Monday 20 May 2019

The Schumanns, Brahms and a love triangle

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Romantic overtures: Clara Schuman
Romantic overtures: Clara Schuman

George Hamilton

One of the enduring mysteries in music concerns the precise nature of the relationship of two of the greats of the Romantic era, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

Robert and Clara Schumann were the golden couple of the age.

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They were living in Düsseldorf, where Robert was the municipal director of music, when Johannes Brahms turned up at their door. He was small, blond, fresh-faced and just 20. He came with a recommendation.

His roommate was Joseph Joachim, a violinist only a couple of years older with a soaring reputation.

Schumann knew all about him. He'd brought him to Düsseldorf to headline a festival.

Brahms was an unknown, but Joachim rated him highly. He was a masterful pianist, his talent honed in the unlikeliest of circumstances, as a teenager providing the entertainment in bars and dives in his home city of Hamburg.

The Schumanns sat him down at their piano to hear what he had to offer. He played some of his original material, and they loved it.

Robert, a critic as well as a composer, wrote a glowing tribute. Clara's entry in her diary that day simply said Brahms seemed as if he had been sent straight from God.

It wouldn't be long before the young musician would find himself at the very centre of the Schumann household.

Robert, whose mental health was fragile, was dismissed from his post. He was still able to function, but was hallucinating, too.

In late February 1854, on a cold and wet day, he left the house wearing only a dressing gown and slippers, and went down to the River Rhine, intent on drowning himself. But fishermen came to his rescue and from there, it was straight to a psychiatric institution.

The young Brahms moved into the Schumann house to be of whatever assistance he could. Clara, almost 14 years his senior, had eight children to look after.

There has been no suggestion of any impropriety - his room was on a different floor from hers - but they became close.

Robert died in the hospital two-and-a-half years later. Brahms, by then, was smitten. Straight away, he and Clara took a break in Switzerland. It seemed they might make plans to marry. Instead, they agreed to go their separate ways.

Brahms left Switzerland by train, alone, bound for Hamburg, while Clara returned to Düsseldorf. The pair would remain close, meeting up on occasion and going on holiday together. But they never married.

Clara died in Frankfurt in May, 1896, aged 76. Brahms, now based in Vienna, was at his summer retreat near Salzburg. The telegram telling him of Clara's passing reached him late. He set off on the 600km journey by train, only to fall asleep and miss his stop.

As if that wasn't bad enough, he learned on arrival that though the funeral service had been in Frankfurt, Clara was to be buried 200km further on, alongside Robert, in Bonn.

Brahms made it to the cemetery just in time to meet the procession on its way to the grave.

He was heartbroken.

"Today," he told friends, "I've buried the only person I truly loved."

Brahms was ill himself by now, suffering most likely from pancreatic cancer. Less than a year later, he too was gone, at the age of 63.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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