The album cover for "Clara, Robert, and Johannes" features a teal green background with three oval shapes. Inside each oval, there are old-style images of Clara, Robert, and Johannes, creating a vintage and artistic visual composition.
NACO Recordings

Romance and Counterpoint

Clara - Robert - Johannes (Pt. 4)

Released September 22, 2023

Composers: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms
Performers: Alexander Shelley, Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra, Angela Hewitt, Stewart Goodyear, Yosuke Kawasaki
Period: Romantic

Clara, Robert, Johannes

With this volume we reach the conclusion of a multi-year and multi-disc exploration of the music – and, through the music, the lives – of Clara, Robert, and Johannes. Their creative output reflects not only their individual brilliance and characters, but also the role of the creative artist in their time and across the centuries. In grappling with the abstract symphonic form at a moment in music history when storytelling was in vogue, Robert and Johannes carried forward a vital mantle, moulding it into their own shape. Clara, a musician of breathtaking skill and breadth, juggling the pressures of a solo career and motherhood, gifted us intimately touching and brilliantly crafted songs and chamber music.

It is my hope that across the span of these recordings you have been able to enjoy the mutual inspiration and admiration that is evident between these three friends. It is my hope also that through the prism of these programs and through the brilliance of our guests – from the interpretations and improvisations of Gabriela Montero and Stewart Goodyear, to the joyous chamber music of Yosuke Kawasaki, Angela Hewitt, Rachel Mercer, Adrianne Pieczonka, and Liz Upchurch – you have garnered a sense of how music was presented and consumed in their time. Fluid, improvisational, tautly constructed, intimate, and deeply personal, they speak to us across the ages.


Romance and Counterpoint

The moment when the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms shyly tapped on the door of Robert and Clara Schumann’s house in Düsseldorf amounted to a stroke of thunder in their lives and in their art. At that point Clara was one of the leading pianists of her generation, her husband known around Europe as a composer and writer on music, and Brahms an obscure student from Hamburg. In this young man Robert was immediately certain he had found a genius. He said so in a journal article that declared Brahms the coming saviour of German music – saviour, that is to say, from what Robert saw as the depredations of Wagner and Liszt, their joining of music to words and stories.

What followed was a period of marvellous and terrible tumult in all their lives. Robert had made Brahms instantly famous, or infamous, before he felt at all ready for it. Meanwhile soon after Robert published his article, his long-simmering mental afflictions overcame him, and after a suicide attempt he was institutionalized. At that point Brahms, who had looked at the Schumanns almost as surrogate parents, fell helplessly in love with Clara. It took years, and Robert’s death in the asylum, for these tangles to work themselves out, and they marked Brahms and Clara for life. Brahms fled marriage with her, but to the end she remained the love of his life.

Among the things that united Brahms and Robert Schumann was a fundamental conservatism in their musical ideals. Both deplored the rise of program music championed by Liszt and Wagner; both were wedded to the old “abstract” musical models: sonata form, scherzo, theme and variations, and the like, and the larger genres including four-movement symphonies, all of which Wagner and Liszt had declared dead and buried. Yet something else that joined Schumann and Brahms was a thoroughgoing originality in their handling of tradition. For all their abject worship of Beethoven, both of them had absolutely distinctive voices.

Schumann was manic-depressive and wrote largely in his manic phases. His First Symphony, which he dubbed Spring, was written in one week of 1841. It was well received, and he went on to a second symphony, in D minor. This one, however, did not fare so well, so he put it on the shelf for ten years and then debuted a revised version that found more success. It was published as No. 4, Op. 120. The revision was largely a matter of thickening the orchestration, which was to Clara’s taste but not to Brahms’s – he liked the first version better. Modern performances have tended to vote with Clara.

Though D minor was traditionally a key for tragic outings, Schumann’s Fourth is more a matter of energetic themes and of an atmosphere, set by the expansive introduction to the first movement, which has brooding touches but is largely grand and stately. It leads into the movement proper, which again is not tragic but rather driving and intense – call it grandly dancing. The symphony features an innovative structure: ideas from the first movement return in each of the ensuing movements. Thismakes for what came to be called a “cyclic” symphony, and Schumann made that idea a lasting part of symphonic tradition. A poignant Romanze serves as slow movement. With its pensive inwardness, this is Schumann’s high-Romantic vein. The romping scherzo has a vigorous main theme with kind of dark-toned high spirits. In the bravura finale breathless good cheer wins the day.

