Part III: 1854 - 1896
CS: March 10, 1854: Dear Maestro Wasielewski, Oh, dearest friend, what are you inflicting upon me by not writing a word about my husband! My heart breaks when I have no idea of how Robert is living, what he is doing, if he still hears the voices, how he sleeps, what he does during the day, and whether or not he asks after me. Oh, my dear friend, don't do this to my heart, leaving me so completely without news. If you can't go yourself, pay someone, charging it to me, and have them go to ask. Respectfully, Clara Schumann.
JOHANNES BRAHMS (JB): April 1856: We sat down, it became increasingly painful for me, Schumann's eyes were moist, he spoke continuously, but I understood nothing . . . often he just blabbered, sort of bababa dadada. While questioning him at length, I understood the names Marie, Julie, Berlin, Vienna, England, not much more . . . Richard says that Schumann's brain is decidedly exhausted . . . he will remain at best in this significantly apathetic state; in one or two months only supportive care will probably be necessary.
Nar: During Robert Schumann's last years in an asylum, Johannes Brahms and other friends visited him there. Clara Schumann depended on their reports for knowledge of her husband's condition. For two years doctors kept her away.
Robert Schumann attempted suicide in 1854 by jumping into the River Rhine; he was rescued and begged to be taken to a hospital. His wife, Clara and his doctors decided on a private asylum in Endenich near Bonn. For the next two and a half years, this was his home.
Contact between Robert and Clara was limited to letters, though doctors sometimes withheld hers to Robert. They were worried the letters would overexcite him.
Clara never forced the issue of seeing her husband. Her own fear and inadequacy in the face of Robert's mental illness was overwhelming. She retreated to the security of the concert stage, touring at a feverish pace. In the spring of 1856, Clara realized a long-held dream to perform in England. A telegram arrived from Endenich--her husband was gravely ill.
Johannes Brahms accompanied Clara to Endenich. Twice Clara tried to see Robert and twice, the doctors refused. Only when they recognized that Schumann would not survive much longer did they allow her into his room.
CS: July 27, 1856: He smiled at me and embraced me with great effort, because he could no longer control his limbs. Never will I forget it. For all the world's treasures, I wouldn't exchange this embrace. My Robert, that's how we have to meet again. With what effort I had to search for your beloved expressions. What a picture of pain.
Nar: For weeks Robert had had nothing but wine and jelly.
CS: Today I gave it to him -- and he took it with the happiest expression and in haste, licking the wine from my fingers -- ah, he knew that it was I.
Nar: Two days later, Robert Schumann died.
CS: His head was beautiful in death, the forehead so transparent and gently rounded. I stood at the body of my dearly beloved husband and was calm; all my feelings were of thankfulness to God that he was finally free, and as I knelt at his bed, I had such a holy feeling. It was as if his magnificent spirit hovered above me, oh -- if he had only taken me with him!
Nar: Clara preserved her husband's spirit in a set of variations she wrote on a theme he had composed.
Clara Schumann's Variations on a theme by her husband, Robert, one of the last pieces she ever wrote; she gave them to him for his birthday -- the final birthday they would spend together.
Clara was 36 when Robert died-- offers of help poured in for her and her children. Clara refused them all, including a proposed benefit concert, saying,
CS: I will never allow anyone to give a concert for me. That I will do for myself when it is necessary.
Nar: It was necessary, financially and emotionally. Clara escaped from worry and grief through her concerts. She also felt the need to reclaim her place of prominence in Europe among such luminaries as Liszt and Thalberg -- prominence she felt she had lost because of her responsibilities as mother and wife.
By taking over many of the household duties, the 23-year-old Johannes Brahms made Clara's touring possible. He assisted the servants in taking care of the children, kept track of the family finances and taught some of Clara's piano students. Brahms did this out of loyalty and friendship; to support himself he found some students of his own, and borrowed money from friends.
Brahms had long admired Clara's artistry, but his feelings went deeper than that. While Robert Schumann was still in the asylum, Brahms confessed in a letter,
JB: June 1854: I often have to restrain myself forcibly from just quietly putting my arms around her and even -- :I don't know, it seems to me so natural that she could not misunderstand. I think I can no longer love an unmarried girl -- at least, I have quite forgotten about them; they only promise heaven, while Clara shows it revealed to us.
Jan 25, 1855: Most Honored Lady, 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?
