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Ghost Variations

“No one will learn anything about me from my letters.”
—Johannes Brahms


We woke at the same moment, our hearts twanging in our chests. There was a suffocating disturbance in the darkness, a thrum like beating wings. I’ve never believed in apparitions, visitations, angels, ghosts—and yet I felt it; we both did. A strange, unreasonable thing. B’s body quivered like an open string, tuned to the resonance of correspondences and signs. He knew there were things out there you felt but couldn’t see.

      Out the window, the trees are flailing in the rising wind. A branch scrapes against the house; acorns rain onto the roof. The sky is blackish orange, as if the far hills were burning, although it’s just the city’s distant tungsten glow. Wind and air are also felt but unseen things. Music too.

      Listen: to the creaking trees and rushing wind and above it all the music, those aching F-sharp minor sonorities: Brahms. Somehow I thought that if I listened long enough, I would—

      Never mind.



An impossible task, to conjure a spirit from the dead. There’s so little to go on—letters, hearsay, speculation, a portrait sketch, a sheaf of scores. Fragments, mirrors, ectoplasm, smoke.

      A photograph: Johannes Brahms at twenty-one. Blond hair falling to the shoulders, a high forehead, a widow’s peak. White-blond brows and lashes, light blue eyes. One hand tucked into his coat like Goethe’s Young Werther or Napoleon. His cheeks still beardless, his voice still high, they said.

      What is it that’s so familiar about this photograph? I rummage through my desk, searching for that other photograph, that other B. And there it is: the same blond hair swept back from the forehead, the same blue gaze and slightly stubborn chin. The resemblance is uncanny: except for the frock coat and sentimental pose, they almost could be twins. Doppelgängers. Brahms would have liked that. In those early days he signed his compositions in the name of a fictional double, Johannes Kreisler, Jr., a character from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales. The divided self refracts.

      In the photograph, B stands beside a wooden statue—a man’s body with a horse’s head. It’s an avatar of Vishnu, Hayagriva, worshipped for rescuing the sacred Vedas from the demons. In Hinduism, Hayagriva represents the triumph of knowledge over evil, although the statue held a different significance for B. He took the horse’s head as a reminder not to speak of what he knew—things that the rest of us were not yet prepared to hear.

      I speak in my music, Brahms once wrote. Better to weave a story out of eighth notes and appoggiaturas, chords and quavers, counterpoint. Theme and variations—yes.



Düsseldorf, September 1853. Brahms is standing before the blue doors of Bilkerstraße 1032, Schumann’s house. He adjusts his rucksack, shakes back his hair, stringy after a week of tramping along the Rhine. His boots are muddy, perhaps, his jacket not so very clean. A carriage clatters past along the cobblestones. In the distance, the afternoon bells of St. Lambert’s begin to chime. He raises his hand to knock. He will not go back with nothing to show for his trip. He will not return unrecognized to philistine Hamburg, where the sky hangs gray as a dishrag over the North Sea docks. He will not be like his father, playing the bugle in his buffoonish Burgerwehr plumed cap in a pavilion in the park. Inside him the tritone clangs, the devil’s own diminished fifth. Meinem in c-ges gestimmten Herze, he has called it: “my C-G–flat–tuned heart.”

      Here is Brahms at twenty, then, stepping across the Schumanns’ threshold, Robert bending to embrace him, Clara smiling at her husband’s side. The boy will play for them his C major sonata, his F-sharp minor sonata, his scherzo in E-flat. Visit from Brahms (a genius), Schumann will note afterward in his diary. He touches Brahms on the shoulder, a king dubbing a commoner a knight. His dressing gown flaps in the breeze. His eyes are a little wild, even then. You and I understand each other, he says. He is quoting E. T. A. Hoffmann—the Kappelmeister Kreisler speaking to Johannes Kreiseler, Jr., his apprentice, his double, his protégé: Ah, my dear Johannes, who knows you better than I do, who has so deeply looked into you, nay, has looked out from inside you? How could Schumann have known that the boy had signed the scores of the pieces he just performed Johannes Kreisler, Jr. and not Johannes Brahms?

      Kreis means “circle” in German. Everything comes full circle in the end. There’s no such thing as coincidence, B said. When he said that, I never knew what to think.