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in E minor, Op. 98, is quite another matter. Rather than beginning darkly and ending in joy as in his First, this work’s destination is in darkness. The first movement begins with a wistful and searching theme; this introduces a movement full of rolling counterpoint and soaring proclamations, but it ends in gnawing distress. Famously, when he finished the Fourth Brahms quipped to a friend: “Oh, once again I’ve just thrown together a bunch of waltzes and polkas.” This is typically Brahmsian irony at his own expense, but it contains something significant: all the movements are essentially based on the idea of dance. And dances are not always merry.

The second movement has a sternly archaic tone, like a solemn forest procession. The third movement is the polka, a shouting and robust one, in which whatever qualms the preceding movements have raised are put aside – until the searing brass chords that begin a deeply tragic finale. Here is Brahmsian innovation within tradition: the finale is in the old Baroque dance genre called a chaconne, meaning music written above a repeating bass line. There had never before been a symphonic chaconne. What Brahms was thinking of in this anguished movement, with its moments of wounded beauty, was the most famous of chaconnes, the one for solo violin by Bach, which likewise has a sense of mounting tragedy. Brahms once wrote Clara Schumann that if he had tried to write that work, it would have driven him mad.

Brahms’s reputation has always been as an abstractionist, his work free of autobiography. He did not write program music like most Romantics, but in fact his work was profoundly involved with his life and time. And what he saw around him, a growing tide of blood-and-steel reaction and antisemitism, was a formula for catastrophe – his word for his time. He was, of course, correct, though no one could have foreseen how that world- devouring catastrophe would take shape. One writer said that the finale of the Fourth is a portrait of a civilization beating itself to death. It was one of Brahms’s several dark prophecies of the future.


Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

Clara Schumann wrote instrumental romances throughout her compositional life, from her childhood to Robert’s death in 1856. At the time, the term “romance” was applied to a wide range of compositions, from simple mélodies to orchestral movements and bravura showpieces – for instance, the slow movements of her Piano Concerto, Op. 7 and of Robert’s Fourth Symphony are both Romanzen. Of her surviving compositions, 14 are romances, a considerable portion of her relatively compact output.

The Three Romances for Piano, Op. 11 date from her 1839 trip to France, which the 19-year-old Clara Wieck undertook on her own after her infamously cantankerous father, angry that she and Robert did not end their relationship as he had ordered, refused to accompany her. Of the set’s second piece, Clara wrote to Robert: “I am enclosing my Romance; tell me what you don’t like about it, and send it back to me right away because I haven’t finished it.” Robert replied effusively: “Listening again to your Romance, I see that we have to be man and wife. You complement me as a composer, just as I do you. Each of your ideas comes from my soul, just as I owe all of my music to you. There’s nothing to change in the Romance; it must remain as it is.”

The piece’s theme is a deceptively simple descending scale that first sounds in the left hand of the piano. Clara then reworks the theme by continually reharmonizing it and moving it across the keyboard. All three of the Op. 11 Romances would have allowed her to showcase the beautiful singing tone that was both a foundation of her own piano teaching and a hallmark of her performance style; as her friend the renowned mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot put it, “Her singing on the piano is better than mine.”

Clara’s Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22 (1853) are the fruit of her friendship with the famed violinist Joseph Joachim; they appear to have been custom-tailored to the violinist’s purity and flexibility of tone and agile bowing technique. In the first romance, one can almost hear the two friends conversing in the back-and-forth between piano and violin. The second and third pieces feature the long arching phrases that characterized both Joachim’s playing style and Clara’s compositional technique, while the rippling piano part in the third romance is a familiar accompanimental texture of hers.

The Romance in B minor is one of the rare works that Clara wrote after her husband’s death. An offering to Brahms for Christmas 1856, its theme recalls the Andante of her friend’s Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5. Infused with a deep melancholy, the music spins a delicate texture out of syncopated ascending gestures, repeated tones quietly tolling in an inner voice, and fluid descending curves. The work offers wonderful moments of textural intimacy as the different piano lines take turns in emerging to the fore and receding into the background.

