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Photo: Public Domain

The triangle refers to composer Robert Schumann, the pianist and composer Clara Wieck — she and Robert were married in 1840 — and the much younger friend and composer Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was introduced to the Schumanns in 1853. He was 20, Robert was 43, and Clara 34. They immediately recognised how special he was and supported his early career. However, tragically, Robert Schumann was not well; he was committed to an asylum the following year and died two years after that. Brahms and Clara lived for another 40 years and stayed very close friends and musical confidantes. Their correspondence hints at times at a love affair but the true nature of their personal relationship remains a mystery.

Helene Pohl introduces the Clara Schumann work in the audio below. Down further, there's some more information about the other two works.

Robert Schumann wrote his song-cycle Dichterliebe, “A Poet’s Love” in 1840, the year he married Clara against the wishes of her father.

The 16 songs have texts by Heinrich Heine and the cycle outlines the story of a boy’s love for a girl. The early songs are full of apprehension and excitement.

In the wondrous month of May
When buds were bursting open,
Then it was that my heart
Filled with love.

But the girl spurns him and the later songs express heartbreak, occasional anger, and despondency.

I wept in my dream,
I dreamt you loved me still.
I woke and still
My tears stream.

In the final song, the boy asks for a coffin. The final lines are…

Do you know why the coffin
Should be so heavy and big?
I would put my love in
And my sorrow too.

And the piano follows that with a postlude which pushes away the dark mood to suggest an ending of release from his grief to a wistful resignation for the boy. It is truly one of the most magical moments in all of music.

This Piano Quintet by Brahms was actually the third incarnation of the work. Two earlier versions, a string quintet with two cellos, and a sonata for two pianos were both given the thumbs down by Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim.

It just goes to show that the choice of instrumentation is so important in allowing the ideas and emotions in a piece of music speak to their fullest effect. A piano is needed to release some expansiveness that might not be available from the intimate conversations of strings alone. And yet we still need the strings to give voice to the yearning that is at the core of this work.

It also shows how fruitfully an artist can develop a work with guidance from trusted friends giving honest comment with love.

For RNZ Concert and RNZ Music...
Tim Dodd, Producer
Graham Kennedy, Recording Engineer