Doubles, circles, correspondences: everywhere you look you find those old Romantic conceits. Nobody goes in for it anymore, all that mooning over nature and ancient ruins, but I’m attracted to it all the same. The privileging of emotion over reason, the notion of an excess of feeling beyond what you can rationally understand.

      They doubled and circled each other in their music, Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Wove into their compositions layers of quotations, echoes, allusions to each others’ works. For her husband’s forty-third birthday in 1853, Clara wrote a set of variations on a theme from one of Robert’s Bunte Blätter variations, and in 1854 Brahms wrote for Clara sixteen variations on the same theme: Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, opus 9. Brahms’s tenth variation quotes Clara’s seventh variation in which she quotes her own Romance, a piece she wrote for Robert when she was just thirteen. Schumann wrote another set of variations, his Impromptus, in response, and Brahms’s fifteenth variation quotes that piece as well. Variations on variations on variations. An infinite regression. A palimpsest.

      It’s a love story, of course. The famous romance of Robert Schumann and the child prodigy Clara Wieck; the perhaps even more famous romance of Clara Schumann and the young Johannes Brahms. I put the recording of the opus 9 variations on the stereo. Short Variations on a Theme by Him, for Her, Brahms scribbled on the autograph. There’s a whisper of static, a faint echo as the piano sounds. The theme is deceptively simple: a progression of F-sharp minor harmonies descending C-B-A-G-A to “spell” Clara’s name. The chords modulate from minor to major and back to minor, building to an intense sforzando cry. The harmonic voices mingle, and then fade, as lovers’ voices do. It’s not so easy to distinguish art from love.



The problem of imagining another life is a problem of time. Ghosts, by definition, make present what is past. But we see right through them to the other side.

      They were Germans born before the unification of Germany, before electricity and automobiles and recorded music and the two world wars, before Einstein and Schoenberg and Hitler and Freud, before the entire century that we’ve already left behind. A time of crinolines and horse-drawn carriages and frock coats and quill pens and candlelight. Although by the 1850s things were already changing—steam engines and petroleum and gunpowder grinding mankind toward the threshold of modern times. They considered themselves Moderns, even then.

      In the year 1854, the year Brahms composes the opus 9 variations and falls in love with another man’s wife, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, John Philip Sousa, Thomas Watson, and Alfred Krupp are born; Vincent van Gogh and Cecil Rhodes turn one; Commodore Perry forces Japan to open its ports to Western trade; France and England declare war on Russia; Dickens serializes Hard Times; Harriet Tubman sends the first slaves along the Underground Railroad; Walt Whitman works on “Leaves of Grass”; Florence Nightingale departs for the Crimea; the Suez Canal is inaugurated; Nadar makes his first daguerreotypes; Thoreau publishes Walden and Tennyson “The Charge of the Light Brigade”; Chopin is dead and George Sand is writing her memoirs; Berlioz’s oratorio The Infant Christ premiers, along with Liszt’s Preludes. It has been nearly one hundred years since Mozart’s birth; twenty-seven years since Beethoven died.

      A bust of Beethoven looks down on Brahms from its place of honor on a shelf in the Schumanns’ music room. Even in cold marble, you can feel the energy in that wild hair, that craggy brow. Brahms feels Beethoven’s gaze as a reproach. Too late, those eyes say. It’s all been done before.

      B was born too late as well. Mysticism, these days, is nothing but pathology. Visions are nothing but a function of the chemistry of the brain. The age of the prophets long ago gone past.



What I remember. B improvising at the piano, his fingers mirrored in the glossy black. A cascade of notes, a thread of melody. He finishes, slides over on the bench, and turns to me. Now you play, he says, but despite all my years of piano lessons, I cannot. I’m as stiff as the horse-headed god standing mute behind me on his pedestal, hands pressed to his wooden sides. I’d like to say there’s something trapped inside me—a flutter-spark of inspiration beating like a tiny wing—but I feel nothing but pulp and sawdust, an unyielding whorl.

