.

Gauss responds a few weeks later:


Your letter … was for me the source of as much pleasure as surprise. How pleasant and heartwarming to acquire a friend so flattering and precious. The lively interest that you have taken in me during this war deserves the most sincere appreciation. Your letter to General Pernety would have been most useful to me, if I had needed special protection on the part of the French government.

Happily, the events and consequences of war have not affected me so much up until now, although I am convinced that they will have a large influence on the future course of my life. But how I can describe my astonishment and admiration on seeing my esteemed correspondent M. LeBlanc metamorphosed into this celebrated person, yielding a copy so brilliant it is hard to believe? The taste for the abstract sciences in general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare: this is not surprising, since the charms of this sublime science in all their beauty reveal themselves only to those who have the courage to fathom them. But when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarizing herself with their knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius. Nothing could prove me in a more flattering and less equivocal way that the attractions of that science, which have added so much joy to my life, are not chimerical, than the favor with which you have honored it.

The scientific notes which your letters are so richly filled have given me a thousand pleasures. I have studied them with attention, and I admire the ease with which you penetrate all branches of arithmetic, and the wisdom with which you generalize and perfect. I ask you to take it as proof of my attention if I dare to add a remark to your last letter.

With this, Gauss extends the gift of constructive criticism on some mathematical solutions Germain had shared with him — the same gift which trailblazing feminist Margaret Fuller bestowed upon Thoreau, which shaped his career. Although Gauss eventually disengaged from the exchange, choosing to focus on his scientific work rather than on correspondence, he remained an admirer of Germain’s genius. He advocated for the University of Gottingen to award her a posthumous honorary degree, for she had accomplished, despite being a woman and therefore ineligible for actually attending the University, “something worthwhile in the most rigorous and abstract of sciences.”

She was never awarded the degree.

Red fish pond in front of the girls’ school named after Germain

After the end of their correspondence, Germain heard that the Paris Academy of Sciences had announced a prix extraordinaire — a gold medal valued at 3,000 francs, roughly $600 then or about $11,000 now — awarded to whoever could explain an exciting new physical phenomenon scientists had found in the vibration of thin elastic surfaces. The winning contestant would have to “give the mathematical theory of the vibration of an elastic surface and to compare the theory to experimental evidence.”

The problem appeared so difficult that it discouraged all other mathematicians except Germain and the esteemed Denis Poisson from tackling it. But Poisson was elected to the Academy shortly after the award was announced and therefore had to withdraw from competing. Only Germain remained willing to brave the problem. She began work on it in 1809 and submitted her paper in the autumn of 1811. Despite being the only entrant, she lost — the jurors ruled that her proofs were unconvincing.

Germain persisted — because no solution had been accepted, the Academy extended the competition by two years, and she submitted a new paper, anonymously, in 1813. It was again rejected. She decided to try a third time and shared her thinking with Poisson, hoping he would contribute some useful insight. Instead, he borrowed heavily from her ideas and published his own work on elasticity, giving Germain no credit. Since he was the editor of the Academy’s journal, his paper was accepted and printed in 1814.

Still, Germain persisted. On January 8, 1816, she submitted a third paper under her own name. Her solution was still imperfect, but the jurors decided that it was as good as it gets given the complexity of the problem and awarded her the prize, which made her the first woman to win an accolade from the Paris Academy of Sciences.

But even with the prize in tow, Germain was not allowed to attend lectures at the Academy — the only women permitted to audit were the wives of members. She decided to self-publish her winning essay, in large part in order to expose Poisson’s theft and point out errors in his proof. She went on to do foundational mathematical work on elasticity, as well as work in philosophy and psychology a century before the latter was a formal discipline. Like Rachel Carson, Germain continued to work as she was dying of breast cancer. A paper she published shortly before her terminal diagnosis precipitated the discovery the laws of movement and equilibrium of elastic solids.

Her unusual life and enduring scientific legacy are discussed in great detail in the biography Sophie Germain. Complement it with the stories of how Ada Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer, how physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission, was denied the Nobel Prize, but led the way for women in science anyway, and how Harvard’s unsung 19th-century female astronomers revolutionized our understanding of the universe decades before women could vote.


Bruce Lee’s Never Before Revealed Letters to Himself About Authenticity, Personal Development, and the Measure of Success

“Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that, dedicating their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being.”

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” So wrote young Leo Tolstoy in his diary of moral development. Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) was around Tolstoy’s age when he turned to this central question of existence more than a century later and approached it with the same subtleness of insight and sincerity of spirit with which he approached all of life.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

Revered by generations as the greatest martial artist in popular culture, Lee is increasingly being recognized as the unheralded philosopher that he was, from his famous metaphor for resilience to his recently revealed unpublished writings on willpower, imagination, and confidence. But his most intently philosophical work was the personal credo statement he wrote in the final year of his life, at the age of thirty-one, as a series of letters to himself under the heading “In My Own Process.” The piece underwent nine drafts, never finished and never published, which I’m delighted to share for the first time with special permission from Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, and the Bruce Lee Foundation.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

The timing of “In My Own Process” is also significant, for Lee began writing it at a pivotal point in his life. After years of being sidelined by the Hollywood studio system, which continued to cast Caucasian actors to play Asian lead characters, Lee finally got his big break and was cast as the lead in Enter the Dragon, the script for which he helped write. But when Warner Brothers pushed to cut out all the philosophy and turn the film into a mindless action movie, Lee refused to show up on set in protest — he firmly believed that the kung fu was merely the vehicle for the deeper philosophical message, rather than the philosophy being a distraction from the kung fu, as Warner Brothers implied.

