Brahms and his musical love letters

The Musical Times 1970 © The Estate of Eric Sams



                                                                                  ‘Nothing introduces you a heroine like music. Here she comes!’

                                                                                                              (Sheridan, The Critic)



Brahms claimed that all he ever learned from Schumann was chess. But that sounds like a prepared defence. They were really allies. Brahms had good reason to call himself “Kreisler Junior”, as he did not just in adolescence but in mature manhood; he wrote more musical letters than anyone save his admired master.

     Among his earliest (and finest) works was the fairly absurd exercise, set by Schumann, of con­tributing a scherzo on F-A-E to the violin sonata written for Joachim (“in expectation of the arrival of a friend” says the dedication). Those letters stood for Joachim's supposed motto, Frei Aber Einsam (free but lonely). But that odd idea could fully as easily be attributed to Schumann (alias Florestan and Eusebius), who was still as fascinated as ever with mottoes and themes; indeed, more than ever, because much of what his devotees took for amiable eccentricity at this time (1853) was often in fact already evidence of mental breakdown.

     Whatever F-A-E may have meant to Joachim, it seems to have meant much to Brahms, as man and musician. For if that sonata movement is indeed based on those notes, then the technical possibilities of a new compositional device are being exploited with a brilliance and subtlety of which few mature masters would be capable - least of all poor ailing Schumann, whose own movements were so feeble in comparison. The position at the chess-board is not recorded. But at the keyboard one lesson was enough; and the expressive symbolisms of chess and music are close kin. Each has themes and variations, tensions and resolutions in space and time; each has its infant prodigies and born masters. As soon as Brahms learned his musical letters, they became part of his lifelong language. Perhaps F-A-E had a sequel in the A minor string quartet op.51 no.2, 20 years after. His own counter-device of Frei Aber Froh (free but happy) seems to have made sound sense (to him at least) for over 30 years, from the First Serenade to the Third Symphony. [1]

      Some of the earlier examples are strikingly Schumannian. Thus the young Brahms wove the notes B A C H into (of all things) a cadenza for a Beethoven piano concerto; [2] and referred to Gisela von Arnim as G# E A (Gis/e/la). [3] The musical letters of his own name, B A H S, were incorporated into a friend's 21st-birthday tribute; [4] and it has been plausibly suggested that this idea also forms the subject of Brahms's own contemporary A flat minor organ fugue. [5] Such musical letters bear the stamp of Schumann; and like his were soon being addressed to a girl-friend, Agathe Siebold in Göttingen. There she was pursued by Brahms one summer, but later disappeared from his life. In escaping him she was transformed into music, and now lives on, like a classical legend, in the guise of ex. 1, from the first




movement of the string sextet op. 36. This music means [6] AGA(T)HE; ADE-adieu, Agathe: a long farewell which took seven years to complete, and which seems to resound as forlornly as Echo herself through all four movements. Perhaps that is a hallucination. But ex. 2 is there for everyone to see and hear, [7] in the vocal quartet op. 44 no.10. The ad libitum piano part begins with just those notes played five times over (and sung thrice by two altos); it is an obvious signature tune. Less evident is the use of these same notes, ex. 3, in the contrasting major section; but is it less deliberate? That quartet is the last of four settings of Paul Heyse. All are about separation or silence or lost love. Each of the first three, whether by accident or design, has the notes A G# A H E in its opening bars. It seems reasonable to ask whether the early songs known to have been inspired by Agathe, herself a singer, will not also be heard pronouncing a benediction and a valediction, hail and farewell?

     There are-nine such songs; six from op. 14 (nos. 2 and 3 were already written before Brahms met Agathe) and three from op. 19 (The Blacksmith and To an Aeolian Harp being textually inappropriate). All nine are about separation and lost love. All nine express the sentiment (and one contains the words) “Ade! Ade!”. There are two ways of saying this in music (and of course Schumann had already used them both); either as sounded in German by the notes A, D or as spelt by A,D,E. Brahms again seems to outdo his master by combining both ideas, as in ex. 4 (voice) and ex. 5 (piano postlude) from op. 19 no. 3.



Brahms called that song In der Ferne (Far away) in the published score, but An die Ferne (To my faraway love) in the manuscript. [8] It also shares a musical theme with its textual companion-piece,Scheiden und Meiden (Parting and separation) which begins with ex. 4 in the minor. At the words “I kiss you goodbye, I press you to my heart” comes the eloquent progression of ex. 6, which seems almost as outspoken as exx. 1 and 2. But hidden away among other sounds the notes escape notice, just as nothing can be heard of Agathe in the Göttingen saga thereafter. Yet there she is, seen but not heard.

One simple but not obvious way of writing exx. 1 and 2 would be as in ex. 7a - the very music of venery, as apt for love song as folksong. In op. 14 no 1, written for Agathe in September 1858, the watch­man sounds his horn as the lovers part; the words “ade, ade” are separated by an A-D sign from the right hand; ex. 7a resounds throughout. So it does in op. 14 no. 6, Der Gang zum Liebchen (The way to the loved one), where again the two part in two parts (ex. 7b). Now the music assumes new

significant forms; stealing along to meet her (bars 1-2, 7-8) unheard, in secret (bars 10-11); “zu meiner Herzliebsten muss ich gehn ... ganz heimelig”.


   By the end of the last song of op. 14; this duet of unheard melodies has become a voiceless chorus that swells and dies in the imagined climax of Sehnsucht (Longing)ex. 8. 



     After that, any further use of the motto-theme might fall flat. Yet it might still be recognizable thus, as when no. 5, Trennung (Separation)sings of the pain of parting (“Das Scheiden tuet not”); or even when transposed a tone down. This could explain why those folksong-style 6ths come sidling sidelong into a setting of classical Greek metre, Der Kuss op. 19 no. 1 (ex. 9).




    Or perhaps the phrase might have been imagined as a kind of musical acronym, with each note beginning a bar, just as initial letters can start up ideas (as F,A,E are used nine times in the second paragraph of this essay). That might be how Ständchen op. 14 no. 7 began. It ends, like all the others, in loneliness and separation: “doch ich muss ziehn allein”. Or take the phrase another tone down. Might that melody not have been the true first line of the masterly Ein Sonett op. 14 no. 4 (ex. 10)? For Brahms could apparently write his musical letters at any pitch of intensity. Agathe is named as literally in the sextet op.36 as in the comparatively trivial duets op. 20, e.g. Weg der Liebe I (Love will find out the way) written for her in the autumn of 1858 (bars 26-8 and three parallel passages, bars 54-5 and 60-1) Die Meere (The seas)also from op. 20, was dated 1860; but still the words sing “my heart knows no rest”, and still the notes sing her name.

     We are left in little doubt of Brahms's motives in writing such music. He seems to have written musical letters just as Schumann did; naturally, unself­consciously, expressively. And if to Agathe Siebold, a summertime's idyll, then surely also to Clara Schumann, a lifetime's idol?


[1] Max Kalbeck, Johannes Brahms (1912), i, 98ff.

[2] Kalbeck, op. cit., I, 256.

[3] Briefe an Joachim (1908), I, 132.

[4] Kalbeck, op. cit., I, 170n.

[5] Schauffler, Florestan (1945), p. 291n.

[6] according to Max Kalbeck, who was well placed to know; op. cit., I, 331.

[7] as Hans Gal points out; Johannes Brahms(1963), p. 96.

[8] Kalbeck, op. cit., I, 335n.