Feminist Fridays: “Dein blaues Auge” by Johannes Brahms
This post belongs to the series originally called “Frauenbild Fridays.” For the original post, click here.
I’m gearing up to begin a more extensive series, but I’ll do one more single song musing before I dive into our next cycle.
Dein blaues Auge, which translates to “Your blue eyes,” is an iconic art song by Johannes Brahms with poetry by Klaus Groth. I was first made aware of Brahms’ existence with this PSA advocating for arts education in schools:
Shoutout to my high school choir director for that one.
Remember how I spent an age and a half reframing every song from Frauenliebe und -leben through a feminist lens? How could you forget?
Well, our guy Robert Schumann composed those pieces for his wife. If you think back to my introduction of Frauenliebe, I mentioned that he was married to a notoriously fabulous pianist, Clara Schumann. Of course, she never went on to have the prolific performing career and compositional recognition she deserved because she needed to pump out babies and be a good wife, as was the expectation for the time. We could’ve heard more of her compositions if she had only been born 200 years later, but she still managed to write some beautiful music.
It’s difficult to overstate Clara’s incredible contribution to classical music. She is regarded to this day as one of the best concert pianists of all time, with a career spanning over 60 years. Robert died 30 years before her, and she continued to raise eight children while performing. Most of her compositional output occurred before she had children, which appeared to be a conscious choice. Bogged down by gender conventions of the time, Clara was unsure of whether it would be appropriate for women to compose music, despite Robert’s encouragement. Clara didn’t receive the musical recognition she deserved until the last couple of decades when a desire to highlight female composers became more mainstream.
However, I’m not talking exclusively about Clara today– we’ll get to her songs soon enough. I’m talking about Johannes Brahms’ puppy dog love for his buddy’s wife, specifically, the song Dein blaues Auge.
The validity of the love triangle rumor is admittedly up in the air. Still, it remains common “knowledge” in the classical music community that Clara and Brahms were more than just friends. Despite Brahms’ apparent longing for Clara, their love was never meant to be, even though Robert died in 1856. They remained friends but not lovers. Brahms never married. A romantic type might guess this was because he spent his life pining for Clara, but perhaps he just enjoyed a bachelor’s lifestyle. We will never know.
Clara only writes that she loves Brahms in her correspondence once, whereas Brahms declares his love for Clara dozens of times. If I had to postulate, and you know I love to make wild guesses, she once truly loved the man she married, Robert Schumann. He was a brilliant young student of her father’s. However, he never respected her as an artist and intellectual the way Brahms did. After Robert’s death, she craved a relationship with a like-minded individual over a romantic affair.
I’m not a Schumann or Brahms scholar, and I will never know. I love smutty romance novels, though, so I think I’m on the right track.
Back to Dein blaues Auge. Did Clara Schumann have blue eyes?
After doing a bit of digging, or as conspiracy theorists might say, “my own research,” I can honestly say I’m not sure. In a painting of Clara from childhood, she appears to have bright blue eyes:
However, in this painting of Clara in her adulthood, her eyes are more hazel or brown. Agh, the 1800s. I don’t know if Clara would’ve been a selfie gal if she lived today, but at least we’d have a few more photos from which we could deduce her eye color. Regardless, I’m choosing to believe this song is about Clara– either as an obvious nod to her eye color or an attempt to disguise the true recipient of Brahms’ ardor. It doesn’t matter if I’m right or not– isn’t that the beauty of art? There isn’t an answer.
Dein blaues Auge was published in 1873 as the eighth song in Brahms’ 8 Lieder und Gesänge, Op.59, No.8. This publication is not considered a song cycle, unlike Frauenliebe und –leben because there isn’t a compositional or poetic link between all eight of them. Unlike a song cycle, it’s acceptable and common to mix and match which songs are performed or recorded, although they can be programmed in full.
Even in English, the poetry paints such an illustrative portrait of a lover’s eyes, providing the viewer a window into her soul, or at least that’s what he sees. It makes me sad to think of Brahms as yearning for unrequited love, but I am fascinated by Clara’s rebuffing of his advances. She had better things to do than Brahms, I guess. What’s behind Clara’s eyes? Is it Johannes Brahms’ health restored?
I think not. Scholars have analyzed the Brahms/Clara letters to death, but ultimately, there wasn’t anything there. Brahms ardently pined for Clara’s love for decades through letters, and she only said she loved him once. She loved him like she would a son. There’s something about the romanticism of getting lost in someone’s eyes, but I am more interested in the stoicism of not caring. Clara had other things to worry about besides Brahms’ letters, like raising an army of kids, insulting Liszt, and playing the piano in whatever free time was left. I admire her.
My blue eyes sparkle in the light.
So cold, you’re blinded by them.
You ask me what I want to see?
I see myself, alone.
My glowing eyes burn through you.
The aftermath still hurts:
Yours are as earnest as a child,
And mine cooler than the lake.