Watch: The pianist who became Brahms’s friend

Watch: The pianist who became Brahms’s friend


norman lebrecht

July 31, 2015

Daniel Hope reminded us this week of a video we posted in the early days of Slipped Disc and which had a profound influence on his thoughts about Brahms. By some mishap, the video got lost when we transferred to the present site.

For those who missed it first time round, here’s Ilona Eibenschütz (1872-1967) recalling in immaculate English her studies with Clara Schumann and her close friendship with Brahms.

The next 15 minutes may affect your view of the late 19th century.

Ilona Eibenschütz


  • Jeffrey Biegel says:


  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    This is a priceless, beautiful audio monologue. To hear the voice of one who knew Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms personally and premiered new works is absolutely mind blowing.

    The YouTube description states the following:
    Eibenschütz said of Brahms that he “played as if he were improvising, with heart and soul, sometimes humming to himself, forgetting everything around him. His playing was altogether grand and noble, like his compositions.”

    In listening to old lesson recordings from one of my friends who studied with Adele Marcus, we can similarly hear her playing in an improvisatory style gently humming and singing the melodic lines. I wonder if this was a typical style of playing from the 19th century, seeping into the players of the early-to-middle 20th century.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Wow! It occurred to me that nothing even remotely like what is described here could be replicated today.

  • Robert Hairgrove says:

    Thank you, Norman, for bringing this exquisite historical document to our attention. I don’t think I had ever heard of Ilona Eibenschütz before, so this was certainly a revelation to me.

    What strikes me is that Frau Eibenschütz’s playing exhibits none of the so-called “romantic” mannerisms that many of our contemporary pianist performers think is somehow necessary to convey musical feeling in romantic works; for example, constantly playing the left hand a little before the right hand, overpedalling, and excessive rubato. Everything sings when she plays, and everything flows with the most natural kind of expression. So many modern-day pianists seem to have trouble just playing legato — they should listen to her.

    The date on this clip is 1952, when she had just turned 80… (?) What amazing playing from anyone, much less at this advanced age! She makes all of the excerpts sound so easy. It is really amazing!

    • Jeffrey Biegel says:

      I agree with you 100%. I think it is very difficult, actually, to play in any way other than hers, which is how one might sing phrases naturally anyway.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Wonderful recording. Her playing is beautiful, with slight rubati, but never so much that they disturb the flow and line of the music. Her fore- and background is superb. It reminds me of Julius Kätchen, the later 20C Brahms expert (with a never surpassed recording of the 2nd piano concerto from the sixties).

  • Michael Endres says:

    To complement the spellbinding memories and playing by Eibenschuetz :
    from another friend of Brahms, Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim ( 1831 -1907 ) comes this unique recording made in 1903.
    One can hear similar qualities:
    rather than chasing another pig through the village this version remains — with all its demanding virtuosity in place — a dignified affair, the main theme having a melancholic and haunting quality.

  • Frans Wentholt says:

    Thank you so much for this, Norman!

  • Erwin Poelstra says:

    Thank you for highlighting the YouTube video that I posted. However, all credits should go the label Pearl who produced the 6 CD-set (previously 9 LPs) “Pupils of Clara Schumann” that included these reminiscences. Sadly, it has been out of print for quite some time now. Here’s an article about the set:

    • Robert Hairgrove says:

      Thank you, Erwin Poelstra, for publicizing these important recordings! 🙂

      There is much more detail about Eibenschütz’ biography at another YouTube clip, also posted by Mr. Poelstra:
      Ilona Eibenschütz plays Brahms Intermezzo opus 76 no. 4

      Here, one learns that Clara Schumann was somewhat critical about Ilona Eibenschütz’ playing to Brahms:

      In the summer of 1893, Brahms privately premiered his piano pieces, op. 118 and op. 119, to Eibenschütz. She later wrote, ‘It was of course the most wonderful thing for me to hear these pieces as nobody yet knew anything about them. I was the first to whom he played them.’ Her teacher Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was Brahms’s closest personal and musical friend, but expressed reservations privately to Brahms about Eibenschütz’s playing, writing to Brahms on 1 February 1894 that ‘she goes too quickly over everything.’

      We should take her criticism with a grain of salt. I think it is pretty obvious that Clara Schumann must have been extremely jealous of Eibenschütz, especially because Brahms had taken such a liking to her. It is also entirely possible that Eibenschütz was the better pianist, at least from a technical standpoint, and was also more than 50 years younger than her teacher, whereas Brahms was only 59 or 60 at the time and probably very receptive to her physical beauty and admiration for him as the great composer and pianist that he was.

      • Erwin Poelstra says:

        You’re welcome, Robert.
        I think you may be right with your assessment, although Eibenschütz was still very young at that time, and she must have had an impetuous style of playing with lots of energy!
        On the other hand, I believe that since the second half of the 20th Century, many of the solo pieces of Brahms are played too “philosophically”/slowly, due to the influence of certain great pianists.
        By the way, the material to make this video (audio/photographs) was kindly sent to me by Eibenschütz’s grandson!

        • Robert Hairgrove says:

          (Re: jealousy on the part of Clara Schumann… )

          Here is an interesting quote from the notes on the Arbiter CD “Brahms: Behind The Notes” (a fascinating CD which I actually own, but somehow I hadn’t taken notice of Ilona Eibenschütz until now). Clara writes to Ilona:

          “. . .it gives me great pleasure that B. is so kind to you. He very much likes to have fun with pretty and interesting young girls. I wish however, for your sake, that he would talk about music seriously with you. Did you play to him at all? If he should play to you ask him to play something by Bach.”


    • Allan Evans says:

      There’s quite a bit of Eibenschutz and other Brahmsians on our recent CD that demonstrates how he was a composer of new music. Their playing should shock, as does all pathbreaking music before it gets idolized and mummified.

      • Erwin Poelstra says:

        Thank you, most interesting article and I will certainly purchase the CD!

      • Michael Endres says:

        Etelka Freund’s Brahms playing is indeed another revelation !!

        Thank you for mentioning this recording and for Norman Lebrecht alerting us to this fascinating subject !!
        It should be disc of the month….harrumph….

  • Patrick says:

    I’m sure all know of the Edison recording made of Brahms himself. Perhaps not of great musicial value, but hearing his voice is a miracle….

  • Robert Roy says:


  • Alexander Brown says:

    Breathaking! I listen to this recording again and again, without tiring of it…!

  • Eileen Stevens says:
    For those wishing to know more about the amazing Ilona Eibenschütz, a visit to the Schumannhaus in Bonn might be worth considering. The correspondence between her and Clara Schumann has recently been donated to the museum by Eibenschütz’s grandson, the Canadian psychiatrist Oliver Robinow and his wife, the wonderful musician and teacher Gwen Thompson.