Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms were close friends as well as two of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. Clara Schumann, Robert’s wife, was one of the greatest pianists of the time, also a composer — and the object of Brahms’ unrequited love after Robert Schumann’s death.
The Heliand Consort will explore the complex triangle that brought together three of the greatest musical minds of the Romantic era when they present “Kindred Spirits: Letters and Music of Brahms and the Schumanns” at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at the Plainfield Opera House.
Through the letters and music of Brahms and the Schumanns, Heliand offers a glimpse into their tragic and beautiful story of love, friendship and art. Performing will be oboist Katie Oprea, clarinetist Elisabeth LeBlanc and pianist Cynthia Huard. (Heliand founder Rachael Elliott will not be participating.)
“People think of these composers as remote figures,” Oprea, a longtime Heliand member, said recently by phone. “It’s really fun to look at these people as people.”
The composers will be given a human face by storytellers Jim Stapleton, Diana Bigelow, and Patrick Evans reading letters that reveal Clara and Robert Schumann’s feelings about marriage, how they expressed their love with musical gifts, and how Robert’s deteriorating mental health affected their professional and private lives. Brahms arrived seeking a mentor in composition and fell into one of the most intriguing love triangles in music history.
This program came about as a result of Oprea’s desire to perform Robert Schumann’s Romances with a good and sympathetic pianist.
“I played them many times but I hadn’t played them with somebody I really connected with musically,” she said. “I’m reaching that point with Cynthia because we’ve played together so long.”
So, on a program, what do you put with Schumann? Brahms.
“The more we talked about it the more fascinated we were not just by the music, but by the personalities, the characters, the people who created the music,” Oprea said. “We read a lot of their letters and that, of course, evolved into the conversation about Clara and her life. She composed a little; why didn’t she compose more? What kind of an amazing musician she was at her time?”
At the same time, Huard was working on a project with Jim Stapleton, a writer-actor who performs with his wife Joanna Bigelow, most recently in their original Abigail Adams piece. They attended a house concert version of the Heliand program.
“For that particular concert, I was home sick,” Oprea said. “So it was a very different program from what we’re doing, but Jim and his wife came to the concert and said it would be a wonderful collaboration. So, from there, we programmed together.”
The musicians came up with a selection of pieces.
“It’s a program where we do snippets, not whole sonatas, but movements, with the letters in between,” Oprea said. “Jim and Joanna came back with a script. It is really terrific because each reading matches up with a piece that we then play. So, we have a letter from Clara to Robert when they were engaged, followed by a piece that she wrote for Robert when they were first engaged.”
Diary readings from the first time the Schumanns met Brahms are paired with movements from Brahms’ clarinet sonatas.
“We really tried to pair the music with the words,” Oprea said. “Once we had the pieces that we needed, it just came together nicely.”
The program was a year in the making, and has already been performed in an abridged version on VPR Classical Radio and in the full form in Fairlee and St. Albans.
“We tried to put something together that was unique,” Oprea said. “It’s a story of friendship and love. It’s been a real fun journey.”