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Jonas Kaufmann/Diana Damrau & Helmut Deutsch

The image is split into two: Jonas Kaufmann on the left, Diana Damrau on the right

Nowhere is the three-way entanglement between Johannes Brahms and Robert and Clara Schumann more palpable than in their extensive output of love songs, writes Jessica Duchen.

From the day in October 1853 when Brahms first walked into the Schumanns’ home in Düsseldorf, aged 20, his fate was inextricably bound up with that of the older, already legendary couple. ‘Here is one who comes as if sent from God,’ Clara noted, after the young visitor had played his music to them. Soon Brahms was almost part of the family and Robert was praising him in print: ‘He bore all the outward signs that proclaim to us, “This is one of the elect”’.

One of the greatest pianists of her time and a marvellous composer too, Clara Schumann (née Wieck) had found fame across Europe as a child prodigy. She married Robert in September 1840 after several agonising years in which her father had separated them, disapproving of the somewhat dissolute and unstable young composer as suitor for his starry daughter. 

Robert and Clara had nevertheless communicated through music, devising ciphers that set symbolic letters as notes, borrowing themes from one another, and involving Robert’s contrasting alter-egos, the impassioned Florestan and the poetic introvert Eusebius. Robert had filled his early piano music, intended for Clara, with these ideas. He wrote little else until 1840 – he tended to write obsessively in one genre before moving on to another – but that year, some 130 songs flowed from his pen in torrential succession, plundering numerous poets from Goethe and Heine downwards. 

Schumann’s love songs – which he continued to write, if later at less frenzied pace – often share the hallmarks of soaring, direct and intimate melodies, with a quickening heartbeat in the piano part. Of the cycle Myrthen, Op 25, a wedding gift for Clara exploring love from myriad angles, the most celebrated song, ‘Widmung’, sets a Rückert poem in an uninhibited fount of passion. The Minnespiel songs, Op 101 (from 1849), including ‘Mein schöne Stern’ and ‘Liebster, deine Worte’, likewise overflow with these qualities. At his darkest, though, the sense of heartbreak and fear of loss can be overwhelming, notably in the Kerner-Lieder, Op 35, with ‘Stille Tränen’ the anguished climax. 

In February 1854, Robert succumbed to the illnesses that had threatened him for years. He had long experienced episodes of manic energy, composing floods of music within days, yet could also fall into severe depressions, during which he could write nothing. Moreover, he had contracted syphilis in his youth and the illness’s tertiary stage, affecting the brain, was taking hold. Plagued by aural hallucinations, he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. Afterwards, fearing that he might hurt Clara or the children, he went voluntarily into a mental hospital at Endenich, near Bonn. Clara was not permitted to see him until the day before he died, two and a half years later.

Brahms now became an indispensable aid to her. While she toured, he moved in, looked after the household’s practical matters and minded the children. Soon he was writing impassioned love letters to her: “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?"

This situation was more than complicated: Clara had seven children to raise and both she and Brahms loved and were loyal to Robert. When the doctors finally summoned Clara to Robert’s deathbed, Brahms witnessed their last reunion. 

Brahms and Clara Schumann did not marry and probably had no actual affair. Nevertheless, for the rest of their lives – but for a few ups and downs – they enjoyed a close friendship in which she served as mentor and adviser to him and in which he filled his music with references or ciphers involving her, as Schumann had done before him – though Brahms sometimes concealed his own efforts in rewrites or denial.

Brahms composed Lieder across his whole career. Rather than forming narrative cycles, each song stands as an individual experience; here, this most rigorous composer wore his heart on his sleeve, choosing poems which reflected his state of mind, frequently a condition of hopeless yearning, not always for Clara. Over the years his affections were sparked variously – yet fruitlessly – by Agathe von Siebold, to whom he was briefly engaged; Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, first an attractive student, later a close friend; and even Clara’s daughter, Julie. 

Schumann’s influence is often evident: ‘Verzagen’ from Op 72 displays surges of affliction in the piano, under a long-spun melodic line; and the ecstatic ‘Mein Lieb ist grün’ sets words by the Schumanns’ youngest son, Felix – Brahms’s godson – who died of tuberculosis aged only 25. 

The impact of folksong too is detectable in settings such as the brief ‘Sehnsucht’ of Op 14 or ‘Vergebliches Ständchen’ from Op 84. Yet other songs match the profundity of Brahms’s instrumental works, notably ‘Von ewiger Liebe’, in which a young woman comforts her anguished lover with assurances of eternal love. 

Brahms and Schumann both saved some of their most genial writing for their duets. Schumann’s ‘Er und sie’, or Brahms’s sparky ‘Weg der Liebe’ and ‘Boten der Liebe’ from Op 61 are filled with the joy of companionable music-making. Above all they celebrate the inspiration that the human voice brought these composers, in all their complexity and passion – and in their devotion to the same extraordinary woman. 

© Jessica Duchen

Programme and performers

Robert Schumann ‘Widmung’ and ‘Jemand’ from Myrthen
‘Geständnis’ from Spanisches Liederspiel
‘Resignation’ from Drei Gesänge, Op 83
‘Liebeslied’ from Lieder und Gesänge, Op 51
‘Stille Tränen’ from 12 Gedichte, Op 35
Johannes Brahms ‘Verzagen’ from Fünf Gesänge, Op 72
‘Waldeseinsamkeit’ from Sechs Lieder, Op 85
‘Nachtigall’ from Sechs Lieder, Op 97
‘Ach, wende diesen Blick’ and ‘Es träumte mir’ from Acht Lieder und Gesänge, Op 57
‘Meerfahrt’ from Vier Lieder, Op 96
‘Anklänge’ from Sechs Gesänge, Op 7
Robert Schumann ‘In der Nacht’ from Spanisches Liederspiel
‘Tragödie’ from Romanzen und Balladen, Op 64
‘An den Abendstern’ from Mädchenlieder


Johannes Brahms ‘Vergebliches Ständchen’ from Fünf Romanzen und Lieder, Op 84
‘Serenade’ from Vier Gesänge, Op 70
‘Therese’ from Sechs Lieder, Op 86
‘O komme, holde Sommernacht’ from Acht Lieder und Gesänge, Op 58
‘Geheimnis’ from Fünf Gesänge, Op 71
‘Wir wandelten’ from Vier Lieder, Op 96
Robert Schumann ‘Er und sie’ from Vier Duette, Op 78
‘Mein schöner Stern’ from Minnespiel
‘Lied der Suleika’ from Myrthen
‘Ihre Stimme’ from Fünf Lieder, Op 96
‘Liebster, deine Worte’ from Minnespiel
‘Lehn‘ deine Wang an meine Wang’ from Vier Gesänge, Op 142
‘Verratene Liebe’ from Fünf Lieder, Op 40
Johannes Brahms ‘Weg der Liebe’ from Drei Duette, Op 20
‘An die Tauben’ from Lieder und Gesänge, Op 63
‘Die Liebende schreibt’ from Fünf Lieder, Op 47
‘Sehnsucht’ from Acht Lieder und Romanzen, Op 14
‘Meine Liebe ist grün’ from Neun Lieder und Gesänge, Op 63
‘Versunken’ from Sechs Lieder, Op 86
‘Von ewiger Liebe’ from Vier Lieder, Op 43
‘Boten der Liebe’ from Vier Duette, Op 61


Jonas Kaufmann tenor

Diana Damrau soprano

Helmut Deutsch piano


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