I have a lot to rant about the unresearched assumption that Clara Schumann was rejected by Johannes Brahms. That she wanted to get married and he dumped her.
It is frankly. . . false.
Anyone who says this has read neither their letters or Clara’s diaries—or just likes to operate under ideology that, of course, it was Johannes’s decision because he was the man.
Ahem. There’s so much information. I’ll try to stuff as much in here as I can. Onto the facts and quotes. What do we know?
Were they in love?
The number of times Johannes declares he loves Clara and calls her “My Beloved Clara” in his letters between 1854-1856 is in the dozens. Perhaps near fifty. That he was in love with her is undebatable.
[If you’d like to read some early love quotes direct from Johannes’s romantic pen, I made a YouTube video of some of them.]
Did Clara love him the same way? Not according to her.
The only time in her letters and diaries (from when they met in 1853 to her death in 1896), she ever says she loves him is in her diaries in December 1854. Twice she says, “I love him like a son,” to explain why she so scandalously allowed him to address her by her first name (because he begged her) despite her being married. She also occasionally referred to him as “my beloved friend.”
Clara never says she loved him as more. Not once.
[It’s my opinion that she did and her daughter simply edited it out when her diaries and letters were published in the early 20th century but… there is no proof of this]
By her published assertions, she only loved him as a friend or surrogate son.
Was there physical attraction?
Clara never mentions finding him physically attractive. The first day she meets him, her diary mentions his “handsome face” and “beautiful hands.” They talk of hand holding. She talks of wanting “to hang on his neck” for gratitude when she loved his music.
But just as a factual FYI, Johannes was small and slight, shorter than Clara by at least six inches, and Robert had been much taller and bigger. It’s very possible that for all she cared for Johannes, she never found him attractive. Possibly. That’s just an observation.
For that matter, Johannes never mentions finding her attractive either. He mentions MANY TIMES wanting to kiss her or hold her hand in sly ways in his early letters. And longing to “sit beside her” is a sentiment he asserted into old age. But he also mentions wanting to “set her under glass” which implies he saw her in an untouchable Virgin Mary kind of light. (But she was still married at that point so who the heck knows what that was about.)
But again, THERE IS NO PROOF of attraction on either side.
Was there a marriage proposal?
Yes, we’re pretty sure there was. Jan Swafford says so in his bio on Johannes Brahms. BECAUSE in May 1856, Clara was in England touring, giving concerts. Johannes was at her home, caring for her children, trying to compose, but his frustrated letters say he missed her so damn much that composing was hard.
At this point, Robert was still alive in the hospital. But they knew he was dying and would probably be gone within a few months.
Johannes had been addressing Clara in the informal “du” for a year and a half. But suddenly, after she left for England, he changed back to the formal “Sie.”
We don’t have Clara’s response. (In the 1880s, she burned all her letters to Johannes from the years when Robert was still alive.) But we know from Johannes’s response that she asked him why and “attacked him for it.” Because he wrote on May 24th:
“My idea was that I could not avail myself immediately of your kindness and love as you might regret it later on. That is why I always continued to write to you in the second person plural. I take it then that all these tactics of siege and assault had some connection with the unanswered question? Or is that not so?”
Jan Swafford argues “the unanswered question” was most likely the “marriage” question. In other words, Johannes proposed to Clara and she refused to answer him.
Why did they break up after Robert died?
We don’t know.
Here are the facts:
In July, Robert died. Clara’s original Litzmann bio gives a long three page quote of her description of her last visit to Robert and his funeral, her depression at losing him, etc. But then there’s… almost nothing for the next three months. And no letters between Clara and Johannes because they were living in her house together through October.
In August, they went to Switzerland on vacation, Clara’s diary tells us. They took along her two boys and Johannes’s sister as babysitter.
We have no idea what happened there.
In September, Clara took her two sons to boarding school. Johannes had spent a lot of time playing with them while he was living with her. They’d been his favorites and he’d felt a responsibility to them as a surrogate father in Robert’s absence. Perhaps one of the reasons he left in October was because her sons were no longer there. Or it was vice versa, Clara took them to boarding school because Johannes was moving out. Who knows. Clara’s diary writes she planned to tour Copenhagen and England that year.
In October, Johannes finished his concerto. Clara’s diary says that they played it. Then on October 21st, the day Johannes moved out, her diary says:
“Johannes left. I went to the station with him—as I came back I felt as if I were returning from a funeral.”
This is the quote people point to when they say “See! She wanted to marry him and he refused her!” ……………[HARD side-eye]……. Did she say she wanted to marry him? Or whose decision it was for him to leave? Did she say she wanted him to stay and he refused?
The quote does reference her husband’s funeral two months prior. Saying goodbye to Johannes was always hard. She says this in letters many times over the years.
That same week, she left for Copenhagen to give concerts. He left because she was leaving. She wasn’t even home. She was not pining for him. She was not sad they didn’t get married. She was not even depressed that she had to give concerts. She looked forward to her tours as she always did.