June, 1855: My dearly Beloved Clara, I can no longer exist without you . . . please go on loving me as I shall go on loving you, always and forever.
Nar: We don't know what Clara's responses were to these letters, since all her early letters to Brahms were later destroyed. But she did confide in her diary . . .
CS: There is the most complete accord between us. It is not his youth that attracts me: not, perhaps, my own flattered vanity. No, it is the fresh mind, the gloriously gifted nature, the noble heart, that I love in him.
Nar: Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms were aware that their relationship provoked gossip. They were both concerned about the confidentiality of their correspondence; Brahms wanted Clara to mark the packets of his letters as their property only. Yet Clara felt the need to explain her friendship with Brahms to her children.
CS: Like a true friend, he came to share all my grief; he strengthened the heart that threatened to break, he uplifted my spirits; brightened my soul any way he could. He was, in short, my friend in the fullest sense of the word.
Nar: Brahms and Clara loved each other deeply, but no one knows if their relationship was consummated. There is no evidence that it was. It might have been the age difference; Clara was 14 years older than Brahms; or that they both treasured the memory of Robert Schumann so much that their honor held them back.
But Clara had at least one physically intimate relationship after Robert's death -- with one of his former pupils, closer to her age than Brahms: the composer Theodore Kirchner. It was a short and discreet affair. Yet Brahms was the most important man in her life for the next 40 years.
Her daughter Eugenie recalled,
EUGENIE SCHUMANN (ES): Mama once asked me if I could at all realize what it meant to have had a friend who stimulated all your noblest and most artistic qualities, who in daily and hourly intercourse lavished pearls and jewels upon you; if I did not think it natural that she felt she could not go on living, deprived of such gifts. She said she could never have borne her sorrows without the efforts of friends like Brahms.
It was Brahms whose genius lent mama wings to soar.
Nar: Robert Schumann had brought the two of them together, and his illness pulled them closer. Once he died, they found they needed to be apart to work out their own destinies. A year after Schumann's death, Johannes Brahms moved away from Dusseldorf to Detmold. Clara moved to Berlin, where Brahms paid her a brief visit.
CS: October 6, 1857: When Johannes left me in the morning, my heart bled. . .
JB: October 11, 1857: My dear Clara, you really must try hard to keep your melancholy within bounds and see that it does not last too long. Life is precious and such moods as the one you are in consume us body and soul. Do not imagine that life has little more in store for you . .. you must seriously try to alter, my dearest Clara . . . Passions are not natural to mankind, they are always exceptions. The man in whom they overstep the limits should regard himself as an invalid and seek a medicine for his life and for his health. The ideal and the genuine man is calm both in his joy and in his sorrow.
Nar: Clara Schumann found Brahms' answer cold, and it would not be the last time he inadvertently hurt her feelings. There were a number of misunderstandings.
Eugenie Schumann explained:
ES: The cause of their differences lay in Brahms' uncompromising manner and my mother's extreme sensitivity, which would sometimes see things out of proportion. She had had love lavished upon her all her life, and her soft, affectionate heart could not bear unkind words or blunt manners from those she loved.
Nar: Throughout their friendship, there were rifts. Clara received this letter from Brahms on her 73rd birthday:
JB: September 1892 In my dealings with my friends I am aware of only one fault -- my lack of tact. For years now you have been kind enough to treat this leniently. If only you could have done so for a few years more! After 40 years of faithful service, or whatever you care to call my relationship with you, it is very hard to be merely 'another unhappy experience'; But after all, this can be borne. I am accustomed to loneliness and will need to be with the prospect of this great blank before me. But let me repeat to you today that you and your husband constitute the most beautiful experience of my life, and represent all that is richest and most noble in it.
Nar: They reconciled, as they did each time.
Their letters to each other covered all aspects of life: finances, family, career and their music. Brahms sent many scores for Clara Schumann to look over. She played them through and gave her opinion.
CS: After the first delicate enchanting movement of your first sonata for violin and piano, and then the second, you can imagine my delight when, in the third movement, I found my beloved melody again . .. I say MINE because I don't believe there is another person who can experience this melody as both blissful and melancholy as I do -- the deepest and most tender strings of the soul vibrate to such music.
JB: The thought of my violin sonata proceeding gently and dreamily under your fingers is so beautiful. By rights, I should have to inscribe all my best melodies, 'Really by Clara Schumann.'