      I wrote music as a child—a canon, a sonatina, a trio for piano and strings. The trio won a prize; professional musicians performed it at a children’s concert. My grandparents broadcast the recording over the PA system in their factory. I remember twisting with embarrassment as the reels of tape spun around like the self-destructing instructions at the start of Mission Impossible, my favorite TV show. Piped over the speakers, the music sounded nothing like the sound I’d heard inside my head.

      Now I sit down at the piano and read through Brahms’s Schumann Variations, opus 9. I trace the melody among the interwoven voices, squinting at the sharps and double sharps and flats, fumbling through the turbulent arpeggios and octaves, the densely clustered chords. I stretch my fingers across the keys where Brahms once stretched his much broader span, although I can’t come close to playing the music the way he intended it to be played.

      On the autograph of the score, Brahms extended the double bars on eleven of the sixteen variations to form the initials Kr for KreislerB forBrahms. The more flamboyant, fantastic variations belong to Kreisler; the calmer, more lyrical ones to Brahms. To Clara he wrote, I often argue with myself, which means that Kreisler and Brahms are struggling … both are utterly confused, and neither knows what he wants. The theme and variation form pulls him between the poles of liberation and constraint, criticism and homage. Wild Kreisler and dutiful Brahms wrestle within his heart. I know: they wrestle in my heart as well.



The 1850s are the heyday of spiritualism. Ever since the weird sisters Katie and Margaret Fox summoned the spirit of a murdered peddler buried beneath their Hydesville, New York, house, conjuring the otherworldly has been all the rage. Mesmerized mediums in darkened parlors usher forth the dead. The spirits communicate through an obscure Morse code of knocks and taps. Magnetic forces ripple like strange tides through the psychics’ bodies, guiding quivering pens to spell out esoteric codes.

      Séances catch on in Europe in 1853. English ladies in high-necked gowns rest gloved fingers on the edges of fringed cloth-covered tea tables, holding their breath. If the energy is right, the table will begin to turn; spinning faster and faster, it may even rise into the air. In Düsseldorf, Robert Schumann conducts “magnetic experiments” with friends and family around the little table in his music room. The spirits rap and moan. The polished walnut whirls. One is surrounded with miracles! Schumann writes to his friend Hiller. He grows animated on séance days, jovial and flushed. The spirits beat the opening rhythm of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; they channel the energies of Schubert and Mozart.

      Photographs are a kind of spirit too—traces of ghostly light recovered from the past like the belated light of stars. According to the photographer Nadar, Balzac dreaded being photographed, believing that every body in its natural state was made up of a series of ghostly images superimposed in layers to infinity, wrapped in infinitesimal films that the daguerrotype would somehow seize hold of, detach, use up. Eventually William Mumler makes the photograph into a literal “medium” for channeling the spirit world, his plates revealing images of ectoplasmic figures hovering behind his subjects’ heads. Desire made manifest in silver iodide and mercury. Of course, he turns out to be a fraud.

      Here are those photographs: black-and-white portraits of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, B and his wooden horse. The photographs tell me—nothing. Only that once a person composed himself before the camera’s voyeuristic eye. And what is a composition but a pose?



The past is static, two-dimensional, monotones of black and white and gray. I want more—I want to smell the horse dung clumped along the cobblestones, the musty horsehair-stuffed upholstery, the rosin dust and candle wax and days-old ashes in the grate, the milk turned sour in the milking can, the sweat-stained armpits of a linen shirt. I want to taste their cheap red wine, inhale the smoke of their cigars, Joachim and Dietrich and Grimm and Brahms, as they gather, laughing, in the Hofgarten café at night. I want to feel the breeze as Brahms chases the Schumann children through the bushes in the Gräfenberg, turning somersaults on the muddy ground. I want to smell the damp grass of the embankment where he lies beside his buddy Dietrich, watching the moon rise above the Rhine. I want to hear the children gasp as he performs handstands on the banister of the front hall stairs. I want to hear the cat yowling in the alley, the nursemaid calling to the children, the muffled sound of one of Clara’s pupils running through her scales. I want to taste the torte the cook bakes for Brahms when he turns twenty-one. The children cluster around the piano, singing him a song. Clara, eight months pregnant with her seventh child, plays for him the variations she wrote for Robert’s birthday the year before. Her glossy dark hair is parted in the middle, done up in braided loops over her ears; she wears a white lace collar pinned around her neck. She presses a handkerchief to her lips. Oh, this boy with his quivering intensity, his long fine fingers, his too-blue gaze! Such energy! Sometimes it sounds like there must be two people at the piano when it’s just him alone. When he looks at her she feels as if she’s been cast in gold.



