Consoling the sorrowful and broken-hearted looms as a daunting task for a true friend. The philosopher Iris Murdoch once wrote: “Bereavement is a darkness impenetrable to the imagination of the unbereaved.” It is an aptitude, an art, and a challenge, then, to accompany and console the bereft. It is not for the unmoved, the self-absorbed, or the apathetic; it is heroic work to search and help rescue a grief-stricken friend in the churning seas that have sundered their little boat.

Johannes Brahms was such an exceptional friend. Born in Hamburg, he is known to the world as an accomplished 19th-century pianist and master composer of symphony orchestras, piano and organ music, and chamber ensembles. His works, like those of Beethoven, Bach, and Haydn, influenced the 20th-century composers Schoenberg, Elgar, and Stravinsky. Unknown to most was his other role, as a life raft of sorts for the extraordinarily talented pianist Clara Schumann, wife of Robert Schumann.

Robert Schumann suffered from bouts of depression and delusions of persecution most of his adult life, culminating in a complete mental breakdown. After attempting suicide, he was committed to an insane asylum near Bonn in 1854, where he would die two years later from pneumonia, never having regained his mental abilities. Within this circle of despair, Brahms, a friend of both Robert and Clara, offered his steadfast support. He visited Robert in the asylum and helped Clara to recover and support her seven children.

On her own, Clara was an accomplished composer and piano virtuoso and continued to tour throughout Europe after Robert’s death. One can gain a glimpse of the profound importance of the relationship between Clara and Johannes through a letter she wrote to her children as adults: “You hardly knew your dear Father, you were still too young to feel deep grief, and thus in those terrible years you could give me no comfort. Hope, indeed, you could bring me, but it was not enough to support me through such agony. Then came Johannes Brahms. Your Father loved and admired him, as he did no man except Joachim,” the father of Mary, Jesus’s mother. “He came, like a true friend, to share all my sorrow; he strengthened the heart that threatened to break, he uplifted my mind, he cheered my spirit when- and where-ever he could; in short he was my friend in the fullest sense of the word.”

She later wrote of Brahms: “I can truly say, my children, that I never loved any friend as I did him – it is an exquisite harmony of soul. I love his freshness of mind, his wonderfully gifted nature, his noble heart, which I have learned to know in the course of years, as others cannot.” Clara and Johannes remained close friends for the rest of their lives. They never married, nor did they marry other people. They died nine months apart, Clara in 1896 and Johannes in 1897.

In their relationship, one sees the illustration of an essential theme: that friendships are critical to human happiness, to creative and psychological flourishing, and in some cases to human survival.  No human life is without loss or suffering. We do not get to pick what poisons our daily existence, but we do get to choose the medicine. Friendship is a divinely inspired inoculation against loneliness and sadness.  It can bring candor, wonder, patience, clarity, love, communion, affirmation, virtue, enchantment, mercy, and forgiveness to the fore. Greek philosophers were sophisticated in their understanding of love and taught about the rarity of the deepest kind of friendship, which they called philia. It was not defined by sexual or romantic passion, but by a quite different distinguishing characteristic. Philia would be analogous to two people walking side-by-side on life’s journey, not possessive of the other, but in communion, souls made out of the same cloth.  

Countless brilliant writers, playwrights, and poets have commented on the nature and necessity of deep friendships, of philia, such as that of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. The Bard, Shakespeare himself in Hamlet, commanded: “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.” Though he may have intended to indicate a cliché, he nonetheless describes with brilliance the strong friendship so many hold dear. The philosopher, scientist, and statesman Francis Bacon wrote that friendship “makes daylight in the understanding, out of darkness, and confusion of thoughts.” The 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson lamented: “Till the first friend dies, we think our ecstasy impersonal, but then discover he was the cup from which we drank it ...”

Friendships like that of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms are unusual in their intensity; they were given a special gift. The world can seem insubstantial, pitiless, or hollow when we suffer grief or loss, and deep friendships are a welcome lifeline helping one to gain calm, bearings, and perspective. They help to reinforce or awaken the best version of ourselves, even when all seems confused and chaotic. These relationships are intellectually transformative and spiritually illuminating, and, in the end, make our hearts sing – which is a rare thing indeed.