This dashing, handsome young man was Johannes Brahms- a far cry from the portly, bearded fellow we usually see depicted in his later years. The 20-something of this photograph was filled with incendiary, volcanic passion for the pianist and composer Clara Schumann, a woman fourteen years his senior who had borne seven children to his mentor Robert Schumann. When Robert attempted suicide and was confined to a mental institution, Brahms was one of the few people allowed to visit, and he carried letters and photographs back and forth between husband and wife. For years, Brahms burned inwardly with an ardor that puts the protagonists of Nicholas Sparks novels to shame. Like all my own heroes, Brahms sublimated the pain and passion of his life into art: the terror of Robert's madness and the tormented longing and exquisite tenderness he felt for Clara found their way into the Piano Concerto No. 1 in d minor, which he described as a " portrait in sound" of his lifelong muse. The concerto played to a full house in Leipzig with Brahms at the keyboard, but at the conclusion of the performance, only three people clapped. The rest of the audience hissed the young pianist off the stage. In the face of this public humiliation, isn't Brahms' resilience astonishing? How many of us would ever have taken pen in hand or appeared on a concert stage again? Thank God for Clara's tireless efforts to promote and popularize Brahms' music, which was so much deeper and more thoughtful than the majority of light-weight froth or shallow virtuosity that was the rage during that time. The fascinating story of Brahms and Clara as lifelong friends ( and possible lovers) is one I will share in the upcoming Great Romantics lecture-performance series. Beginning on January 28 in Petaluma from 10:00-11:30, this seven-week class will dive deeply into the turbulent drama and soul-searching pathos of the Romantic era, with live performances of piano gems.
To learn more about the Great Romantics class, go to /great-romantics.html.
Below is a performance of the monumental Concerto No. 1 in d minor featuring Helene Grimaud, who will be performing this towering work with the San Francisco Symphony in February.