What I remember. A dinner party at B’s loft downtown. Beautiful people, pulsing music, B’s canvases leaning against the walls. The rapturous chocolate cake in which someone suddenly sees a vision of the Black Madonna and we burst spontaneously into song—the Hallelujah chorus—our arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, swaying in the candlelight. I assume they’ve all been friends forever, only to discover that nearly all of them met B for the first time just the night before. We flutter like dazzled moths around his flame.

      My other friends wear suits to work, are busy getting married, making money, buying houses in the suburbs, having kids. B is a too-bright light shining in my eyes. In the bloom of his radiance, I am overexposed. He holds out his hand and I step onto the wire. Trust me, he says. Behind him are the paintings, planes of color and whirl. They are puzzle pieces, he says, hinting at a story that can’t be told in words. He talks instead about geometry, cosmology, systems of signs. The word crazy buzzes at the edges of my brain. I swat it away and let him reel me in. In my peripheral vision: a man’s body with a horse’s head.

      Late that night, I forget B’s warnings and stand up and whack my forehead hard on the low beam of the sleeping loft, giving myself a black bruised ring beneath one eye. He has marked me, then.



The end is already visible at the beginning, if only you know how to read the signs. A snake biting its tail.

      Schumann is only forty-three but you can see it leaching out of him, the will to live, if only you know to look for it, like a bruise spreading outward on a rotten pear. His skin jaundiced from laudanum or arsenic, his pupils dilated, his hair greasy and limp. His sensualist’s lips pursed as if he has just tasted something sour. Already on the day of Brahms’s first visit, Clara has written in her diary: I am more discouraged than I can possibly say. For some time Schumann has been hearing voices. Angels circle, calling to him in exquisite, unbearable harmonies, or a low and droning A. He is Hoffmann’s mad Kappelmeister, shadowed by a guttered candle, modulating obsessively from key to key. The notes come to life and flutter and dance around me, Kreisler cries, electric sparks flying through my fingertips into the keys! And yet Kreisler, so inspired, cannot write. A ghastly red-eyed apparition sends him running for the silent sanctuary of the Benedictine monks. Schumann, too, is undone by dissonance and harmony. Over the years, there have been other highs of divine inspiration, flat spells of deep despair. The darkness visible, closing in. Manic depression, we might call it now, or schizophrenia. It is difficult to tell.

      I discover the bottles of Lithium and Prozac in B’s medicine cabinet not long after we first meet. I am snooping, I admit. I cup the orange prescription bottles in my palm and feel the floor tip beneath my feet. How impossible to know another person! Brahms, too, prowls behind closed doors—searches Schumann’s papers, letters, diaries, notes, and scores. Almost the whole day I sit in Bilkerstraße 1032 on the second floor, he tells Clara. I must search through everything! He’s still too young, perhaps, to understand that it’s often better not to know. Later he learns to leave no trace. He asks for his letters back and burns them, tells Clara to do the same.

      Less than six months after Brahms arrives in Düsseldorf, Schumann is in torment, the world reverberating with hallucinated tones. He can’t sleep, can’t think; he paces and screams and tears his hair. Clara sits with him in the dark. Inside her she feels the newest baby’s flutter kick. At last he picks up his quill and begins to write, five variations on the angels’ deadly theme. Ghost Variations. Only Clara recognizes the melody from the slow movement of his own Violin Concerto in D Minor, written earlier that year. At dawn she leaves him at his desk, copying out the score. When she returns, he’s gone.

      Which red-eyed specter sends him running along the Bilkerstraße that February morning, barefoot in the freezing rain? The pontoon bridge stretches long and low across the gun-gray water of the Rhine. Schumann pushes past the toll collector, shoves his scarf into the man’s baffled hands, and runs headlong out onto the span, his heart a tocsin in his chest, his tongue thick in his throat. The angels circle him like rays of light. He stops midway across, gasping, the wind stronger there and cold, his cheeks on fire, his feet completely numb. He ducks beneath the rail and looks down at the ice-skimmed river, wind-whipped into chop. Balances on the edge.

