As I grow more and more acquainted with the stories of the writers of the past, and as I acquire more experience of life, I find some stories, often passed over as historical nuggets, deeply sad. Bach, for example, setting off on a journey only to return and find that his wife had not only died in his absence, but also been buried. How many times in later life did the great man quietly turn his thoughts to Maria Barbara, I wonder?
I am writing this not because I am feeling particularly melancholy – if fact, I find myself in a period of great happiness – but because I have been doing some research on Brahms’s first piano concerto, a piece born with great difficulty into the world and not well received, a piece whose first notes were written shortly after Robert Schumann, angels and demons arguing in his head, slipped quietly out of the house one night and threw himself in a river in an attempt to quieten those voices forever. Dragged from the water by some boatman, he was, at his own insistence, taken to an asylum in Bonn, for he feared for the safety of his family. Clara, his wife, pianist and composer, saw him only once more, two days before his death two years later.
Brahms was the go-between at that time, taking over the day to day running of the Schumann house, and the joyful young man who used (according to the Schumann children) to swing from the banisters grew up swiftly. As somebody once remarked, he was hiding a lot behind that beard.