The relationship between Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, and Robert Schumann is a fascinating one. In the past, music historians have loved imagining a love triangle, but these speculations have not been proven.
Here is what we do know:
At age 20, Brahms met the Schumann’s, who were nearly 15 years his senior. Robert and Clara were immediately impressed by the young German. After publishing a review on Brahms in the New Journal Of Music, Robert Schumann wrote Brahms’ father in the winter of 1853, informing the family of Robert’s praise. In the same month, Schumann urged Brahms to travel to Leipzig in order to promote his music in person.
Interestingly enough, up to this point, there was not much correspondence between Brahms and Clara Schumann. However, while in Leipzig, he wrote to Albert Dietrich to ask if it was appropriate to dedicate his Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor to her.
In early 1854, Robert Schumann attempted suicide - the same year Brahms published his Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 9. For the next six years, Brahms experienced a compositional writers bloc. During this time, though, he lived at the Schumann home for one season, learning a great deal about early music, counterpoint, music editing, and music history. The summer of the same year marked the point in Brahms’ career that he felt the most attached to Clara. He flowered her with gifts, began writing a two-piano sonata (one can only guess who he wished to perform it alongside him), and spoke openly of his love for her (these feelings are not documented as being reciprocated). Nonetheless, any sign in Robert’s recovery led to an intense rejoicing from Brahms, as he still revered the ill composer for his public endorsement.
Brahms visited and stayed with Clara a few days before Robert Schumann’s death in 1856. After he passed, Clara began promoting and playing both Robert and Johannes’ works. In order to consol her, Brahms frequently stayed in an apartment above Clara’s to help out with her children & housekeeping needs. In their correspondences, Brahms’ tone shifts from a more passionate tone to a reverent one towards the widow.
Just months before Clara’s death, Johannes Brahms wrote the following. I believe it to perfectly summarize his feelings towards her:
"I have often thought that Mrs. Schumann might outlive all her children and me — but I never wished it for her. The thought of losing her can terrify us no longer, not even me, the lonely one, for whom there is all too little alive in the world. And when she will have gone from us, will our faces not glow with pleasure whenever we remember her? That wonderful woman, whom we were privileged to take delight in throughout a long life - to love and admire her, more and more."
Johannes Brahms died less than a year later, but not before sending sincere condolences to Clara’s children upon their mother’s death. Through all of this, while it is easy to imagine a love affair, many do not believe it to have been true. Clara’s marriage to Robert was one of sincere devotion, almost of a sacred nature. Nonetheless, the mystery always will remain of the true relation between Johannes and Clara.
**For further reading, I would highly recommend the set of letters of Johannes Brahms; published by Styra Avins, Oxford University Press**