Once in a long while, I have an experience that brings the distant musical past almost close enough to touch. That happened a few years ago when a friend of mine said to me “Have I ever told you about my grandmother?” I soon learned that his grandmother was a late 19th-century piano virtuoso, a protégée of Clara Schumann and friend of Johannes Brahms. My friend has memories of his grandmother from when he was a boy, along with radio interviews and a few — a very few — recorded performances. So only three degrees of separation — from me…to my friend…to his grandmother…to Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. Almost close enough to touch.

Her name is Ilona Eibenschütz and she was born not quite 150 years ago, on May 8, 1872. She was a young piano prodigy who played for an elderly Franz Liszt. Born in Budapest, she and her family moved from Vienna to Frankfurt when Ilona was 13 so that she could study with Fräu Schumann. Shortly after that, Clara introduced her to Johannes Brahms. Both Clara and Johannes were enamoured of this young, feisty, dark-haired pianist, though Clara complained repeatedly that Ilona played too fast, and practised without enough care and attention. Brahms said that he preferred Ilona’s interpretations of his own music over anyone else’s. One wonders what Clara thought of that!

By this time, Clara Schumann was the grande dame of Romantic pianism. Brahms, of course, was fêted everywhere, and considered by some as the successor to Beethoven. It must have been both exhilarating and nerve-wracking for a young woman in her teens to be in the midst of these two households. At one point, when Johannes and Clara were communicating only via very snappish letters to each other, it was Ilona who described to Clara some compositions of Brahms that he had just played for her — and which would turn out to be his final works for the piano: Op. 118 and 119.

I’ve just completed a video about Ilona: her bond with Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms; the music she performed; how she played it, and how we might approach that same repertoire today. If you’d like to know even more about Ilona, here’s an interview with Oliver Robinow, the friend who first introduced me to his grandmother, Ilona Eibenschütz.

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