Nar: Clara Schumann felt that Brahms was writing his music for her, just as she thought Robert had done.
Brahms had moved to Detmold and Clara to Berlin, where she hoped her children would be taken care of by relatives living close by. Clara's concert schedule was heavier than ever. She was away from home for long periods. She relied on her eldest daughter Marie who traveled with her. Marie's younger sister Eugenie wrote
ES: Marie had not quite an easy time as I had. A thousand little duties fell to her share on concert days. She helped my mother to dress, adorned her smooth silky hair with black lace, and charming velvet flowers, and stayed with her to the last moment.
Nar: Marie had responsibilities at home as well.
ES: Marie managed the whole household; she superintended kitchen and storeroom which was no easy matter, considering the number of people in the house and the constant coming and going of visitors. Besides this, she had the care of us little ones, our health, our clothes; all this rested on her young shoulders. The lighter domestic work was done by my sisters.
Nar: For much of their youth, the children were scattered. Clara Schumann directed their lives by letter, sending endless instructions to servants, governesses, music teachers and to the children themselves. Feeling it was her duty to support the family, Clara's focus was on her career. But this meant she was absent for birthdays, confirmations, holidays.
CS: December 22 1860: My dear little ones, On Christmas Eve when you are very happy, think of your Mama, who would so love to be with you. To show you that I too am thinking of you, I am sending you these beautiful books, which you may read on Sundays if you have been very industrious during the week. But you must on no account spoil them or let them get dirty; I should be very, very cross if you did; they must always be kept nice.
Are you doing your music really industriously? Do you practice every day? By yourselves, without help?
Now fare ever so well; remember your mother very often, and be happy on Christmas Eve, and be good to dear Aunt Storch and Aunt Elisabeth. I kiss you in all motherly love and tenderness. Your mother, Clara.
Nar: Clara's greatest worry was her son Ludwig. From adolescence on he showed signs of mental illness. He was a kind and loving person, but he had not been able to hold a job. At age 20, he decided he wanted to become a musician. Clara made a desperate attempt to teach him.
CS: I teach him for two hours every day and he is very zealous, but he has neither an ear nor rhythmic feeling...his composing is simply dreadful...yet he exerts himself to such an extent that I am always in such a state of anxiety.
Nar: While on tour in England, Clara learned that Ludwig had an incurable illness that affected his brain.
CS: June 1870 I have not felt such pains since the misfortune with Robert...The nights were often dreadful; for hours I would see the poor boy before me, looking at me with his good, honest eyes, which I never could resist.
Nar: She had Ludwig committed to an asylum when he was 22. Clara visited him for the first time four years later, in 1875.
CS: He was extraordinarily happy to see me, embraced me convulsively and begged me to take him away with me, since he was quite well. What torment to have to tell him it was not possible...it was all too horrible for me...his imploring look as I left - I will never forget it.
Nar: She went back a year later after receiving a plea from Ludwig to be released from the hospital. Clara visited him but determined that he should stay where he was. She never saw him again. He died in the institution 23 years later.
Clara Schumann outlived four of her eight children. Her first son, Emil died at 16 months of a glandular disorder. Daughter Julie died of tuberculosis, pregnant with her third child, in 1872. Clara heard of the death while in Paris. She was scheduled to perform in Heidelberg the next day. She did not cancel the concert, and was surprised at herself.
CS: November 12, 1872: I am calm, since the first day I saw the dear child again in Baden. I was convinced she would not live much longer. Our first embrace was like a blow to my poor heart; the worry did not leave me for an instant. And that may well count, alas, for my calmness now.
Nar: Felix Schumann was Clara's youngest and most talented child. He was deeply affected by his brother Ludwig's illness. Soon after Ludwig went to the mental hospital, Felix wanted to come home for a while.
FELIX SCHUMANN (FS): June 20 1870: I've been a great expense to you this year, and to have irritated you so much with my last letter that I can only ask in fear and trembling whether you are willing to come home for the holidays, I am afraid you will say he does not deserve it; but please let me hear soon, so that I can get over the shock. I've been looking forward so long for the coming weeks; when I was depressed I thought of him, and mind and heart, those heavy dull things, felt refreshed.