Johannes came back for Christmas. From 1854-1858, he spent every Christmas with her and her boys. Because he knew it would be hard for them all without Robert.
Most likely, they mutually decided marriage wasn’t an option. Or maybe it never really was because there were many practical reasons why marriage made zero sense for either of them.
Marriage was a horrible idea.
Clara had three MAJOR reasons for never marrying again, not anyone, even Johannes.
1. She didn’t want more children. Clara’s third and fourth child were 10 months apart. [*tears OMG*] In 1847, when she found out she was pregnant with child number five 14 months later, she writes, “What will become of my work?!” (Yes, both that exclamation point and question mark are in the text.) Robert’s response she writes, “Children are blessings.” It’s pretty easy to infer that after child number four, she’d had enough and that Robert refused to take precautions against having more. She still birthed 4 more children after she’d had enough. That she was relieved to have no more children after Robert went into the hospital is evident simply by her touring schedule. She relished the freedom, even as she mourned her husband. Having more children was a non-option. She could barely take care of the seven she had.
2. Money. Clara was always practical and money conscious because of her father. She spends lots of time in her betrothal letters to Robert worried about him making enough money for them to marry. It was her father’s primary objection to their marriage. She made LOTS OF IT by touring. Her concerts pulled in enough for her to put all her children in boarding school and for her to buy a house in the mountains (once her oldest girls had finished boarding school.) She LOVED financial stability. Johannes had no money. He was a dirt poor composer who would spend money as soon as he earned it. He carried his cash around in his pockets. Clara begged him in the 1860s to let her invest it for him in government bonds, which he did. She was his financial adviser until he reached his 40s. He never could’ve supported her family.
3. Her career. Clara wasn’t giving up her touring for anyone, ever again. She’d given it up for Robert. Every year, Johannes told her in letters not to tour so much. She never listened, and frequently fought him for saying so. Johannes or any man she married would’ve curbed her career and demanded she stay home. Which was a non-starter for her.
Their Devotion to Art—Music as religion
Johannes had reasons for not marrying too. He composed best when he lived alone. It took him a number of years to fully realize this. It became clearer and clearer as he got older. It grieved him to be so alone, but the number one for him was always his music. Period.
Clara knew this. She knew that living in her house with her children had inhibited his ability to compose. What’s also a very real possibility, she realized perhaps sooner than he did, that for him to realize his potential as a composer, he couldn’t live with a wife and children. She wanted his symphonies and music above even her feelings for him. Art as a calling from God and all that. The pressure on Robert to make enough money with his composing to support their family, she believed, was one of the reasons he went mad and died. She didn’t want the same thing to happen to Johannes.
The Romantics, especially the Schumanns and Brahms, regarded their art as religion. Brahms and Liszt referred to Clara as a priestess in 1854. Johannes and Clara likely also chose to never marry simply as a monastic devotion to their art.
Johannes Would’ve Made A Terrible Husband
I know most of us love Johannes’s love letters to Clara, but for many reasons, as a husband, he probably would’ve been as bad or worse than Robert.
1.Johannes had an arrogant mean streak and a nasty temper. He knew how to cut down people closest to him with his keen intelligence in the most hurtful ways. Clara mentions it in later letter and her diaries, how he would criticize her playing much in the same way Robert had. By the end of his life, he had very few friends. Clara was the only one who stood by him despite his capacity to insult everyone.
2. Johannes tried to control her career too. From 1855, when Robert was in the hospital, Johannes tried to stop her touring. And all through their lives, he was always telling her to give it up and settle down in a town somewhere. Which she refused to do until she turned seventy.
3.He was kind of an alcoholic and a cigar chain smoker. To be fair, most men were at that time and Robert loved to have too much beer and cigars too. But this was yet another reason for Clara not to ever marry again. Johannes spent half his life in pubs and brothels. I’m not exaggerating. He was out most nights. His years in Vienna, he took all his meals at the pubs. He practically lived there, except when he was composing. And he definitely had a real serious thing for sex workers. I’m sure he tried to cover it up, but Clara wasn’t stupid.
(I could keep going, but this post is too long!)
In conclusion, there is too much MISSING INFORMATION for us to know what officially happened between Clara and Johannes. We have two volumes of letters, yes, but just as many were burned by her or dropped in the river by him. Less than half of Clara’s diaries were published before her daughter Marie destroyed them.
This is my crusade to debunk that Clara was the woman scorned. Clara dealt with an inordinate amount of vicious slander for her close relationship with Johannes, both in her lifetime and into the twentieth century which continues today. This slander is one-sided. Johannes endured, neither in the past or now, no such judgement. The short answer to why they never married was not because Clara was the guilty party or that Johannes was the one who rejected her.
The most likely answer, there were plenty of reasons on both sides.
Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms edited by Berthold Litzmann, 1927, English translation by The Vienna House 1973.
Clara Schumann: An Artist’s Life Based on Material Found in Diaries and Letters – Vol I & II, Berthold Litzmann, 1906, the abridged English translation.