Clara Schumann’s surprising role in the career of Johannes Brahms

Volume 120, No. 3March, 2020

Styra Avins

By Styra Avins

Clara Schumann just celebrated her 200th birthday! Most people know her as the wife and muse of Robert Schumann, as one of the very great pianists of the 19th century, and the center of the emotion-ridden triangle comprising herself, her husband, and the unusually talented and unknown young composer who burst in on their lives on Oct. 1, 1853. There is more to her than that. She was a fine composer, whose songs and instrumental music are now at last getting the attention they deserve, and she played a central role in setting the format of the solo artist concert program that we enjoy today.

What this story is about, however, is something else: the role she played in fostering Johannes Brahms’s musical career when it seemed threatened to founder, after the traumatic events following Schumann’s attempt at suicide and Brahms’s own emotional turmoil as he fell in love with her at the same time as reverencing her husband.

Even the scantiest biographical sketch of Brahms’s life mentions the essay Robert Schumann wrote for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, shortly after the 20-year old crossed the Schumann threshold. “Neue Bahnen” announced in rather grandiose language: “He is come, a young blood by whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. He is called Johannes Brahms…like Minerva, fully armed from the head of Jove.”

Thrust abruptly into the spotlight, feted shortly afterwards in Leipzig when the leading music publishing house published his first four opuses forthwith, there is no doubt that Schumann’s actions jump-started Brahms’s career in a spectacular way.

Robert Schumann took yet another action perhaps even more important for Brahms in the long run: he wrote a letter to the young man’s parents assuring them of their son’s great talent, and enclosed a copy of “Neue Bahnen.”

But such opulent praise has its price. It is the very rare Nobel laureate who goes on to do other great work having once received the prize: how does one follow it? Not only will colleagues judge, the laureate is aware that nothing in the future is likely to come up to the work that won the prize. Brahms was not unaware of his situation. Shortly after he wrote to Schumann anxiously,

“.…The praise that you openly bestowed upon me will arouse such extraordinary expectations of my achievements by the public that I don’t know how I can begin to fulfill them even somewhat. Above all else it induces in me the greatest caution in the choice of which pieces to publish.”

Nevertheless, life was good; by Christmas, Brahms’s first four opuses were in print, and he joyously returned home to his parents for the holidays. He soon began work on his Op. 8 trio, a glorious if extravagant work in its first version.

All that would soon change. Robert’s suicide attempt in February and his evident mental illness were unalloyed disasters. The Schumann household which had seemed such a haven to Brahms was now in turmoil and despair. Clara was devastated and pregnant. Brahms’s reaction was to gather with friends and try every way he knew to help Clara. There was some energy left for composing; he did manage to finish the Trio, the Op. 9 Variations by Him on a Theme by Her, as he called it for a time, and the Ballades, Op. 10. But after that he struggled. For all intents and purposes his creative life had stalled. He experimented with fugues, some of the works we now know as WoOs (Works Without Opus). A few other works were eventually published, but primarily he was in battle with the two-piano sonata/symphony/piano concerto which would only emerge as his Piano Concerto Op. 15 several years later. At one point he even wrote to Clara that “he was written out.” He kept his feet on the ground, so to speak, by essentially becoming a part of the Schumann household (although he did not live with them, contrary to many accounts) — helping to run it when Clara was away, including teaching the younger children to read, cataloguing everything in Robert’s library (many years later Clara told one of her daughters that Brahms knew every piece of paper in the Schumann library), studying all the scores there, studying early music, reading all leading important music treatises and teaching himself counterpoint, eventually in an exchange of exercises with his closest musical friend, Joseph Joachim. In 1854 Clara had even agreed, most exceptionally, to address him in the familiar “Du” form, the only man outside of her family to gain that privilege. There’s no doubt her attention gave Brahms a sense of purpose in a time otherwise of great emotional turmoil. In this regard, however, Clara’s help was incidental: she needed him as much as he needed her. This is the period which has attracted popular attention, but her most important help was something else. It was practical, directly related to his activities as a working musician. In the long run, it was at least as important for the future of Brahms’s career as Robert’s canon blast, and possibly more so.

Of immediate concern for Brahms was money. He had been trained for a career as a virtuoso pianist, but resisted giving concerts, much to the distress of his parents. So in 1855, in the course of one of her tours, Clara stopped off in Hamburg and spent a day and night at the Brahms family home. During that visit, she came to an understanding with his parents: she agreed to help him resurrect his career as a pianist, and the parents agreed to cease sending reproachful letters about the time he was “wasting” composing music. “I have resolved to play more often this winter,” he was soon writing to one of the Hamburg conductors, while confessing “it costs me some effort to overcome my trepidation…”

During the next months, he performed in Danzig, Bremen, Hamburg, Leipzig, Kiel, Altona, Göttingen, and Cologne, sometimes in concerts Clara had arranged. By Christmas he could send money home for the Christmas goose, and later 50 Thaler for his father’s 50th birthday.