CS: June 22 1870 My dear Lix, I received your letter yesterday together with Ferdinand's which was a great shock to us. Poor Ludwig's fate is terrible; I can find no words for grief such as this -- it tears my heart. I could not bear it at all, if I did not feel that I owe it to you to pull myself together. If God would only take the poor boy to Himself! Oh my dear boy! Never give me trouble! My dearest hopes are centered in you and I am sure you will become a useful member of human society if you fight against the faults which prevent you from doing your duty, especially your obstinacy. You know how much we too are looking forward to your holidays, and thank God I can afford to let you come; but it must be third class, dear boy! Take a cushion or a blanket with you...
Nar: Felix had inherited his parents' musical talent, but his mother discouraged him from making it a career. For a while he studied law, but enjoyed it as little as his father had. Poor health made the effort more difficult. Felix wrote poetry; his mother sent some examples to Johannes Brahms who used three of his poems as song texts.
Felix Schumann's health declined rapidly, and in 1878 he came home.
Clara wrote to Brahms,
CS: February 14, 1879: Felix is visibly weaker very day . . . I see him only for a few minutes at a time because it excites him too much, but my heart bleeds when I see him and no matter what I am doing, whatever it is, the poor sufferer is always before my eyes so that I must summon up all my strength to keep from being overcome by the pain . . It was extraordinary to me that I was able to play with such freedom and strength at the concerts that I gave while I was so unhappy that I could not forget my sorrow for a moment.
Nar: Felix died in his sister Marie's arms.
CS: Marie, the loving one, always sacrificing herself, wanted to spare me this hour . . .so I saw him in the morning, a corpse, and oh, I must confess I felt a release for which I had to thank heaven.
Nar: Felix's older brother Ferdinand, Clara's last surviving son, died eleven years later. He had served in the Franco-Prussian war, where he developed such painful rheumatism that he was treated with morphine. He became addicted and unable to support his family. Clara took over financial responsibility for three of his six children. Ferdinand died from the effects of his addiction. Marie attended to the funeral arrangements. A day after the funeral, Clara was teaching again.
It was Marie, it was always Marie, who acted as her mother's surrogate to the family. Her life was devoted to her mother. She never married. Neither did Eugenie. Both sisters lived with Clara and supported themselves as piano teachers. Clara's second daughter, Elise, was her most independent child. She married a businessman, and for while they lived in the United States. She decided against a career in music because the pressure was too great.
Marie and Eugenie's devotion to their mother meant that Clara could continue to tour. In 1878, concerts were arranged at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig to celebrate the 50th jubilee of her performing career. It was an unforgettable occasion. The Gewandhaus was decorated with green and gold wreaths and garlands of oak leaves. The audience rained flowers on her as Clara moved onto the stage. The program comprised only Robert Schumann's music, including his piano concerto which Clara performed.
Clara's jubilee performance of her husband's piano concerto was a magnificent success.
Clara was often in acute physical pain as she performed. She had long had trouble with rheumatism, for which opium was prescribed. She went to spas, tried water treatments, massage, rest cures, electric shock and animal baths. An animal bath required the patient to insert the injured limb in a cavity of freshly killed animal.
Her last public concert was in March 1891. Clara Schumann was 72 years old. Her audiences always remembered the elegance of her playing; critics admired the sincerity and clarity of her approach, her singing tone and her virtuosic technique. In her retirement she remained immersed in music, teaching, playing and editing her husband Robert's compositions.
In March 1896, Clara Schumann suffered a stroke. Her beloved friend Johannes Brahms canceled plans for an Italian vacation to wait for news of her improvement. Deep down he must have feared there would be no improvement: he composed some meditations on death, calling them Four Last Songs. And he wrote to a mutual friend,
JB: I often thought Frau Schumann might survive all her children, and me, but I have never wished that she might do so. The thought of losing her cannot frighten us any more, not even me who am so lonely and to whom so little is left in the world. And when she has left us, will not our faces light up with joy at the thought of the splendid woman whom it has been our privilege and delight to love and admire throughout her long life? Only thus let us grieve for her.
Nar: Clara Schumann did not rally. On her deathbed, she asked her grandson Ferdinand to play her husband's F-sharp major romance for her.
That was the last music Clara Schumann heard. She died May 20, 1896. Brahms attended the funeral. He died eleven months later.
ES: No one on whom the sun of my mother's eyes has shone, who has been wrapped in the warmth of her heart, has lived a life in shadow, but feels deep gratitude toward providence which revealed itself in divine mother love, thereby implanting in us a belief in love immortal and eternal.