Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms

Vienna House/Belwin-Mills, 2 vols.


What is thrown into the Rhine is sometimes fished out again; a gold ring in the legend, and poor Schumann in real life. But his own wedding ring is still there. 30 years later Brahms made a similar ritual gesture to Clara when he consigned selected letters to the Rhine from the deck of a steamer. Thence arose rumours that he was no mere pen­friend but a co-respondent. No doubt the jettisoned letters went deeper than the rest. But they would surely still be found innocent at bottom. And there can hardly be any need for further concealment; the lacunae detectable in the first edition (Leipzig, 1927) might now be filled from the available holographs to provide a definitive text.

    What the English language version needs is not a few additions but a new edition. Instead it has been reprinted unchanged with all its imperfections on its head-and in ours, if we're not careful. I fear that the work was skimped just to achieve simultaneous translation (London and New York, 1927). Commercial pressures seem to have squeezed out some 30% of the original contents. But if business was looking up, it wasn't in the dictionary; or we should have been spared such off-key expressions as the F flat major Trio and the A sharp major Serenade. There are four mistranslations in the first 20 pages alone. The whole text is distorted by the translator's conviction that Brahms's plain prose needed tarting up; so “dürfte ich” becomes “may I crave permission”, “wie mir ums Herz wird” is “the tumult in my heart”, and so on.

    The foreword blandly claims that the admitted defects and abridgements do not really detract from the spiritual beauty of this testament of mutual devotion. But I doubt whether the condensed milk of the gospel will be to everyone's taste. Of course any translation, even one which manages to be both indifferent and partial, will at least make the lines easier to read between. But here one never knows whether those intimate and revealing flashes of reticence or silence (e.g. about Schumann's last illness, or about religion) come from Brahms, Clara, or the translator. Even some of the really illuminating phrases, such as Brahms's quotations from the Arabian Nights in 1854, and Clara's warning 40 years later that letter-writing calls for caution, are simply omitted. Sales targets are rarely hit by blanks; and my own prediction is that those to whom the subject is dear willfind the book unrewarding, and vice versa.


The Musical Times, Sept., 1974 (p. 751) © the estate of eric sams