Sherlock, Schumanns and Brahms

The following blog will reference Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann and Sherlock Holmes. If you want to avoid spoilers stop reading after this sentence, as I may not only spoil recent Sherlock plots for you, but also certain ideas about the lives of certain musical figures that are quite appealing, but also quite possibly not true.

I spent this evening reading what the publicly-accessible internet has to offer on Brahms C minor Piano Quartet Op. 60. It’s really quite exciting, I do like it. I was reading CD reviews, programme notes as well as journal articles about the piece online. I did all this as quickly as possible because I wanted to maximise productivity before the evening’s episode of Sherlock. For the record, I thought I enjoyed it but am so tired of the frequent casual sexism, it’s so lazy, disappointing and downright problematic. This was the second Majorly Problematic Issue I’d encountered over the course of the evening, because it turns out the Brahms Piano Quartet is highly susceptible to what I would tentatively call biographical imposition. That is, people can listen to the music, look at when he wrote it, and say ‘aha! This note/rhythm/cadence/structure reflects this emotion/event/situation’.  The fact that I’ve called this imposition suggests that I believe it is a construction of listeners and scholars, and I suppose this is what Cynical Me reckons. I think the reason I think this relates to the more problematic issue which then attracted my attention: dodgy biography.

The problem is, we all love a good story. I would say we are all also predisposed to fall slightly in love with those we admire/study/value, but perhaps this is an overstatement or generalisation. However, I believe that this happens in many instances. As it has occurred to many Sherlock fans, and perhaps even more so to non-regular viewers, the latest series has really pandered to the fans. The Sherlock/Moriarty kiss, for example, could well have been a fanfic, and probably is! The analyses of Brahms’ Piano Quartet, of varying credibility, I had been reading beforehand all began with some ‘context’.

Let’s talk about ‘context’- it’s important (but context is perhaps more important). My extended essay (Big Piece of Writing for Which I Did Lots of Work and Got Stupidly Passionate About) last year was on ‘Schumann and the Trope of Madness’. It was inspired by me quoting Schumann talking about Brahms and my tutor responded by questioning this, ‘because Schumann was mad’. Two things struck me very hard in this moment. Are we really calling people ‘mad’ in the twenty-first century- what does that mean, is it appropriate? And even if it is ‘ok’ to call someone mad, does Schumann fall into this ‘category’? Because, to me ‘not mad’ (you can quote him) and ‘mad’ (be careful trusting anything he says) seems like a bipartite method of categorisation, that even if accurate, which it possibly isn’t, probably because ‘mad’ isn’t really a very helpful or specific term and potentially fluid in definition, could cause us to actually discount a lot of very important sources. In my opinion, Schumann was a one of the key figures in the development of writing on music throughout his life, and his writing tells us an awful lot about music, society and the arts more generally at the time- which is fairly important for musicologists.

So I decided I’d investigate Schumann and ‘madness’. Where had this come from? My main observation was that writing had largely been involved with the construction of ‘madness’ in the life of Schumann. This happened in multiple ways, beginning with Schumann himself. From a young age he was obsessed with the tragic, Romantic artist figure. Byron was his personal hero in as much as he represented in archetype as in his own work. Robert actually loved writing, and before he began his first degree (in law), one can see he wrote more poetry and prose than music. His style of writing was consciously Romantic, and one could argue that the prose he wrote was always in the realms of fiction. His own autobiographical writing (he began his first autobiography as a child!) including letters and diary entries is almost painfully hyperbolic. In short, this dramatic, consciously artistic style combined with his aspirations to be seen among the likes of Byron and Hoffman, meant that his writing often provided a space for expressing his own idealistic conceptions of himself which were intentionally in the veins of a tragic hero.

(INTERLUDE: I could write about this for ages, and give plenty of examples but I’ll stop because this wasn’t the main intention of my post. If you are interested though, do ask and I can show you the full piece I wrote!)

Later, biographers trying to get a good idea of Schumann’s life had various key events to work from, with gaps in between, which could be filled by interpretations of letters, diary entries, articles etc. The key event in Schumann’s life for most biographers, was his attempted suicide in 1854. Of course, if this were a fictional story, this would be the peak of the plot, the point from which the denouement begun. The problem is, this is the way many biographers have understood it. Whether because they’ve found it juicy, interesting, dramatic and problematic or because they know readers will, this event becomes the peak of their work. A teleological approach then motivates the construction of a relatively linear narrative on their behalf that accounts for his attempted suicide. Which essentially generally boils down to: he was mad/mentally ill (depending on who you are/when you were writing), these are the signs of madness/illness we can see in his life/music bubbling up to this point. Luckily for them, Schumann’s writing can be conveniently translated and interpreted to suit this meaning. One of my favourite instances of this is when he writes to Clara initially apologising for not having written for a while. He then explains himself: ‘every day I look more visibly wasted, and shoot up into the air a spindly dry leafless beanstalk. The doctor has even forbidden me to yearn too strongly, for you to be precise, because it excites me too much. But today I tore all the bandages off my wounds and laughed in the doctor’s face when he tried to hold me back from writing, yes I threatened to attack him with the fever and to infect him, if he didn’t quietly let me have my way.’ As you can see, if taken very literally, it would indeed strike one that Schumann’s health was a serious matter for concern. If interpreted in context of his literary and artistic intentions, it is perhaps more likely that Robert hadn’t written for a while, had been unwell and decided to dress this up to transform any ill-feelings from Clara into sympathy and concern. Again, if you’re interested I can show you various varying interpretations of this passage from a number of scholars.

