To call Clara Schumann “the muse of Brahms” is a reductive stereotype. It’s like saying Wolfgang played piano, or Ludwig wrote nice tunes, or Pauline Viardot sang pretty. Those things are technically true, but as descriptors, they laughably miss the point. They are limiting and dismissive of the truth.
If you’ve read Clara and Johannes Brahms’s letters (like ACTUALLY READ THEM and not just selective quotes), it’s a tongue-in-cheek chuckle at the “muse” assertion. Like, “Right, sure, you tell yourself that.”
[The muse archetype itself is very gendered. It objectifies women for men’s creative use and erases their own powers to create. But here I’ll focus on how “muse” does not pertain to Clara.]
Definition of muse: a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artistOxford dictionary
What Brahms Said
Did Johannes call Clara his muse? No. Never.
The first time Johannes says he’s in love with Clara in a letter to Josef Joachim, in the same sentence, he says he “admires her.” When Johannes sent Clara the dedication of his second sonata, he hoped she would “look on it as favorably as the first.”
He wanted her approval of his work. He admired her as a musician.
In the first weeks of their acquaintance, Robert wrote to Josef that Johannes’s piano playing had improved surprisingly, and “I suspect my wife is behind it,” i.e. Clara was giving Johannes piano lessons. A year and half later, Johannes wrote Clara that he had no hope of ever being as good of a performer as her.
The closest Johannes got to calling Clara “muse” is his description of his first concerto’s Adagio as “a portrait of Clara” But even that is beyond the traditional definition as “inspiration.” He was embodying her as a person in musical sound, not just inspired to create. He was seeking to represent her.
Clara’s Professional Influence
There are nearly a thousand letters published from their 43-year correspondence. (Beginning in 1854, after Robert was hospitalized, ending the week of her death in 1896.) Every letter speaks of their professional careers, her concerts, his compositions, their families, friends, and personal struggles.
It’s clear they loved each other as friends always, (perhaps as more sometimes), but even when they fought, they were professional colleagues. The music and their careers were the glue that got their relationship through countless arguments.
Clara liberally delved out advice and critiques of his work, from opus 1 to 119. Johannes sent her his manuscripts in draft form, usually accompanied by notes of self-degradation, anticipating her criticism. He asked her opinion of his career choices and vented his professional problems.
Clara was the ultimate Influencer, the Priestess of Art who commanded everyone’s respect and wielded it with grace and power throughout the mid and late Romantic Era. And she focused a great deal of that influence on ushering Johannes to greatness.
Her fame and influence got his early career off the ground.
He asked her to sell his work to his major publisher Simrock. Which she did. Her diary says, she would’ve done it “for no one else.” Clara began the relationship with the publisher who would publish all his symphonies and later works.
She gave Johannes her extra concert gigs, students, and court appointments. She coached him in his first concerto performances with orchestra. Clara taught him everything she knew about being a performer and composer, and all her considerable mastery about achieving success.
Which, let’s face it, she was the best in the biz at the time.
Does any of this describe a “muse”? Honestly?
Clara Schumann, Compositional Coach
At age 22, Johannes studied the Ninth Symphony with Clara, playing it four hands every day for weeks. Clara’s diary says she “studied theory with Johannes.” As in, she was part of his foundational obsession with counterpoint. He sent counterpoint exercises to her in letters, trying to impress her. She’d mastered fugue writing a decade before; he hadn’t even tried yet. He wrote her, “We shall see how I get on with fugues.”
Johannes spent thousands of hours discussing compositional form and musical philosophy with her. Not to mention their tens of thousands of hours at the piano, working on technique and repertoire and Clara critiquing his compositions. They played endless chamber music and transcriptions together.
He wasn’t inspired by her in the “I love you, you’re pretty” objectifying stereotype. He desired to please her musical sense, her unparalleled taste and genius.
He knew she loved things like pedal points and mono-thematic development. He knew she was easily bored with predictable tonalities and rhythms and always demanded “freshness.” She called him out when he wrote something generic, or if it was too repetitive, or if she thought it wasn’t “Brahmsian” enough.
Her standards were higher than anyone else’s. She’d been composing and orchestrating large scale works since her concerto as a teenager. Her expectations motivated Johannes to be the very best technically and artistically. She expected and believed he could compose at a higher level than any composer she knew.
Clara’s historical knowledge of the artform had a long-ranging, unmatched contextual perspective. She understood where his work needed to go and how he needed to get there. She motivated him to build on Beethoven, to be better than Mozart, to write fugues as good as Bach’s.
Clara was a musical genius – perhaps the greatest alive in Germany at the time of Johannes’s painstaking growth period. (Come at me about Liszt & Wagner some other time.) Pleasing Clara with his work took all Johannes’s considerable skill and every wit of his own genius. After Robert died, there was no living composer she valued and believed in as much as him.
Brahms Needed Clara’s Help
Her approval and support sustained him in incalculable ways.
When no one else cared, when publishers were rejecting his work, when his contemporaries were scorning him, and audiences were hissing him off the stage, Clara was there, encouraging him and whispering in his ear how she adored his genius.
Was Clara a “source” of inspiration?
It was the inverse. She wasn’t the internal source, she was the external motivator.
Clara was Johannes’s standard, his mentor and teacher, his colleague and intimate friend. He loved her and admired her but not as a muse, but for being the one person with enough genius to understand and appreciate his work when no one else did.
She was the person he turned to for answers when he had none.
What should we say instead of MUSE?
Muse is far and away inadequate. Mentor, teacher, advisor, or musical partner comes closer.
[Footnote: Yes, Robert is traditionally called Johannes’s mentor. This is another blog post, but briefly, Robert was only in the same house as Johannes for one month before Robert was hospitalized. I’ve read zero evidence Robert taught him anything. It was Clara who studied Robert’s music, counterpoint, and orchestration with Johannes. Not Robert.]
In truth, Clara and Johannes’s relationship was outside the realm of normal descriptors. It had a depth, intimacy, and closeness more complex than what we can comprehend.
Their relationship is undefinable.
The melding of the hearts and minds of two of the most brilliant artists in Romantic history—what one word can encapsulate that?
The “muse” shortcut is tempting because of the romantic connotations. It’s easy. We like thinking about Johannes’s music being imbued with his love for Clara – which it was. Just that love was for her musical genius not in spite of it. It was more intimate and more romantic than mere musery. (Not a word, I know, but you get what I’m saying – there are no adequate words!)
Trying to describe their relationship is like trying to put their music into words – impossible. It would take an entire book…or a novel *ahem.* But all will inevitably fall short.
Let’s try something else, shall we? There’s three that come close:
Mentor, musical partner, and close professional friend
Take your pick!