Brahms’s Clara

Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo, Opus 117, No. 1, E Flat Major, 1892 Schottish. Aus Herders Volksliedern

As Schumann went gradually mad, Brahms, who had met Clara when she was twenty, conceived an immense Platonic passion for her. But when Schumann died in 1856, Brahms, who had planned to run away with Clara, deserted her. Brahms had spent much of his youth playing piano in Hamburg brothels, where the sensual rewards for his talent cauterized him against romance.

His vow to Clara was more pressure than he could bear, and he disappeared for years. Clara was devastated, but had to support herself, and built up a career as the greatest pianist of her day, carrying along with her to fame the music of Schumann and Brahms.

Thirty-three years later, in 1879, Brahms sent Clara the first of many Intermezzi he had written for her out of guilt.

Each intermezzo featured Schumann’s “Clara” theme. Rather than written by a madman paralyzed by disease (as Clara and Brahms believed of Schumann), the same themes has now morphed into apologies for Brahms’ misogyny, his inability to love after all that cheap sex in his youth.

The very famous Brahms E Flat Intermezzo, written 53 years after the Schumann piece the Yeti plays here, and 36 years after Brahms abandoned Clara, is based on a Scottish sheepherder folksong. It crops up in bits and pieces in Frederick Loewe’s Brigadoon. It has the advantage of being the best example of Brahms’s Clara theme, both descending in a full octave of eight notes and then ascending immediately afterwards, and being disguised because it isn’t exactly by Brahms, but is a treatment of an historic folksong. And yet it’s one of Brahms’s most typical compositions.

The midsection is possibly an attempt by Brahms to show that he isn’t just about melody, but is capable of modern deconstruction also. And yet after five difficult harmonic measures, he returns to the Clara theme. After one more tentative modern measure he again is overcome by the Clara theme.

Then after five more measures of the exculpatory music (maybe to show Clara his credentials), he returns finally to a slow Clara descent and then transfigures her theme into one of the most finest moments in such a relatively humble genre.

As heartbreaking as Clara’s loss of Robert is Brahms’s loss of Clara through his own doing, and his fitful and inadequate bursts of genius to recompense himself and Clara. The Intermezzi may have compensated neither of them, but they have preserved all that agonizing transcendence forever.