      The gold of it catches his eye then. He wrenches the band from his finger—the old injured third finger of his right hand. Clärchen, he has written, do the same with yours. Deep in the muddy silt, the rings will reunite. He pulls his arm back and hurls the ring high out over the Rhine. It drops as if in suspended motion, a glinting circle in the winter light, falling like a sigh. He watches it disappear, then steps off into air.



Schumann’s suicide attempt sets Brahms’s bright new world atilt. Schumann, having been fished out of the river by a passing trawler, is sent off to an asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, where he’s permitted to see no one, not even his wife. Brahms and his young musician friends—Joachim, Dietrich, Grimm—gather around Clara that spring and summer, trying to raise her spirits as she waits for her baby to be born. They make music in the evenings after the children have been put to bed, playing Hungarian folk tunes, Clementi, Schubert, Weber, all of Schumann’s songs. They run through Brahms’s new two-piano sonata, his piano trio in B. But nothing can drown out the ostinato of Clara’s weeping, the pedal point of calamity.

      Brahms is homesick. He’s flat-out broke; he’s published nothing yet. A young eagle, Schumann called him, and he longs for fame, but without his mentor, he cannot hope to fly. He reworks his first two piano sonatas, composes two trios and a quartet. He tries to write a piano concerto and fails. He works on small pieces instead: the Schumann Variations, the Four Ballades. He dreams of a nightingale impaling itself upon a thorn. He frescoes the walls of his rented rooms with Madonna faces and demon heads.

      This is what we know: that in August Clara leaves Düsseldorf for the seaside, and Brahms heads to the Schwartzwald, seeking inspiration in the romantic vistas of the Rhine. It’s all there: the red roofed houses, knobby spires, terraced vineyards, stately chestnuts, the flowing Neckar, and beyond, the densely wooded hills. But the misty vistas and castle ruins are not picturesque. In his cheap room at the inn, the candle sputters and drips. He can’t stand the trilling in his gut; he’s not himself at all. He dips his nib into the pot of ink. Joachim is right: he’s like Young Werther—Goethe’s tragic hero, tramping moodily about in Nature, yearning for another man’s wife. He can already see himself in a blue swallowtail jacket and yellow waistcoat, a pistol to his head. He is a fool.

      He cuts short his holiday and hurries back to Düsseldorf, where he writes Clara letter after letter, longing for her return. He travels to Endenich to visit Schumann, but is permitted only to peer out from behind the curtains as the older man strolls through the asylum gardens. Schumann looks more or less the same as ever, puffing on his pipe, fluttering a cotton handkerchief in one hand. He bends to inspect the roses through his lorgnette, straightens, and walks on.

      But he is not better, not at all. He’s still tormented by hallucinated tones and voices, speaks wildly, screams in his sleep. Tell Frau Schumann please that she must not delude herself with hopes of an early recovery, the doctor says. Hope dangles on a fraying thread.

      Brahms gives the Schumann children piano lessons, teaches the older girls selections from Robert’s Pictures from the East. He manages to write only two additional variations on the Schumann theme. To Joachim, he writes, Through one of them Clara speaks! Even in her absence, her sweet smell lingers on the air. He makes a note of it in the margin of the tenth variation: Fragrance of rose and heliotrope.

      He writes: I love her and am under her spell … I think I can no longer love an unmarried girl … at least, I have quite forgotten about them. They only promise heaven while Clara shows it revealed …

      Writes: I often have to restrain myself forcibly from just quietly putting my arms around her … It seems so natural …

      And to Clara, he writes: You have no idea how indispensable your presence is for me, you have not the remotest conception … I can no longer exist without you … Please go on loving me as I shall go on loving you always and for ever.

      He presses a camellia blossom into the letter’s fold. Uses for the first time the intimate second person pronoun, Du.



A famous pianist gives a concert in the college chapel in our town. I slide into a pew up front. A Steinway concert grand occupies center stage, its ebony lid raised like a curving wing. The first piece is Brahms, the Four Ballades. The pianist takes the microphone before he plays. Imagine Brahms at twenty-one, he says, blond and beardless, a boy in love. Imagine the hazy darkness of a summer garden, a nightingale’s low trill.