Clara also encouraged him and kept up his morale, buying him books he longed for (Plutarch’s “Lives,” for example).

In addition she encouraged him to teach, as she did throughout her life. She sent him some of her own students, notably Fräulein Laura von Meysenbug, sister of the Hofmarschall at the Court of Lippe-Detmold, a tiny duchy between Hanover and Dortmund. It was a connection that would soon prove extremely important, as it led to Brahms’s first real job. For three months of the year for the next three years (1857-1859), he was contracted to give piano lessons to the Princess Frederike, play at court for the Prince, and conduct the amateur Choral Society. The salary for three months provided him with sufficient funds for the rest of the year, particularly since, now back in Detmold, Laura von Meysenbug continued as his student and a considerable number of other women in Detmold followed suit.

In 1858, Clara attended the trial run of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. A letter to her half-brother, Woldemar Bargiel, exudes satisfaction: “I think you must be pleased to hear that the rehearsal came off splendidly…The whole thing is wondrous, rich, deeply felt, and such unity withal. Johannes was blissful…I wish you could have seen his blessed happiness…”

By the time Brahms left Detmold, his creative powers had returned. Ready for publication were the two Serenades, the Four Songs for Women, Harp and Horns, the First Piano Concerto Op. 15, Ave Maria Op. 12, Psalm 13 Op. 27, the Begräbnisgesang Op. 12, Songs and Romances Op. 14, the First String Sextet, Five Songs for Soprano and Piano Op. 19,and Three Duets for Soprano and Alto Op. 20. Six of them were accepted for print that year.

Clara was clearly pleased she had done her job.

But had she? Writing music is only the beginning, after all; publishing and getting performances also count. Here too Clara was of enormous help.

Let’s step back in time and look at the public music scene in Europe during the time Brahms grew up and first came to the notice of the Schumanns.

There was no music industry as we know it, no concert agents, almost no artist concert series. Most concerts were “benefit concerts” arranged by the concert giver, rather than recitals. They took place in private places, often in the salons of the wealthy (see illustration below). Such concerts included assisting artists of more or less fame, and a program of miscellaneous items: the usual constellation included a vocal element, solo piano operatic paraphrases à la Liszt, Thalberg, or Henri Herz (1803-1888), what we call salon music. There might be one serious sonata or duet. Clara performed in such concerts, as did Brahms at his first concerts from his 14th year (but recall his Bach Fugue at 15 years, the first concert of his own). Franz Liszt was the first superstar to dare to program a Beethoven sonata, and under the influence of her husband Robert, Clara herself programmed works of Scarlatti, Mendelssohn (after his death on every one of her concerts), Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven, even on programs with assisting artists, and even when it was still considered a dubious, courageous, or foolish practice. Brahms didn’t need to be convinced to follow suit. Clara’s point of view must surely have reinforced his inclinations and after 1853, the date of his meeting with the Schumanns, he never programmed salon music again.

Clara knew how to arrange her concert tours. Early in life her father had required her help in arranging her tours otherwise organized by him. That meant writing letters, making travel arrangements, finding and renting performance spaces, deciding on programs and printing them, as well as printing and distributing tickets. At age 19, as Clara Wieck, now Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso, she organized an extensive tour to Paris not only without her father’s aid but without his blessing, and with vituperative endeavors to malign her and cause the tour to fail. A few months later she returned home from that tour having made her name in Paris. Brahms observed her many times as she made such arrangements, and learned from her.

Clara also taught him how to invest money, and coached him in the necessity and art of letter writing, an essential tool of the time.

The key to success in a musical career was not first prize in a competition, or a MacArthur Genius award, but contacts with aristocrats, influential people and potential patrons. Brahms was remarkably lacking. He grew up in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, an independent republic and proud of it. There was no aristocracy. There was commerce — Hamburg was the largest port in German lands, and one of the largest commercial ports anywhere. It was Lutheran, utilitarian, given to hard work, plain facades, and plain speaking. It had no nobility to patronize the arts, no powerful clerical presence which required a steady supply of music and musicians. Instead, it had a large burgher class, people who were used to the idea of making money. True, there was music — a Singing Society and the Philharmonic Orchestra (a pick-up orchestra without a set roster of musicians). Without patronage to keep these groups solvent, they became above all vehicles for the presentation of commercially appealing visiting virtuosi: Franz Liszt, Clara Wieck Schumann, Jenny Lind, Joseph Joachim.