So, back to Brahms. Apparently, his Piano Quartet Op. 60 reflects his relationship with Clara Schumann. Robert was dying (possibly of organic brain disease, possibly of side effects of syphilis or syphilis treatment, which he may or may not have had, we actually don’t know, though various people claim that they do) and either owing to Clara’s inability to cope or the doctor’s weird regime depending on whose biography you read, Clara only saw him a couple of times and Johannes Brahms was his main visitor. During this period Brahms moved into the Schumann household and appears to have helped out with the family, whilst he and Clara battled with their desire for one another combined with sorrow and sense of betrayal of Robert for having these feelings. Apparently. Now, some biographies admit that we don’t really know if this was the case or not. Other’s don’t, and most analyses of the Piano Quartet op 60 begin by telling us that this music is about Brahms and his longing for Clara etc etc etc. (links to non-JSTOR/book articles here 1, 2, 3 obviously these aren’t the best, but they’re accessible for all). It is true that Brahms uses a transposition of Robert’s melodic spelling of ‘CLARA’ in the opening, but to be fair, I’ve studied Robert more, and know that contemporary composer culture was to do this for friends or acquaintances all the time, sometimes as a gesture of appreciation, sometimes because they wanted a favour. It wouldn’t surprise me that Brahms would do the same. I’d agree that the quartet is quite emotional, and one can certainly interpret parts as being tragic or longing or…probably most things you might choose to, to be honest.

And this brings me to my main point: I’m sure we love the idea of Clara and Johannes, struggling with the illness of Robert, supporting each other lovingly, Brahms picking up Clara out of her despair and tending for her many children when she couldn’t manage (because that fits in with some delightful gender stereotyping too). It’s easy to fall in love with the idea too that this was a secret relationship, and that they never got married because they were such good people that they wanted to retain loyalty to their dear Robert. We then get another two tragic figures, another two admirable characters who despite adversity showed deep love and honourable characteristics. Maybe they played together, looking occasionally into one another’s eyes, exchanging a look of sorrow that this could be the only consummation of their love…

Watching Sherlock I realised- this is a fanfic. I’d always been suspicious of such biographical writing which claims that such stories are true, and analyses that used these, (and then biographies that drew upon the ‘secrets of the music’ in return), but this struck me as the perfect way to articulate it. The story of Brahms and Clara is wonderful-we’d love to imagine it is true. But the likelihood is that it is a construct of biographers who would also like it to be true, and have used the extant ‘evidence’ to prove this. Because whether it’s notes or words, people will find a way. It’s almost a case of ‘if it’s too good to be true…it probably isn’t’. So, I suppose what I’m saying is, when reading this kind of thing in either a lengthy biography or as a short biographic note before an analysis, think about the sources behind it. It is there a chance it is a bit of a fanfic that adoring fans would love to be true because it’s such a good story? Or is it actually definitely A Thing?

Outside of that, I did enjoy Sherlock, but perhaps occasional viewers will begin to get ticked off if there are near constant references to kinky fan-imagined backstories in the actual show…


6 thoughts on “Sherlock, Schumanns and Brahms

  1. Funnily enough iTunes treated me to Clara Schumann’s Konzertsatz as I started reading this, but that’s beside the point.
    You make many excellent points – I’m extremely wary of biographical imposition, although it is the easiest thing in the world to slip into. It depends a great deal on the composer, I think. There are those whose work is often, though not always, coloured and even dictated by their personal circumstances (Shostakovich for example), but it’s a very dangerous game to play.
    Anyway, I just thought I’d pick up on the Sherlock fanfic thing. It’s an accusation that’s been levelled it a lot, but surely it’s always been fanfic? By definition, if ACD didn’t write it, that’s what it is. It’s fanfic with a big budget, of course, and far more skilful than what most people mean by ‘fanfic’, but fanfic it remains. I thoroughly enjoyed both episodes so far this season – casual sexism and inaccurate violin miming asid– and am looking forward to the season finale.

    1. Thanks- I agree! To be honest, I wasn’t really criticising Sherlock for its ‘fanficyness’, and you are right that by definition it could be considered fanfic. It was just that Sherlock rose the issue of fanfic to my attention that got me thinking about it as a good way of looking at problematic biography. I also enjoyed both episodes this series, I think it’s just disappointing when the writers who prove themselves to be so intelligent through the nature of their story-telling, characterisation etc, then use really lazy gender and racial stereotypes that are then broadcast around the world for millions of people to see. They could be using that platform so influentially but instead have presented phrases such as ‘Down, girl,’ and ‘Control your wife’ there!

  2. Lovely article, I think similar critiques could also be applied to other art history areas, particularly paintings. On the other hand, something tells me we can’t just throw out all that false-empathising, I suppose it’s still important to know that great passion for particular events, and indeed passions particular to the individual artists or composers, and furthermore particular to when they wrote, affected and created the works they make. Maybe that’s not very important.

    1. Ok, I think there might be two things going on in an exorgesis of music in this way. The first is what you’d expect, an analysis of the piece by its own merits, merits appropriately understood with some context. The second is something like understanding what music was to the composer and how it came to be composed. I’d say the consensus among philosophers of aesthetics would be to say the latter can be needed to accomplish the former (for example in poetry it can make a difference to how we evaluate a poem’s merit if the writer has actually experienced the things he’s writing about), but the two are not the same task, a distinction which seems to have become veiled.

      Again, great article.

    2. You’re right- these influences do matter, but the issue I’m addressing here is when people have gone too far sensationalising possible influences and searching for possible juicy stories wherever possible. And I’m sure it’s exactly the same for painters, sculptors etc- this is just one tiny example, there will be hundreds I imagine!
      Glad you liked it 🙂

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