Clara Schumann’s preludes and fugues highlight a preoccupation also shared by Robert and Johannes, namely a profound admiration for the music of J.S. Bach. Thus, both of their fourth symphonies in this set evince Bachian traits: witness the relentless treatment of a single idea in Robert’s first movement and the masterful passacaglia on a theme by Bach in Brahms’s finale. Clara’s own Baroque explorations are the result of her and Robert’s joint counterpoint studies in the 1840s. The Three Fugues on Themes by Sebastian Bach are study works, reworkings of Bach’s Fugues Nos. 7, 9, and 16 from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and in which Clara honed her skills in the genre. As such, she preserves several of Bach’s contrapuntal devices while exploring alternate voicings and textures. In her third fugue, however, she roams more freely and opens a creative historical dialogue with her predecessor: in a feat of contrapuntal virtuosity, she composes a wholly original stretto that realizes a fugal possibility that Bach omitted.

The Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp minor was a birthday gift to Robert in June 1845 and, like the Three Fugues, was not intended for publication (and indeed neither appeared in print until the 1990s). With her Preludes and Fugues, Op. 16, however, Clara aimed at consolidating her status as a professional composer – which was in the 19th-century mind incompatible with her gender – by establishing her mastery of a genre esteemed for its technical difficulty and historical weight.

Indeed, critics expressed amazement that a “feminine mind” could create such “intellectual” and “serious” works. In the preludes, she combines rejuvenated Baroque traits with her trademark songful phrasing and takes advantage of the pedals and wider range of the 19th-century piano, while the fugues are expert displays of her skill in the genre. Contrapuntal writing was a vital part both of Clara’s concert career – she was one of the earliest and principal performers of Bach in the Romantic era – and of her compositional trajectory. Her years of dedicated study later burst forth in full Romantic bloom, not least in her Piano Trio, Op. 17 and in her Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 20.


Reflection by Stewart Goodyear: "May I call you Clara?"

Having the honour of recording some of the music of Clara Schumann changed the way I now approach many composers of that period, and gave me an insight into her profound musicianship and philosophy of creation. Her sense of control with abandon, whether harmonically or lyrically, is second to none. What moves me the most about her music is not only her impeccable taste, balance, timing, and architecture, but also the beautiful humanity, love, and strength in every work she composed.

Learning her Romance in B minor made me reflect on her opinion of Franz Liszt’s Sonata, which is in the same key, and gave me a key to what it was about Liszt that was anathema to her. Her three romances show perfectly how the piano can share innermost secrets with the individual listener, feelings – and thought spoken in confidence and intimacy. Her preludes and fugues after J.S. Bach gave me an insight into her concept of counterpoint, how she made that form her own, and how she transcended Bach to make a Romantic statement that reaches dizzying heights.

Since I was three years old, I enjoyed playing by ear and improvising, and having the opportunity of improvising on the music of Clara Schumann was an immense joy as well as an immense challenge. I very much hoped to show my reflections of Clara Schumann in a language of the 21st century, even incorporating a piano style of the early 20th century that, to me, shares a few philosophies in common with her language and sense of humour.

There are a few composers in history whose music commands huge respect and reverence, but also embraces the listener to the point that they feel inspired to talk about the composer on a first-name basis. Clara, to me, is such a composer.


Reflection by Yosuke Kawasaki: Johannes Brahms

One of my earliest musical memories is of listening to the second movement of Brahms’s String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major. It opens with the mother of all viola solos, followed by what I must admit is a slightly less impressive violin solo. The viola melody captured me from the very first time I heard it. I was five years old and watching a Beta recording of a performance in which my father was playing the viola part ; the tape eventually disintegrated from countless rewinds.

Brahms has a special place in my heart – particularly his slow movements (the Andante of the C minor Piano Quartet and the Adagio of the Violin Concerto, to name two favourites) and just about every second theme of a sonata-form movement. The opening of the Fourth Symphony is not, technically, a slow movement, but it starts slow – or, at least, I always thought it should. The interpretation on this recording is one that I always dreamed of playing in. It’s as if Maestro Shelley read my mind and said, “Here you go.” It’s beautiful, full of longing, and heart wrenching. It’s also one of my two favourite moments in the entire work, the other being the section, about two thirds of the way through the first movement, when Brahms offers a moment of sunshine in the form of a tune played by two clarinets, before embarking on the most unbelievable transition back to the first theme. Guess what… it’s slow !