The Suicide Quartet
For those who think that all classical music is dry and uninteresting, fit only for the museum or the drawing rooms of ancient ladies, it may be somewhat of a surprise to learn that many of the greatest works in the medium were written as expressions of the deepest passions and received their inspiration from the most steamy and convoluted of situations. The Belgian composer Cesar Franck wrote a chamber piece so white hot in its passionate intensity that his wife walked out of the premiere performance, understanding by its naked sensuality that it had to have been inspired by his mistress, to whom Franck actually dedicated the work. Richard Wagner, hiding out from the law (he had participated in a failed revolutionary coup) at the home of one of his benefactors Otto Wesendonck, not only seduced the man's wife, the poetess Mathilde, but also romanced and eventually married his prominent house guest, Cosima von Buelow, wife of conductor Hans and daughter of Franz Liszt. The most intensely romantic music in all of opera was granted to the two heroines modeled after these two remarkable women (Isolde was inspired by Mathilde; Bruennhilde by Cosima). Another such piece is the Piano Quartet # 3 of Johannes Brahms, scored for piano, violin, viola and cello. Out of the raging fire of youthful lust Brahms poured out his heart and soul into the two movements written in the 1850's when he was the lover of his mentor's wife, the incredibly beautiful and talented Clara Schumann. Many years later when he returned to finish the work, Brahms was still deeply affected by its emotion and fashioned a musical essay that describes in excruciating detail the process of taming the beast of gnawing depression and suicidal tendency. Often portrayed as cool and dispassionate, the great composer who rose from piano player in a whorehouse to the heights of musical respect was actually a cauldron of unrequited love and ultimately unable to find a mate with whom to share his great prosperity and fame. The young man who fell so hard for the married virtuosa never recovered his objectivity and lived his entire life, as he himself put it, "free, but happy".
At the age of 20 this aspiring concert pianist and fledgling composer appeared at the home of the great music critic and established artist Robert Schumann. Schumann was very influential in musical circles and had founded his own newspaper, the Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik, wherein he wrote reviews under his own and a variety of assumed names. Schumann was singlehandedly responsible for the launching of the career of Frederic Chopin and helped to make the reputation of Hector Berlioz as well. He was particularly interested in the piano, with which he had an intense love-hate relationship. Obsessive-compulsive in the extreme, Schumann composed virtually all of his own piano music in the same time period, refusing to consider writing a song or symphonic work during this amazingly fertile time of composition. The pieces are all tinged with melancholy and reflect the awful incident which would color all of Schumann's adult artistic life. As a young man he wanted to become a great pianist. One of the ways in which he tried to accomplish this goal was to try and strengthen his individual fingers. A well meaning but misguided teacher encouraged him to tie up the fourth and fifth fingers of his hands for long intervals so that the second and third fingers would gain more strength during keyboard exercises. Unfortunately, the result of this experiment was that the fourth and fifth digits grew permanently weak from lack of circulation and Robert had to give up his dream of the concert stage. Already possessed by a fragile personality and a long history of mental illness and suicide in his family, Schumann entered the world of the deeply disturbed, outwardly gregarious and extroverted, but inwardly sulking, bitter and outcast. To deal with his misfortune, the composer began to invent a circle of friends for himself, portraying each of these imaginary creatures in great detail (some of them actually "contributed" articles to his newspaper!) and composing an extremely poignant essay for the piano entitled Davidsbuendlertaenze (Dances of the League of David) which purported to be inspired by his friends' comaraderie and joyful fellowship. By the time the young Brahms was granted an audience (he had been rebuked earlier when the older composer refused to look at one of his compositions), Schumann was enmeshed in the throws of paranoia and manic depression, extremely enthusiastic for a time and just as extremely withdrawn at others.
Brahms brought his first five compositions to the master and proceeded to play for him the opening of one of his three Sonatas for Piano. After a few minutes Schumann stopped the boy and exclaimed "Clara must hear this!" and sent for his wife, the world renowned concert pianist Clara Schumann. In Clara we have one of the most interesting characters in the entire history of music. Born Clara Wieck to a famous piano teacher, she excelled at her instrument at an early age and exhibited not only great grace and charm (as well as physical beauty) but a keen intellect as well. But the nineteenth century was still not ready for a woman of such talent and so her raw creativity, so apparent in her many musical compositions, remained criminally underdeveloped. Just like her friend Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (the sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn), Clara Schumann was forced to keep her light under a bushel, and, although she became relatively famous as a performer, she never achieved the greatness that was really her due. She was famous enough, however, to make a vivid impression on the young Brahms, whose voluminous letters reveal a secret passion for this radiant woman right from their first meeting:
I think I can no longer love an unmarried girl-at least I have quite forgotten about them.
