Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Poem About Brahms

I was thrilled to read this poem today at The Writer's Almanac. Whether or not Brahms and Clara Schumann had a sexual relationship has been speculated about for many years -- it is undeniable that they loved each other profoundly -- but, although they burned most of their correspondence, the evidence is against it. Brahms biographer Jan Swafford has suggested that, after the death of Robert Schumann in an insane asylum in 1856, the younger composer had the opportunity to propose marriage to Clara, but instead left her disappointed. The two remained friends, and Clara, one of the greatest pianists of her age, premiered many of Brahms's works.

The Intermezzi mentioned by Lisel Mueller are opp. 117, 118, 119. Brahms called the three op. 117 pieces, which he wrote while Clara was in her final illness, "cradle-songs of my sorrows." Here is the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff playing op. 117, no. 1, with beautiful directness and simplicity. The piece was inspired by the text of a Scottish poem, "Lady Anne Bothwell's Lament," and Brahms inscribed in the score an excerpt from the poem in Herder's German translation. The English words are:

"Sleep soft, my child, now softly sleep;
My heart is woeful to see thee weep."

And here is the poem about Brahms.


Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann
The modern biographers worry
"how far it went," their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone's eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address, not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving nothing to overhear.

-- Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University, 1995.