Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Scandalous Overtures — Johannes Brahms & Clara Schumann: Did They Or Didn’t They?

There is a cadre of power-elite, formerly-married women in the entertainment biz today who have a reputation for dating significantly younger men, among them Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Sharon Stone, Madonna, Demi Moore, and Cher. And who can blame them? My only problem with this is that none of them ever dated me when I was a lad! Oh, to have been the arm candy of a beautiful, successful, and experienced woman. It would have been, I think, a little slice of heaven.

Of all the composers I can think of, the only one who has lived that heaven was Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

The familiar image of Johannes Brahms is that of a portly, late middle-aged man with a big beard and an omnipresent cigar; an image that exudes a bourgeois, professorial machismo. But for most of his life, Brahms did not physically look like the Brahms we are familiar with today. The paunch didn’t start to appear until his late thirties. And the beard?Brahms was what we might call a “late shaver” — his whiskers didn’t even start to grow in until his early forties, and he didn’t grow the beard until his mid-forties.

Johannes Brahms at twenty looked nothing like the familiar image discussed above. He was quite short: most accounts peg him as being between 5’ and 5’3” tall. He had longish blonde hair, bright blue eyes, skin as pink and smooth as a child’s, and a high, piping, almost girlish voice. Brahms’ appearance drove him nuts because despite his pianistic brilliance and compositional genius (already manifest at the age of 20), it’s an unfortunate but predictable fact that girls his age didn’t give him the time of day.

But that all changed in May of 1853, when the 20-year-old Brahms met the woman who would become the object of his testosterone-engorged desire, his soul-mate, his confessor, a life-long friend and artistic collaborator, and maybe – just maybe – for the briefest of times, his lover: Clara Schumann. Clara was beautiful and, like Brahms, petite. She was a legend: one of the greatest pianists in the world. She was also, at the time she met the 20-year-old Brahms, 37 years old, married (to the composer Robert Schumann), and the mother of six children and was soon to become pregnant with number seven.

Yes, I know: on the surface, this does not sound very promising. At first, their relationship might best be described as a “mutual admiration society.” But in February of 1854, four-and-a-half months after they met, circumstances no one could have predicted superglued Johannes and Clara together for all time: Clara’s husband Robert, his mind destroyed by syphilis, attempted suicide. He survived but his mind was gone; he died in an asylum 2.5 years later.

Brahms rushed to Clara’s side, where he stayed for the next 2.5 years, until Robert’s death. It was during this terrible and extraordinary time that Brahms fell helplessly in love with Clara Schumann.

What is it about older women? A cynic might claim that a young man’s attraction to an older woman reflects nothing but an Oedipal desire to sleep with his mother and a longing to be babied. But we are not cynics. We understand that Clara, as a professional musician, saw past Brahms’ childish appearance the moment she heard him play his own music at the piano. We understand that this beautiful, smart, experienced woman treated Brahms like a man and as an equal, not like a little boy. And we understand that as they rode that 2.5-year-long emotional roller coaster together, and Brahms experienced firsthand Clara’s depth and power and intelligence, we know that Brahms came to the conclusion that he could never marry a woman his own age. It was a decision he stuck to: after Clara, Brahms would have crushes, but he never married.

Which brings up two questions, only one of which I will answer here in this post.

Question 1: Was Clara a cougar, a Mrs. Robinson-type BABE out looking for a naïve but energized (*wink*wink*) young man with whom she could partay heartay?

Answer: Um, no.

Question 2:Did Clara and Brahms . . . you know. . . did they do it?

Watch the episode below:

  • Mario Molina

    I wonder if there is a movie based upon this story…it certainly seems a poignant narrative

    • lynify

      Try: Secret Love Affair (Korean drama, 2014)

    • Robbit

      Song of Love with Katharine Hepburn.

    • anon est

      There’s a movie, Clara, or Geliebte Clara, also on yt, it’s precisely about this story. Well movie is very good to render the feelings Brahms had for her, both lovely and physical. At the end it seems the two did end up together, a disillusioned interpretation of us millennials. But film stops the narration just there so no oblige on to tell whether they had an effective relationship or they just had a short story, which became a platonic long life love.