Brahms and other hot messes

All you romantics out there will need no reminding that Valentine’s Day is next week. Of course, how you choose to celebrate is a personal matter. If you consider your love life to be in the “Hot Mess” category, you may choose not to celebrate at all, which is just fine too. Because we all need our day in the sun, you have been provided with another option. February 15th has now been set aside to celebrate Singles Awareness Day.


Of course, I am stubbornly refusing to divulge any autobiographical details here, but those of us who may find ourselves in the Hot Mess category can take comfort in having had some very good company. There’s Brad and Angelina, Brad and Jennifer Aniston, and perhaps a few historical precedents worth noting, of course: Antony and Cleopatra, Verlaine and Rimbaud, and Heloise and Abelard (a particularly disturbing tale, in case you’re not familiar).


Every bit as deserving of inclusion in this canon of woeful tales is the story of Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. If you search for an image of Brahms, you will come up with the iconic image of an old, exceedingly fat man with a rather off-putting mess of a beard. This captures Brahms when he occupied his place at the very top of European musical society. But if you search a bit further afield, you’ll find the young Brahms: slender, beard-free and quite a looker. When he was just 21, he met and fell deeply in love with Clara Schumann, a celebrated concert pianist and seventeen years his senior. She fell for him every bit as much as he fell for her. The complicating factor was that Clara was married. Her husband, Robert happened to be Brahms’s dear friend and mentor. Not long after Brahms came into their lives, Robert, who suffered from increasingly debilitating mental illness, threw himself into the Rhine and died some months later. For Brahms and Clara, the insurmountable obstacle had been removed, and they were free. But Brahms decided he couldn’t do it. He ran away. The day Clara put him on a train for Hamburg, she returned home and in her journal wrote, “I felt as if I were returning home from a funeral.”


We don’t know his reasons for turning his back on her. He would never become significantly involved with another woman. He and Clara remained in contact, but always at a distance. To the end, he remained a rigid disciplinarian in his life and in his music. He kept himself a loner. But we know from his letters to Clara that at one time, his passion for her burned white-hot. He was a man always divided, and this conflict of light and darkness permeates in his music. Between the monumental structures of perfect order, there are always moments of a heart-melting yearning.


Regardless of whether you choose a romantic dinner for Valentine’s Day or burning effigies of your exes for Singles Awareness Day, I hope you’ll raise a glass in honour of hot messes everywhere, past, present and future. We’d have precious little to talk about without them.