Sunday, April 6, 2014

Romantics - Lisel Mueller

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 us nothing to overhear.

The love between Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms is the stuff of Romantic legend.  With Robert fading in health and going insane, the young Brahms, only 21, came to the side of Clara, at the time 35, who was raising her and Robert's seven children.  Their love, likely never consummated (which, as Mueller points out, we all seem rather obsessed with) was fiery and painful.  The social mores of the day strongly condemned affairs, and even when after Robert's death, they did not marry.

Their love is much talked about, probably overly so.  To be sure it is an incredible story, and I implore all of my blog readers to learn about it (you may do so here).  However, the degree to which we obsess over "how far it went" as Mueller tastefully puts it, is silly.  The idea that we can quantify depth of love by some metric of physical passion is idiotic.  The images of longing in the poem, particularly "a hand held overlong" fill my head with the warmth of another's touch, and the sadness of knowing that that touch can only be temporary.  That glow of warmth and sadness permeates much of Brahms' music.  As I write this, I am listening to the Intermezzo no. 2, A Major op. 118.  It is easy to imagine Mueller's scene of the two of them, friends, lovers, teachers, students, in a flower garden, shaded by the wide leaves of a tree, as rich and full as the deep chords of Brahms' piano writing.

"letting the landscape speak for them, leaving us nothing to overhear" is a great aural image.  Other than imagining the background noise of a garden, I like the idea that love can be private and silent.  Nothing needs to be said, it is enough to let the silence and gazes speak.  We are awfully rude about the private lives of the famous, particularly when the relationship was so famous and fascinating as that between Johannes and Clara.  Perhaps it is a good thing that we cannot know exactly what their love was like.

Here is the recording of the Intermezzo that I listened to.  It's played by the masterful Glenn Gould, and I hope that you enjoy it.

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