Brahms and the Schumanns: The story behind the classical love triangle


12 February 2022
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By Ellie Palmer
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Robert (1810-1856) and Clara Schumann (1819-1896) were a powerful, much loved musical pair during their lifetimes. Both had separate success as composers and pianists, whilst also having a hand in popularising each other's works. And then, along came Johannes Brahms (1833-1897); a fellow composer that the pair befriended in the 1850s. What started out as a simple friendship between the three soon turned rather complicated.

Clara and Robert

Clara Schumann (left) with husband Robert. ©Famous Composers and their Works published in 1906

 

The pair met in Germany, and got engaged in 1837 once Clara had turned 18. Clara's father had actually turned down Robert's request to take his daughter's hand in marriage, and so the pair went through the courts to sue him.

The judge eventually allowed the marriage, and the pair made it official three years later. They had eight children together: Marie, Elise, Julie, Emil, Ludwig, Ferdinand, Eugenie, and Felix. Four of them sadly predeceased Clara.

 

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Enter Brahms

Johannes Brahms at 20 years old, 1853. ©Wikimedia Commons

 

Around 1853, Robert sent Brahms a letter of introduction. Brahms was delighted, and entertained the Schumanns at their home with a performance of some of his own compositions. The pair were deeply impressed and formed a friendship with him immediately.

Johannes Brahms was very much loved by both Robert and Clara. The three of them had a great friendship together and Clara often premiered works written by both of them, thus aiding each other's careers in the process.

Robert had a mental collapse in 1854 and gradually started deteriorating. It was an incredibly distressing time for Clara, and so there were a few musicians who would regularly play for her and write pieces for her as a way to distract her from what was going on. One of these musicians was Brahms.

Himself and Clara grew ever closer during Robert's illness as Brahms became a reliable emotional support for her. He was equally a big support for Robert, visiting him regularly at the mental institution that he was being held in. Clara believed Brahms had been 'sent straight from God'.

 

 

Were Clara and Johannes ever anything more than just close friends?

Clara (left) and Johannes. ©Wikimedia Commons

 

Well...

As Jan Swafford describes in her book, 'Johannes Brahms: A Biography', Brahms had fallen helplessly in love with her. By this point, Brahms had moved into the family home of the Schumanns in order to aid Clara with the children and so on.  Living with her but sleeping in separate rooms – unable to act on his feelings – almost caused him to go out of his mind. He often wrote letters to her, with one exclaiming, "I can do nothing but think of you... What have you done to me? Can't you remove the spell you have cast over me?"

 

Jan Swafford's 'Johannes Brahms: A Biography' offers richly expanded perspectives on Brahms's life, including on his longstanding relationship with Clara Schumann

 

Did Clara feel the same?

If she did, she did a good job of keeping her feelings quiet as we don't see much evidence of them until after her husband Robert passed away in 1856.

 

Robert's death

It is widely believed that Brahms never physically acted on his feelings for his best friend's wife while he was still alive. Upon Robert's death, the pair were free to declare their passion if they so wanted to.

However, for one reason or another, Brahms decided to focus on his career. Clara was seemingly distraught – writing in her diary that "I felt as if I were returning from a funeral," on her way home from visiting him shortly after her husband's death. Brahms went on to travel and perform, and he had affairs with numerous women but never settled long-term with anyone else.

Clara, meanwhile, threw herself into performing and popularising Robert's compositions.

Whilst they never seemed to actually become a couple, the two did maintain a very close and affectionate relationship, growing even stronger in their love for each other whilst still pursuing other things in life. Clara championed many of Brahms's pieces. It appeared that he was a huge motivation for her as well; Clara's output had mostly dried up towards the end of the 1840s, but the introduction of Brahms into her life 5 years later led to her engaging in a flurry of composing, resulting in 16 pieces that year: a set of piano variations on an "Album Leaf" of her husband (his Op. 99 No. 4), eight "Romances" for piano solo and for violin and piano, and seven songs. 

Clara died of a stroke in 1896 and was buried next to her husband Robert. Brahms only lasted a further year before succumbing to a combination of jaundice and cancer.