They but promise heaven while Clara shows it revealed to us
he wrote to his lifelong friend, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, in 1854.
As expected, Schumann began to see to the career of the young Brahms, calling him the Messiah of Music in his newspaper and arranging for his first public concerts. At the same time as the young man entered his life, Schumann began to deteriorate mentally, eventually throwing himself into the Rhine river to end the inner conflicts which tormented him (he was by that time hearing voices on a regular basis). Schumann was saved by a fisherman and institutionalized and allowed only Brahms to visit him (Clara was persona non grata at the asylum until near the very end of Schumann's final ordeal). The mentor and protégé would play the piano together and these visits did seem to help alleviate some of Robert's anguish. To help out the distraught Clara, Brahms moved into the Schumann house and took over many of Madame's piano students, thus easing her burden emotionally and financially. The principals in our story (and most music historians) would have us believe that their relationship was pure and chaste, but a close examination of their letters tells us otherwise. Clara refers to Johannes with the intimate form of address du, a privilege accorded only to one's closest family members or intimates, while Johannes is not granted the same liberty by Clara and is forced to use the more formal forms of address while expressing the most passionate emotions of love and heroine worship, making his already tortured letters burn with conflict and surviving for posterity as excruciatingly difficult to read (this can only be experienced in the original German and is virtually untranslatable, but the unnaturalness of expression is a painful corollary of this complex love affair). After Schumann died, Brahms and Clara often traveled together and shared the same rooms, and yet we are asked to believe that their relationship was strictly Platonic! A further variation on this theme was the later infatuation of Brahms with Clara's daughter Julie and Clara's inability to write about this incident in her diary until after the fraulein became engaged to another man (he presented Clara with the mournful Alto Rhapsody, based on a suicidal character from Goethe, upon the occasion of Julie's wedding). It is also interesting to note that, although Brahms painstakingly kept and catalogued all of his correspondence, Clara burned all of her letters to the young man (they had mutually agreed to return all of their missives to one another later in life).
The key point in all of this is that Brahms had a deep love for both of the Schumanns and needed an outlet for his smoldering emotions. He began to compose a piece of chamber music that would express his pain and also his joy. The result was the first and third movements of what would eventually be classified as the Piano Quartet # 3 in C Minor, a significant choice of key as it is one associated with the angst first introduced into Western music by Mozart. The youth was imbued with the Romantic spirit of the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) school, which expressed in musical terms the Herculean conflicts of the human soul with a healthy dose of sexual tension. After a strident piano chord and a hesitant string introduction, the first movement of the quartet explodes into one of the most passionate outbursts in all of music and the repeat of this theme is made all the more taut by the underlying animalistic rhythms in the strings. Brahms himself expressed to a friend that this was a portrait of a man at the end of his rope, who stands at the precipice and agonizes as to whether or not to jump. When the quartet was finally completed years later, Brahms wrote to his publisher Fritz Simrock that the title page should include a picture of a man in such conflict and that it should also refer to the title character of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, a Romantic figure also haunted by youthful passion to contemplate and finally employ the ultimate escape after an unrequited romance for a maternal woman. The movement is one of the darkest poems in the entire literature and has a profound effect on both listener and performer. In a famous recording from the 1950's, the members of the quartet (including Pablo Casals) from the Prades chamber music festival in Puerto Rico are so overcome with emotion that they play many wrong notes. Somehow these mistakes only enhance the mood of utter despair.
During this same year of 1855, Brahms was engaged in the composition of his first true masterpiece, the Piano Concerto #1, Op. 15. The second movement of this mighty work belies the youth of its composer, as it is one of the subtlest expressions of grace and beauty in the entire repertoire. Sandwiched between two loud and bombastic movements, it is a jewel of tranquility and peace, reflecting the best qualities of the idealized Romantic image of serenity as an escape from the travails of everyday life. The listener is struck at a first hearing at the majesty of the movement and comes away with the impression that the inspiration for it must have been indeed very profound. Much later in life, Brahms admitted that this gentle Adagio was really a portrait of Clara.