The development of public music performance (as opposed to private performance in aristocratic venues) had been stimulated by the rise of the middle class in London, Paris, and then Vienna, for whom music was an acceptable method of upward mobility. A fluid boundary developed between the aristocracy and wealthy middle class, where personal contacts were the sine qua non of a thriving solo concert career, usually meaning, people of wealth, friends and patrons with large salons. Brahms had no such contacts, but Clara had all the contacts one could wish for, and she used them for him. Since her teen years she had been introduced to leading artists — Goethe, Cherubini, Dumas, Heine. Now she was in contact with the Princess Anna von Hesse, a Prussian princess well known for her musical interests. Clara arranged for Brahms to dedicate his Piano Quintet to the Princess in return for which the princess gave him the autograph of Mozart’s G Minor Symphony #40, a document he cherished for the remainder of his life. Clara led him to wealthy students such as Laura von Meysenbug from Detmold, Julie von Asten, and Clara Wittgenstein in Vienna. When Brahms made his first trip to Vienna he came armed with introductions by Clara to the Wittgensteins and the von Asten families, who in turn led him to the most influential musical figures in Vienna. Within six weeks of arrival, Brahms had, with a splash, made a name for himself.

Many of Brahms’s most important and enduring friendships were struck up in Clara’s home. He met composer and conductor Ferdinand Hiller through Clara, and Julius Stockhausen through Hiller — both musicians became important colleagues of Brahms. Hiller, conductor of the Gurzenich Orchestra in Cologne, was the first to program the D Major Serenade outside of Brahms circle, the composition brought to his attention by Clara, who carried the music with her when she was invited to concertize in Cologne. Brahms’s professional relationship with Hiller would persist for decades. Stockhausen, the pioneering singer and teacher of Lieder, quickly became one of Brahms’s major recital partners and remained a life-long colleague. Brahms’s friendship with Hermann Levi was initiated by Clara, who had met the young conductor and pianist in Baden-Baden when he had just arrived in Karlsruhe to take up his position as First Kapellmeister of the Court Orchestra. She immediately introduced them to each other. Although later broken off by Brahms, his friendship with Levi was one of the most fruitful and important of his life. Pauline Garcià Viardot was another connection made through Clara — her fashionable home in Baden-Baden was open to him during all the summers he was resident there, and she sang the premiere of the Alto Rhapsody.

Approaches to publishers on Brahms’s behalf are yet another aspect of Clara’s direct aid. Breitkopf & Härtel published the Piano Trio Op. 8 at her urging, which they did with some hesitation. Convincing N. Simrock to publish the Op. 17 Four Songs for Women’s Chorus, 2 Horns and Harp was harder work, but she accomplished that as well.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of her work on Brahms’s behalf is the history of his arrangement of a Gavotte by Gluck, written in 1868 for Clara to use. Published in 1871, Clara acted as Brahms’s agent in negotiations with the publisher Bartholf Senff in Leipzig. While on tour in England, she then sold the English publication rights to Novello, sent the contract to Brahms in English, and told him where and how to sign it. Played in more than 40 of her concerts, it was republished in numerous other editions, and became one of Brahms’ most popular pieces during his lifetime thanks to Clara’s many elegant performances of it.

Missing in this account is the advice and moral support Brahms asked of Clara when he sent so many of his compositions to her before publication: the focus here is rather the practical life of a composer, which Clara helped him develop. But with the increased interest in Clara Schumann as composer, there are now considerable discussions about the high quality and skill of her own compositions, revealing why Brahms had so much faith in her judgment.

One more example of Clara’s aid to Brahms remains: the large number of his works she premiered. They were eighteen in all, including one of his most pianistically demanding, the Handel Variations Op. 24. Her efforts began in 1854 with two movements of his third Piano Sonata and continued until 1888, when she gave the first performance of his third Violin/Piano Sonata Op. 108. The list includes the famous Lullaby, the Liebeslieder Waltzes (with Brahms playing the other piano part), the Op. 39 Waltzes, the two-piano version of the Piano Quintet Op. 34b, and all four books of his Hungarian Dances. It was she who introduced Brahms’s music to Vienna in 1856. The list is stunning witness of Clara’s determination and unique ability to promote the “other” genius in her life.

There is a well-worn saying: “Behind every great man there stands a woman.” In the case of Brahms, however, the woman stood not behind him, but steadfastly at his side, and sometimes well in front of him.

Styra Avins has been a member of Local 802 since 1961. She is the author of “Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters” (Oxford University Press, 1997/2001) as well as many articles and book chapters concerning Brahms’s life, his correspondence with members of his circle, and the performance of his music. She wrote the entry for Brahms in the “Oxford Companion to Music.” As a cellist, she has played with the Seoul Symphony, the American Symphony, the New York City Opera Orchestra, the Queens Symphony, and many chamber groups. E-mail her at