Well aware that his principles could cost him the fulfillment of his lifelong dream, he stood his ground. After a two-week standstill, the studio relented and let Lee keep the philosophical elements, so production began.

Bruce Lee on set (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the midst of this busiest and most tumultuous period of his career, Lee made deliberate time for self-reflection in drafting his credo. It was in these letters to himself, written in his third language over the course of several months on a colorful variety of stationery, that he arrived at the concept of being an “artist of life.” In them, he examines with great simplicity and wisdom some of the most elemental questions of existence. Decades before the Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert made his memorable assertion that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Lee considers with acute self-awareness the mutability of what we experience as the “self.” Echoing the poet Laura Riding’s conviction that “nothing is really important but being oneself,” he maintains through the various revisions that all knowledge is self-knowledge — the seedbed of his oft-cited assertion that “the greatest help is self-help” — and that personal authenticity is the object of life and the only real measure of success.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 1 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the first draft, he writes:

Any attempt to write a somewhat meaningful article — or else why write it at all — on how I, Bruce Lee by name, emotionally feel or how my instinctive honest reaction toward circumstances is no easy task. Why? Because I am a changing as well as an ever-growing man. Thus what I held true a couple of months ago might not [be] the same now.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 2 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the second draft, after relaying the difficulty of conducting this self-examination in the midst of his grueling work schedule, he insists on the importance of personal authenticity above all else and considers the vital difference between what Hannah Arendt called being vs. appearing and Kahlil Gibran contrasted as the seeming self vs. the authentic self. Lee writes:

Of course, this writing can be made less demanding should I allow myself to indulge in the standard manipulating game of role playing, but my responsibility to myself disallows that… I do want to be honest, that is the least a human being can do… I have always been a martial artist by choice, an actor by profession, but above all, am actualizing myself someday to be an artist of life. Yes, there is a difference between self-actualization and self-image actualization.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 3 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the third draft, he considers our chronic fear of the unfamiliar in a sentiment of particular poignancy at this political moment:

Among people, a great majority don’t feel comfortable at all with the unknown — that is anything foreign that threatens their protected daily mould — so for the sake of their security, they construct chosen patterns to justify.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 4 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the fourth draft, Lee turns to the perpetual evolution of personhood, which renders the idea of static self-definition unnecessary and unhelpful:

I have come to accept life as a process, and am satisfied that in my ever-going process, I am constantly discovering, expanding, finding the cause of my ignorance, in martial art and especially in life. In short, to be real…

“In My Own Process,” Draft 5 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the fifth draft, the revisits the inherent paradox of the quest to define himself and his process:

I don’t believe in the manipulation game of creating a self image robot.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 6 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
“In My Own Process,” Draft 7 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the seventh draft, he echoes Walt Whitman’s incantation to “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,” and writes in a passage of especial relevance to our present epidemic of unquestioned “alternative facts”:

Surely we all admit that we are intelligent beings, though in reality we are being crammed with ready-made facts handed down to us ever since [childhood]. Some of us even went through college but something is the matter because … some of these facts are examined in the form of self-inquiry, but in most cases we accept most of these facts unexamined.


We possess a pair of eyes to help us to observe as well as to discover, yet most of us simply do not see in the true sense of the word. However, when it comes to observing faults in others, most of us are are quick to react with condemnation. But what about looking inwardly for a change? To personally examine who we really are and what we are, our merits as well as our faults — in short, to see oneself as [one] is for once and to take responsibility [for] oneself.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 8 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the penultimate draft, he turns from the intellectual dimension of self-knowledge to its emotional rewards:

I am happy because I am daily growing and honestly not knowing where the limit will yet lie. To be certain, every day can be a revelation or a new discovery. However, the most satisfaction is yet to come to hear another human being say, “Hey, here is something real.”

He touches on the deeper significance martial art held for him as a spiritual practice and not the merely the decorative performance Hollywood made it out to be:

By martial art I mean, like any art, an unrestricted expression of our individual soul… The human soul is what interests me. I live to express myself freely in creation.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

Lee’s reflection on what it means to be a great actor applies equally to every art, as well as to the art of life itself:

An actor, a good actor that is, not the shallow stereotyped artist, is an ever-growing process of learning, expansion and constant discoveries… To be of quality in acting means … lots of painful hard work and lots of undivided dedication to practicing what one believes.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 9 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the ninth and last draft — which is still a draft, for his untimely death intercepted the completion of the piece — Lee reassembles the mosaic of the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional dimensions of selfhood, and returns to his central ethos of personal authenticity:

Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that, dedicating their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being, a sort of “being” vs. having — that is, we do not “have” mind, we are simply mind. We are what we are.

Complement with Lee on self-actualization and the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem and the philosophy and origin of his famous water metaphor, then hear Shannon Lee discuss her father’s work on “In My Own Process” with cohost Sharon Lee in this episode of the excellent Bruce Lee Podcast:


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.


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