The anguish and pain of the first movement of the quartet is set against the backdrop of the utter beauty of the third movement, one of the loveliest paeans to romance ever composed. If there was any doubt as to the intimate involvement of the Schumanns in the imagination of the composer of this work, it is quickly dispelled by this sensuous tone poem. The opening melody of the cello is one of those gorgeous inspirations that are unique to Brahms and is modeled after the corresponding solo at the beginning of the third movement of Schumann's own Piano Quartet, written nine years earlier. To further establish an homage to his mentor, Brahms elaborates this opening theme in exactly the same way as Schumann did with his lovely melody (I personally regard this as Schumann's best work and, when I was on the radio, used this movement as my opening and closing theme) and ends his movement in the same peacefully appreciative manner, adding only his own masterstroke of a deeply moving descending passage in the piano which is truly unforgettable (Robert Haven Schauffler, in his wonderful book The Unknown Brahms, calls this "…the incomparable summary of the last page."). Overcome with the emotions of love and regret and the tangle of feelings that would always remain as his relationship with Clara, Brahms put away these two movements, unable in his youthful state to resolve them into a coherent whole.
Composers and poets who die young appear to posterity as being the most passionate. The enduring popularity of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix with the youth of today centers around their image as forever young and rebellious, concerned totally with problems of teenage angst and counterculture (a similar fate most likely awaits Kurt Cobain with future generations). It is rare that a work of youthful ardor and conflict is resurrected by its creator and forged into an even stronger mature composition (many writers and composers rather reject the sins of their youth as they waddle into middle-aged decrepitude) but this process of rediscovery was miraculously alive in Brahms' undaunted spirit. A full twenty years after he composed his heartfelt music for the Schumanns, he reached into his secret drawer and relived those awful yet wonderful times of doubt, love and despair. The end result is one of the most affecting pieces in all of music and never fails to ignite a firestorm of emotion in its listeners.
Rejecting a third youthful movement (the original finale) out of hand, Brahms kept the other two movements intact and began to work on the amazing Scherzo which now became the second movement of the finished work. Relentlessly continuing the passionate intensity of the first despairing movement in the same key (C minor), Brahms refuses to allow the listener any emotional relief and creates an almost unbearable tension as a result. However, he has also subtly changed the focus away from his suicidal character and emphasized instead the more general conflict of man in the physical universe. Donald Francis Tovey, whom many consider to be the greatest writer on musical matters in history, describes the movement as "…a storm which is rather of Nature than of human passion."
The lovely slow movement remains intact but is now transformed by its surroundings. Just as beautiful and serene as when it was written, it now fulfills the role of calming down the inner forces which led to the suicidal tendencies in the first place and, after the catharsis of the first two gut-wrenching sections, serves to emphasize the joy which, digging down to the deepest level, is the all-consuming emotion of this entire experience (there would be no suicidal conflict without the underlying love). Healing is part of the process, and it begins here.
This leaves only the controversial finale which Brahms added in his mature tranquility. I must confess to having heard this movement many fewer times than the other three, as almost invariably I am so struck by the sheer beauty of the third movement that once I reach it I tend to play it over and over again and hardly ever get to the work's conclusion. The finale was the subject of conjecture even in Brahms' time. One contemporary reviewer pointed out that the opening theme is a restatement of the famous "Fate knocking at the door" opening of Beethoven's mighty Fifth Symphony ("any damn fool can see that!" was Brahms' reaction) and critics have been divided as to whether the movement reinforces the tragic landscape or dispels it. To deny the optimistic conclusion of the work, however, is to ignore the psychological process which Brahms is attempting to describe. Truly it is the horrifying Fate motif of Beethoven which haunts this movement, but it is transformed by this master of tonal color into a benign insistence, less an emblem of fate and more a symbol of peaceful inevitability. All things must pass and the bitter wound of self-doubt is replaced by a calming appreciation for the beauty of the external world. The movement ends, if not joyously, at least making its peace with the conflicts of the emotions. Again we must go to Brahms' letters to establish his state of mind. He wrote to Clara in 1857:
You must seriously transform yourself, my dearest Clara…
Such unhealthy food for the soul as unremitting depression ruins body and soul…
Ultimately the Suicide Quartet is a journey from the depths of youthful despair to the plateau of mature understanding, not able to sustain the glorious heights of physical and spiritual love but also soundly rejecting the abyss as a final outcome. To listen to a work such as this at the beginning of the twenty-first century is to experience a reassuring continuity between the great artists of the past and the plight of the youth of the present. My own personal experience has taught me that if young people are introduced to classical music, they universally love it and want to know more. What Brahms and Clara felt in the 1850's is just as alive today. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Brahms: Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60
Brahms: Piano Concerto #1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 47
Franck: Piano Quintet
Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder, especially Im Treibhaus (in the greenhouse), which is the intensely dark inspiration for the "love-death" Act III of his opera Tristan und Isolde
Nirvana: Something in the Way (eloquently expresses that indefinable feeling that led to Cobain's suicide)
Jimi Hendrix: Manic Depression
The Doors: The End
Frederick L. Kirshnit