      Listen: to the dark D minor landscape of octaves and open fifths, to the triplets roiling like the sea, to the voices rising and falling, the minor-mode digressions that ache like yearning in your chest. Remember: there are many kinds of love.

      What kind of love was theirs? We turn and turn the puzzle pieces but they will not fit. Why is it so hard to picture? Because she is thirty-four and married and a mother, and he’s barely twenty-one? Because they’re buttoned-up Victorians bound by the moral strictures of the church? Because all we have to go on are a handful of ink-scrawled letters with a surplus of meaning left between the lines? Because sex only exists in the present tense, unfolding in real time?

      Back home, I pull out the music for the Ballades. I see that there’s an epigraph, a reference to “Edward,” an old Scottish song. I look up the words. It’s the story of a prince who kills his father for his mother’s love: 

               Why dois your brand sae drap wi bluid
               Edward, Edward? 
               Why dois your brand sae drap wi bluid
               And why sae sad gang ye O? 

And you can hear it in the music: the octave bell-tones tolling, the triplets struggling against duplets, the anguished chromatic rise. Edward’s terrible last words to his mother— The curse of hell frae me shall ye beir/ Sic counseils ye gave to me O—hang in the diabolic dissonance of A-flat and D. It’s hard not to cast Robert as the murdered patriarch, Clara as the beguiling queen, poor old Oedipal Johannes as the guilt-wracked heir.

      And yet music shouldn’t depend on any story—Brahms himself famously insisted upon that. He understood that meaning can’t be pinned in place like a butterfly’s bright wings. That meaning, in music as in poetry, transcends words. Negative Capability, Keats called it, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason …

      I felt something, I tell you, that night in the suffocating dark with B. An uncertainty, a mystery, a doubt. Why can’t I just let it be?



One of B’s paintings is of a giant swing, the kind you find at old-fashioned amusement parks. The swing tilts at a crazy angle, the riders soaring outward in a rising arc. In the foreground, the swing’s high crown is decorated with intricate jewel tones and gold leaf, ornate as an illuminated manuscript or a Persian rug. The riders, by contrast, are rough dabs of blue and yellow paint flung against a deep magenta ground. The impression is one of vertigo and swirl. If you look closely, you’ll see that the chains on one of the swings have snapped, sending the rider—clutching what looks like a briefcase, or an enormous book—tumbling toward a black abyss.

      Despite the horse-headed Hayagriva’s warning, B talks. He tells me a story of breakdown and exorcism, despair and revelation, of the esoteric messages he’s been learning to decode. He is sketching, stretching canvases on six-foot frames, planning a new series of paintings: another sort of variations on a theme. He holds out his thumb at arm’s length, squinting at it through one eye, calculating the angle of perspective, the direction of the light. Does he even see me there, my head level with his thumb? The loft reeks of paint and turpentine; the chairs are draped in drop cloths, dirty dishes piled in the sink. He takes off his watch, does not go in to work. I go into the bathroom and check the level of his pills. Is he brilliant or crazy? I don’t know what to think.

      In the washed light of early morning, I walk back to my apartment across town. The breeze is nudging wisps of shredded cloud across the sky. Korean grocers are cranking up their metal awnings, setting out crates of vegetables and fruit. At home I change into panty hose, a blouse and skirt; I grab my briefcase and take a taxi uptown to work. And as I turn to the charts and graphs and sentences in the blue-covered report it is my job to write, I hear it: a voice as seductive as a lover’s; a droning, low, repeated B. It’s the voice of that rider falling from his swing, tumbling like one of Milton’s angels through the charged vermillion air. Let go, it says. Let go.



Christmas 1854. Clara sends the opus 9 variations to Robert as a present, along with a portrait sketch of Brahms. She has not seen her husband in nearly an entire year. He has not asked for her, has not spoken her name. He has never seen his infant son. After Christmas, Brahms moves into the Schumann’s house, where he will live through the winter and spring and summer of 1855 and 1856. By then Schumann will be dead.

