On Easter Monday, 1872, when Brahms was thirty-eight years old, he wrote to Clara Schumann:
All winter long I have been doing counterpoint exercises very assiduously. What for? To be better able to disparage my pretty things?—I did not need counterpoint for that. To become a university professor?—no, not that either. To learn to write music better?—even that I’m not hoping for. But still in the end it’s a bit tragic when one gets to be too clever for one’s needs.
By 1872, Brahms had become the leader of the conservative faction of European music as well as the most learned composer in the history of music. He was able to make a very good living simply from the sale of his published works without relying on patronage or a salaried appointment—unlike Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, or any of his predecessors whose music would remain, like his, in the repertory for another century.
Yet he was temperamentally uncertain of the value of his work. He submitted his compositions for advice from the musicians and amateurs he most respected, and often enough refused to accept their counsel. He destroyed dozens of large-scale works. His first published string quartets were preceded, he said, by twenty that have now disappeared. Trunkfuls of early works were burned. The manuscript of the Sonata for Piano no. 1, opus 1, published when he was twenty years old, is titled “Sonata no. 4.”1 But it was not merely the compositions of his youth that have gone forever. In 1880, when he was forty-seven, he played two new trios for Clara Schumann. She preferred the one in E-flat major. He burned it. The very large number of works that have survived—121 opuses—must be about one third of his total output.
On October 1, 1853, Robert Schumann wrote in his diary: “Visit from Brahms (a genius).” The twenty-year-old Brahms who appeared at the door of the Schumanns’ house in Düsseldorf with a large sheaf of his own compositions was nothing like the heavily bearded, massively rotund figure that we know from later photographs. He was slim and delicately beautiful, with a high-pitched young boy’s voice, and for a long time looked much younger than his years. A virtuoso pianist and already a composer with a large body of work, he had been befriended by the twenty-two-year-old Joseph Joachim, the most famous young violinist in Europe, who remained Brahms’s close friend for the rest of his life; he advised Brahms to go to see the Schumanns. Clara was one of the most successful pianists of the time, and Robert, still undervalued and struggling as a composer, was nevertheless recognized in advanced circles as one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in music.
In his new biography of Brahms, Jan Swafford remarks that he was not the first handsome young composer that Schumann proclaimed as the…
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