This tender and beautiful poem, about the deep though troubled relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, was written by Lisel Mueller (a German-born American poet).
On October 1st, 1853, 20 year old Johannes Brahms knocked on the door of Robert and Clara Schumann’s home in Düsseldorf. Schumann was one of the first composers of the Romantic period in music. Clara, as well as being herself a composer, was one of the finest concert pianists of her day. Brahms was at the very beginning of his own journey to musical greatness. Robert and Clara at once recognised his musical potential, and welcomed him into their home.
In 1854, Schumann’s precarious mental health led him to throw himself into the river Rhine. He was admitted to an asylum near Bonn. Brahms stayed with Clara to offer support. Schumann, still in care, died in 1856. The time had come for the growing love between Brahms and Clara to be acknowledged and addressed. They went on vacation to Switzerland, and it was there that it was decided there would be no marriage.
Brahms had a lifelong problem with relationships with women. His father had forced him to earn money by playing piano in Hamburg brothels. His biographer, Jan Swafford tells us that, “between dances the women would sit the pre-pubescent teenager on their laps and pour beer into him, and pull down his pants and hand him around to be played with, to general hilarity. He said later in life that “he saw things and received impressions which left a deep shadow on his mind.” He also said to a friend, “You tell me that I should have the same respect, the same exalted homage for women that you have! You expect that of a man cursed with a childhood like mine!” To quote Stafford again, “he had difficulty sleeping with women he loved, and had difficulty loving women he slept with.” His sexual needs were met by prostitutes. They could never have been met in marriage to Clara.
For Clara, Robert Schumann had been the love of her life. She had to fight for years with her father, eventually in a court of law, to be allowed to marry him. She adored his music, and she adored him. Loving and marrying any other man must have seemed like a betrayal of his love and loyalty, and of the huge price both had paid in order to be together. When she was finally allowed to visit him in the asylum she later wrote that, “He smiled at me and put his arms around me with great difficulty, for he had almost lost control of his limbs. Never shall I forget that moment. I would not give up that embrace for all the treasures on earth.” He later died in Clara’s arms.
Even from a practical point of view, how could these two have married? Clara had eight children to look after, but earned her living by travelling far and wide as a concert pianist, away from her children for extended periods of time. Brahms was struggling with much difficulty to find his musical way, under the shadow of the great Beethoven, and the scorn of adherents of the ‘music of the future’ of Wagner and Liszt. How could these two demanding careers possibly have been sustained in unison? The composer Gustav Mahler’s ‘solution’ had been to demand that his wife, also a pianist and composer, surrender that and support him. She was on the point of leaving him for another man at the time of his death.
What matters most, is that Brahms and Clara, though they sometimes wounded each other, continued to love each other, to write, visit, encourage and support each other, throughout their lives. Swafford describes their last meeting in 1895, at Clara’s home in Frankfurt. One of Clara’s family “heard the sound of the piano from the music room .. when the music stopped, Eugenie went into the room and found her mother at her writing table, her cheeks flushed and eyes shining, and Brahms sitting opposite her with tears in his eyes. Gently he said to Eugenie, your mother has been playing beautifully for me.” They never saw each other again. Clara died in May, 1896, and Brahms eleven months later.
It’s good to think about their love at its very best, and that is surely captured in Lisel Mueller’s tender and beautiful poem. In it she mentions Brahms’ intermezzos, and this is the one in Eb major, op. 117, which is pervaded by Schumann’s ‘Clara theme’, and which gives matchless expression to their undying love for one another.