After Robert Schumann was admitted to a mental assuming in 1854, Johannes Brahms stayed with Robert’s wife, Clara Schumann to support herself and her eight children.
Although Robert’s sad condition was always present in the minds of those who loved him, there was occasional happy times at the Schumann’s home in Düsseldorf.
On the morning of May 7th, 1855, Johannes noticed a strange air of mystery in the house. As he [Brahms] came in for dinner, Elise and Julie [Clara’s children] were giggling and whispering in a corner, and little four-year-old Eugénie shrieked and nearly dropped a basket of flowers when he suddenly came upon her from behind and lifted her high in the air.
Then the door to the dining-room was thrown open, and a chorus of voices greeted him: “happy birthday, dear Hannes!”
He had quite forgotten that it was his twenty-second birthday. At first he was so confused that he failed to notice a familiar figure standing beside Frau Clara. Then – “Yussuf – is that you?” he cried, as Jochim [a friend and musical colleague] advanced, smiling broadly.
“I came as a surprise for your birthday, my friend,” said the violinist. “And what’s more, I’ve made plans to spend some time in Düsseldorf!”
Nothing could have pleased Johnanes more, though he did not realize what a far-reaching effect this visit was to have on his own work. In the same house where the violinist was staying, there lived a ‘cellist named Van Diest. Joachim, hard at composition, was disturbed by his neighbor’s playing, and asked the landlord to protest. Herr Van Diest amiably toned down his instrument, and Joachim was so grateful that he invited the ‘cellist to join him with two others in quartets.
Soon they were meeting regularly. Johannes was always present. When he was not playing with them, at the piano, he would sit in a corner, hand over his eyes, listening intently. It was his first opportunity to hear chamber music well performed, and it so inspired him that he soon began writing it himself.
That birthday morning Johannes had no more than recovered from his surprise at seeing Joachim, before he found his two other friends, “Ise” Grimm and Albert Dietrich, who had also been summoned to the celebration. It was a merry reunion. Little Eugéne present her basket of flowers; Marie and Julie recited a poem they had written in Johannes’ honor; and even the baby, frail little Felix, was brought in to stare, round-eyed, at his godfather.
Frau Clara sat behind a fine new coffee-machine that Joachim had brought from Hanover, and she motioned Johannes to a seat beside her. There he found a pile of music. From Robert came the manuscript copy of his Overture to The Bride of Messina. Beneath this was a sheet of music that pleased Johannes more than anything else:” a composition written by Clara herself, Romance for the Pianoforte, with a special dedication to her beloved Hannes.
“And now”, announced Ise with mock importance, “come the real pièce de résistance – the masterpiece of all! A musical birthday cake – and, if you please, I am the author!”
When Johannes opened the package he found no cake, but – more music! Brahms Polka it was entitled, a farcical take-off on the favorite dance-tune of the moment, based on the musical letters in the name “Brahms”.
Source: Goss, Madeleine & Schauffler, Robert (1943) Brahms The Master. New York: Henry Holt and Company, p.145-147.