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Clara and Robert Schumann....and Brahms?

Until fairly recently, the impact that Clara Schumann had on the artists and composers of the Romantic period had disappeared into the mists of history. Her legacy had been that of a gifted pianist of her time and the wife of Robert. In recent years, more attention has been paid to Clara and she is finally beginning to get the recognition she deserves, not only as a pianist but as a composer in her own right and for the championing of her contemporary musicians.

When Clara and Robert married in 1840, she was an internationally renowned piano soloist, chamber musician, and a composer in her own right. She was one of first pianists to perform her programs from memory and, as was the custom in the day, she always played at least one of her own compositions at each concert. Robert was a struggling composer with a very famous wife.

Instead of performing her own works at concerts, she now performed Robert's. She would also include the compositions of other contemporary composers such as Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms greatly contributing to their popularity. But she primarily focused on her husband's works. If they were piano works, she played them. If they were vocal works, she would play the piano part. If they were orchestral or instrumental, she would transcribe them for piano and play them.

She did this for several years until the burden of looking after their 7 children and Robert's mental illness severely restricted her concertizing. In 1854, Robert attempted suicide and was committed to a mental asylum where he remained until his death in 1856.

A few months before his hospitalization, Robert and Clara had befriended a young Johannes Brahms and gave his early works glowing reviews. Brahms was devoted to the Schumanns and even though they had only know each other for a short period of time, Brahms moved into their house as soon as Robert was sent to the asylum! He provided Clara with financial assistance, since she was now the sole provider for the family and made regular visits to Robert in the hospital.

Thus began the most unlikeliest of relationships that lasted the rest of their lives. Clara was 14 years senior to Brahms. After Robert's death, Brahms moved out of the Schumann house, but he and Clara stayed in constant touch with one another, mostly through letters. Some of these letters have survived (even though Brahms asked Clara to burn them) and many of them are torrid love letters.

Brahms never married. Clara never re-married. Clara continued to work tirelessly to champion Robert's works through concerts during her 61 year career. She also edited and re-edited his entire catalogue for publication. Clara died in 1896 and Brahms died a few months later. No one knows for sure if they ever had a sexual relationship, but it was at the very least a very intense platonic friendship.

The Art of Song concert on Sunday, November 3rd will feature music by both Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Was Clara the inspiration?

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