      Maybe Clara offers him the room as a gift, a respite from debt, a space in which to write. Maybe she feels better knowing he’ll be there, helping the nursemaid Bertha with the children while she’s away on concert tour for weeks. Maybe she sees him as a sort of eldest son; after all, he’s only eight years older than her eldest daughter Marie. And maybe that is how he sees himself—as an adopted child, an heir. Or maybe he sees himself as the man of the family, instead, filling Schumann’s too-big, abandoned shoes. Maybe he thinks of marrying one of the girls someday, little Genschen or Julie. Or maybe it is Clara he imagines as his lover, soul-mate, muse, wife. Maybe she sees it that way, too.

      To the seven Schumann children, Brahms is father, mother, brother, uncle, gymnastics instructor, music teacher, babysitter, tutor, nurse. He tussles with the boys, teaches them the alphabet, bribing them with sugar lumps and sweets. He joins the girls for tea; he lets little Ludwig come into his bed in the middle of the night. He takes care of them when they’re sick, calms their fears, supervises the nanny and the cook. He writes Clara letter after letter, her portrait medallion propped before him on her desk. He follows the glowing reviews of her recitals in the newspaper. He ignores the letters from his mother—You are on the wrong track—you will amount to absolutely nothing—they jangle in his pocket like a broken piano string.

      In July 1855 he returns to the Rhineland for a five-day holiday—but this time he does not go alone. This time the landscape is infused with beauty. Brahms sits with Clara on a bench overlooking the Lorelei rock, the Rhine flowing far below. The fairy tale turrets of Schloss Katz soar against the cloud-streaked sky. The slate cliffs of St. Goarshausen glow pink in the evening sun. At this bend in the river, legend had it, love-struck fishermen ran aground, bewitched by the siren’s song. Perhaps his fingers brush against hers then, close around them, folding them into his own. She has large, strong hands, a virtuoso’s fingers, finely formed and long. Perhaps he is thinking of E. T. A. Hoffmann again, of Kreisler’s synaesthetic dream of the rock whose veins blossomed into dark carnations whose fragrance rose almost visibly in bright, sounding rays which then condensed into the figure of a beautiful woman … the form of divine, delightful music.

      And Clara? She feels the blood pulse beneath the pale skin of his hands, pumping through the muscle of his heart. He draws in great breaths of nature, she writes in her diary, and one grows young with him. Desire roils like a chromatic scale. Hangs in the air, a diminished fifth, dissonant, unresolved.

      Just once, B and I went away together to the mountains on holiday. And that was where it happened—in the suffocating darkness of an unfamiliar place. That awful pressure on our chests. That rush of beating wings. Something touched us then, and we took it as a sign. Only I didn’t know then that to each of us it meant a different thing.



Variations, like infatuation, make a fetish of their theme.

      The theme—the loved one—disappears. Is reconstituted as an object of desire.

      From time to time I reflect on variation form, Brahms writes to Joachim in 1856. I sometimes find that [we] … worry the theme. We anxiously retain the entire melody, but don’t manipulate it freely. We don’t really create anything new out of it; on the contrary, we only burden it. The melody thus becomes scarcely recognizable.

      To Clara he has written: I think of you as going to the concert hall like a priestess to the altar. Now he writes: I shall have sometime to put you under glass or have you set in gold. He no longer uses the intimate pronoun du. She’s an icon on a pedestal, as rigid as a preconceived idea, and mute.

      I, too, fit the contours of B’s iconography, at least for a while. I looked like the green-eyed, dark-haired girl he believed it was his destiny to find. I thought I was special, but he didn’t really see me at all. In the blue light of his gaze, I ceased to exist.

      The crush crushes the image at its heart. The mirror cracks.

      The summer I was thirteen, I played Clara Schumann’s G minor piano trio at a conservatory music camp. The piece was difficult, and I practiced harder than I ever had before. The veins stood out across the backs of my hands; flat calluses formed along my fingertips. A fan oscillated in the window of our practice room; my thighs stuck to the piano bench in the humid July heat. I remember the voices of the strings and piano rising and falling, the green promise of that leafy summer light. I don’t remember the boy on whom I had a crush, the first crush of those early adolescent years. What remains now is just the music, Clara’s music, the last piece she wrote, long before she met Johannes Brahms. I take it out and sit down at the piano, pick through my old part. I recognize it now: the sound of pure yearning in G minor, turbulent, nostalgic, bittersweet.



