The Day Clara Schumann Met Johannes Brahms

This story is a good one. Classic. Historic. The details of the day Johannes Brahms walked into Clara Schumann’s parlor may be just lore—who knows. But wherever else I’ve read this tale, they don’t mention what was happening with Clara that day . . .

October 1st, 1853, the day Johannes walked through the front door, the Schumanns were frankly a mess. Both Clara and Robert’s lives were on a teetering brink of collapse—though if you’d asked them, they would’ve said, “Everything’s fine!”

Uhhh, no, it wasn’t.

Clara Schumann, 1854, age 35. Johannes Brahms, 1853, age 20.

Clara’s Career Crisis

Just before Johannes’s arrival, Clara realized she was pregnant again, for the 10th time with baby number 8. The concert tour she’d planned for England the next spring—one she’d been wanting since she began English lessons at the age of 19–had to be cancelled again. Her diary is full of despair:

“My last good years are passing away, and my powers too—there is certainly reason enough for me to distress myself. I am more discouraged than I can say.”

She was terrified her career would soon be over, and she was wasting her last years caged to motherhood. (It wasn’t true, but she didn’t know that.)

For Robert’s part, his position as director of the Dusseldorf Symphony was on tenterhooks. He’d missed the first two subscription concerts of the previous season for being debilitated with nervous attacks and melancholy. Though his health had improved over the summer, both he and Clara asserted that he was better, other people from outside observed differently. Robert’s first subscription concert of the season, at the end of October, would be his last chance to prove himself.  

And so, it’s no wonder that when Johannes knocked on their door, he was like a savior sent from heaven above.

Where’d Johannes come from?

At age 20, Johannes left Hamburg the previous spring to do a recital tour with a violinist friend. He met a host of people along the way—most importantly, Josef Joachim. The two were instant best buds. Josef, so enchanted by Johannes’s compositions, sent him off with a letter of introduction to the Schumanns.

Johannes literally walked there. He was on a walking tour along the Rhine, stopping at the homes of other people, turning hearts with his work and his handsome charm. Although—not without mishap. He had horrible stage freight which sometimes made him too nervous to play—which happened in Weimar in front of Liszt in Weimar.

Yes, young Brahms had performance anxiety.

But he skipped into Dusseldorf and knocked on the Schumanns’ door.

[From here, the tale might be just lore. I haven’t found it in any letters or diaries, but lots of biographers and lecturers have repeated it so I’ll share it too!]

Brahms has arrived.

Supposedly… The first day Johannes knocked on the door, the Schumanns’ eldest daughter, Marie answered. Her parents had gone out, she told him, he should call back tomorrow.

So the next day, he knocked again. This time Robert answered in his dressing gown and slippers. To say the least, it was awkward. Robert in his informal attire, his no doubt stressed expression, and his difficulty focusing on conversations, coupled with Johannes’s shyness, well… Not much was spoken. Except the exchange of the letter from Joachim, then Johannes sat at the parlor piano to play.

He began with his first C Major sonata, the one that references Beethoven’s Hammerklavier and the Waldstein on the first page. He barely finished the first page before Robert stopped him. “I must get Clara,” he said and left to get the only person whose opinion mattered to him.

As is so typical of these stories, Clara’s actions aren’t mentioned, but I imagine she was vexed, tired, and not interested in hearing the music of some stranger come to call. She had a house full of children and the prospect of a failing career before her. But join Robert she did, and listened to Johannes.

And listened. And listened some more.

At the end, Robert put his hand on Johannes’s shoulder and said, “You and I, we understand each other,” then invited Johannes to return for lunch the next day. But Robert had said so little—and apparently Clara as well—or perhaps something else happened that left Johannes reticent to come back.

Robert’s diary entry was simply, “Brahms from Hamburg—a genius.” Clara’s entry is effusive and detailed and obviously meant to show not just her reactions but her husband’s as well: 

“This month introduced us to a wonderful person. Brahms, a composer from Hamburg—20 years old. Here again is one who comes as if sent from God. –He played us sonatas, scherzos etc, of his own, all of them showing exuberant imagination, depth of feeling, and mastery of form. Robert says that there was nothing that he could tell him to take away or add.

It is really moving to see him sitting at the piano with his interesting young face which becomes transfigured when he plays, his beautiful hands which overcome the greatest difficulties with ease (his things are very difficult), and in addition to these remarkable compositions. …What he played to us is so masterly that one cannot but think that the good God sent him into the world ready-made.

“He has a great future before him, for he will first find the true field for his genius when he begins to write for the orchestra. Robert says there is nothing to wish except that heaven may preserve his health.”

Or perhaps she should’ve simply wished for him to come back, because the next day, Johannes didn’t show to lunch.

Clara had to go out and find him. She had to search all the inns in town and bring him back with her.

I can’t help envisioning what that was like—Clara going out to search for the nervous young Johannes. She was likely anxious to make sure he didn’t leave town—to make sure he came back. She and Robert wanted more of his music!

Brahms Moved In

They eventually convinced Johannes to stay with them for the month, at least until Joachim came and played on Robert’s fateful, final subscription concert.

Clara started giving him piano lessons, immediately, seemingly behind Robert’s back. When Johannes played for them one evening and his playing was markedly better, Robert wrote to Joachim, “I suspect my wife is behind it.”

Even so, Johannes was reluctant to stay. They had to coax and convince him not to leave. Was his reluctance simply out of modesty? Not wanting to be a burden in their already full household? Or was it something else?

Robert’s failing health must have been hard to watch. Clara’s denial, insisting that Robert’s health was improving and he was getting well, could not have been easy to witness.

Or were there other reasons? Was Johannes experiencing awkward feelings for Clara from the start that made it uncomfortable living in the same house with her and her husband? Those countless hours sitting together at the piano, working on not just his technique but his compositions, put them immediately in daily close contact for hours at a time.

Whatever the reasons for his hesitancy, Johannes relented and stayed.

Clara’s diary entries for the month mention him almost every day.