It couldn’t last, of course. The end was visible from the start.

      There are no words for what there was between B and me. We had no future and no past; we existed only in the present tense. A story such as ours can only circle, double back, repeat. It reaches toward what can’t be told and tries to tell it all the same.

      Like Clara, I shouldn’t have watched but did when B walked away with his arm around another girl. I wasn’t surprised; I just didn’t expect to feel such a jagged rip.

      It was only later that he spoke to me of that night we woke together in suffocating darkness to that strange shared dream. We were sitting beneath the blue pendant lights of a downtown bar. He said: Tell me what you felt, then. I traced letters in the condensation on my glass of wine. The hollowness ached inside my chest. I didn’t answer his question. I said, Probably it was just claustrophobia. Probably we got disoriented in the dark. Probably we’d had too much to drink.

      He tore a piece of paper from a notebook then and handed it to me. He looked at me intently, his blond hair swinging past his shoulders. I looked away. I felt the way I had that day at the piano when he urged me to improvise and I did not play. But I took the paper that he offered. I folded it and put it in my bag. Write about it, he said. And eventually, I did.



In Düsseldorf, hope evaporates in the stifling August heat. I find I cannot compose, Brahms writes. Six years will pass before he publishes another piece. He sprawls unhappily on the couch in Clara’s sitting room, writing her yet another letter, chewing an unlit cigar. He’s thinking about Mozart, who’d go off to some Salzburg café and dash off a new piece, just like that. Now that was a Man!

      He has set aside the Hoffmann, all that romantic Sturm und Drang. Kreisler is receding, fading away; Brahms has won. The opus 9 variations are the last composition he’ll sign with his youthful alter ego’s name. Somewhere, in those static months of waiting, he has made his choice. He will never marry; he’ll have no children of his own. Over the years, he will metamorphose into the white-bearded figure we think of when we think of Brahms, puffed out in a black coat and buttoned vest, encircled in smoke from a cigar. The long-haired boy with the girlish voice and pale, soft cheeks will be nothing but a long-lost ghost. He will disappear.

      For months now, Schumann has been fading. He’s been suffering from seizures, babbling unintelligibly, refusing to eat. The telegraph from Endenich arrives in late July 1856. If you want to see your husband while he is still alive, hurry here immediately. Brahms sits by Clara in the railway carriage, racing the angel of death to Bonn. The steam engine whistle shrieks; the landscape streaks past in a blur. Just the month before, Brahms gave Schumann an atlas: eighty-three maps, beautifully leather-bound. Clara twists a handkerchief between her fingers. Veins as blue as rivers wind over the metacarpals of her hands. Ahead of them, Schumann lies dying, or already dead. No map can guide him through the place where he is headed now.

      Listen: to the sixteenth and final variation of the Schumann Variations, opus 9. Zeimlich langsampianissimo. The melody fractured across a spare line of octaves in the bass.

      Schumann is still alive, though barely, when they arrive at Endenich. For the first time in two-and-a-half years the doctors let Clara in. She kneels beside the bed and grasps her husband’s hand. He twitches, muttering unintelligible words. The wasted skin hangs loosely on his face, revealing the lineaments of his skull. Clara dips her finger into a glass of wine and touches it to his lips. Only once does he reach for her and try to speak:



      Listen: to the chords rising to forte now, treble and bass coming together for the first and only time in a final cry. A sustained half note. Then piano again, diminishing, fading away.

      The windows of the asylum have been thrown open to the buzzing July heat. Are Schumann’s angels still circling, singing their ghostly melody? Brahms will later write a final set of variations for four hands on the angels’ theme. A requiem, a dirge.

      Listen: to the final F-sharp major chords dampening to triple pPoco adagio, expressivo. The music falls below the threshold of perception, yet continues all the same, like the sympathetic vibration of an open string. A hushed, sustained sonority.

      Here, too, the windows are open to the summer heat. Dusk is falling; birds twitter, hidden, in the trees: the whistle of a cardinal, the cooing of a dove. The oaks stand in the fading light. I stand up from the piano and shut the lid over the keys.