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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Clara Schumann

One of the things which keeps popping up as I study history, and the history of music in particular, is that the people who stand out are those who break the mould. Conformity, playing it safe and being like everybody else are not the hallmarks of the people whose names and works we recall most readily today. Think of almost any composer in western music and the chances are that we remember them because they were not like most of their contemporaries.

Palestrina, Monteverdi, Lully, Purcell, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wagner, Liszt, Verdi, Bruckner, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, Messiaen, Britten, Copland, Cage, Adams... Every one of these composers broke new ground, or offended somebody at sometime, or wrote music which for a while was unacceptable to many. But they all have one thing in common: they were all men.

While they all broke new ground in their work, the fact that they were men begs the question about those talented individuals who wanted to break even the stereotype of gender. There have been women over the centuries who have dared to step out of the roles imposed upon them by their societies, and their gender was always a talking point, and often a huge barrier to overcome.

Enter Clara Wieck. [listen]

Better known by her married name of Schumann, Clara Wieck was born in Leipzig on 13 September, 1819. Her father, Friedrich Wieck, was a highly-respected piano teacher who had also been involved in the business side of music, selling and lending music and pianos. Clara's mother was Marianne Wieck (née Tromlitz), who had been one of Wieck's piano students before they married in 1816. Her family background was full of musicians, both performers and composers. Marianne Wieck was a gifted pianist and soprano, and she performed in both capacities at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Friedrich and Marianne Wieck were married for eight years before their divorce in 1824. Clara and her siblings remained, as was the law at the time, in the custody of their father.

Clara Wieck (1835)

Clara was one of the three children to survive from the five born to her parents. Her general education was meagre (according to Grove) but under her father's tuition she studied piano, religion and languages. He also saw to it that she studied violin, theory, harmony, orchestration, counterpoint, fugue and composition with the best teachers in Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin. Wieck closely supervised his daughter's education in these disciplines until she was 18, by which time she was already an internationally famous pianist.

Friedrich Wieck (1830)

Clara began her performing career at a very early age; in fact she was a child prodigy. Although she first performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus when she was nine, her formal solo debut there had to wait until she was eleven. Right from the start there seems to have been no hesitation on anybody's part, least of all her own, to accept the then-traditional connection of virtuoso and composer. A performer always composed and Clara was no different. At around the age of eleven she composed the four polonaises which were published as her opus 1, and it was one of these for which I provided link above.

Shortly afterwards she composed nine Caprices in the form of a Waltz, her opus 2. This is the second piece in that set. [listen]

When she was 12 Clara made her Paris debut. At around the same time she also gave the premiere performance of the Papillons of Robert Schumann. She had met Schumann because he was studying piano with her father, and of course nearly a decade later he would become her husband. But to be entrusted with a premiere of a radical, virtuoso work of this nature - at the age of 12 - is remarkable in anyone's language. [listen]

When she was 18, Clara created a sensation in Vienna. She received honours usually accorded to men and to performers many times her age. During the tours of her teens she met and associated with some of the artistic luminaries of the time, including Goethe, Paganini and Spohr, and younger musicians such as Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn.

In her tours, Clara presented programs which were radical. Virtuoso performers usually made a practice of presenting programs made up of their own showy works, and Clara's early recitals followed this pattern. But before long she designed balanced programs with music from the past as well as the present. She introduced works from the Baroque and Classical periods in her recitals at a time when such music was virtually unknown. But she also included her own works, which were rapidly becoming polished and mature. The four Characteristic Pieces of her opus 5 were written in the mid-1830s when she was a teenager. [listen]

At the same time, that is, in her teens, Clara composed her piano concerto. Like Robert Schumann's concerto it began life as a single movement work, and was performed as such, before the second and third movements were added. Robert Schumann orchestrated the first movement of Clara's concerto, and the first performance of the three-movement version took place in 1835, with the composer as soloist and Felix Mendelssohn conducting. Clara revised the work yet again before the definitive version was published in 1837, the year in which she turned 18.

It's a beautiful piece, with the central movement being a duo for the piano and a solo cello; while the remainder of the orchestra is silent. And the finale, the only surviving example of an orchestral work completely by Clara, is dark and passionate. [listen]

The year after her Vienna triumphs, Clara composed a work which displayed she could write in the showy, virtuoso style as well as any of her contemporaries. The impromptu, Souvenir of Vienna (based on the famous "Emperor's Hymn"), was published as her opus 9. The fascinating thing about this is that the virtuosity is encapsulated in a slow tempo, not a fast one. [listen]

By the time Clara composed that work, around the age of 19, she was in love with Robert Schumann (then aged 28) and had been for some time. Friedrich Wieck steadfastly refused to give his consent to their marriage and the whole matter ended up in a very messy court battle. The tortuous progress of this need not concern us here, but suffice to say the couple married on 12 September 1840, the day before Clara's 21st birthday.

Clara and Robert Schumann

The marriage was most definitely a love match, but professionally Clara was at the time far more famous than her husband. In 1840 - Schumann's famous "lieder year" in which songs poured out of him - he was not a well-known composer, although he was known as a music journalist, and as the founder/editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Clara on the other hand had an international reputation as pianist of the absolute top rank.

In the year of her marriage, Clara composed two songs. She had written songs before - two date from the 1830s - but Am Strande was written as a Christmas gift to her husband for their first Christmas together as husband and wife. Robert published it in the Neue Zeitschrift in 1841. The text is a German translation of Musing on the Roaring Ocean by Robert Burns. It describes the anxiety of a woman waiting on the shore for her husband's return. [listen]

In their marriage, Clara regularly deferred to Schumann in the home. He insisted she practise and compose only when he didn't need peace and quiet to do the same. She unstintingly supported his professional aspirations, and helped his piano music become better known by including it regularly in her recital programs.

Old City Hall, Leipzig

After settling at first in Leipzig, the Schumanns moved to Dresden and then to Düsseldorf. In the fourteen years from 1841 to 1854 Clara bore Robert eight children, and yet with all the domestic work this entailed she still somehow managed to continue her performing, composing and teaching.

During their marriage, Clara produced some amazing music, although there was a lengthy period in which she - perhaps not surprisingly - composed nothing at all. Regarded by many as her masterpiece, the G minor piano trio was written in 1846. It's a work of profound beauty and masterful technique. [listen]

Clara Schumann (1853)

That Clara dealt so magnificently with the demands of a marriage, a home, children and her career is amazing enough, but dealing with Schumann's increasingly unstable mental health added yet another burden. After his suicide attempt in 1854 he was hospitalised for two and half years before he died in 1856. Clara was forbidden to see him by his doctors; they only relented right at the end, when she saw him for the last two days of his life. One of her most beautiful pieces, the B minor Romance, was written in the year of her husband's death. [listen]

After Schumann's death, Clara resumed her concert tours in order to support herself and her children. She also devoted herself tirelessly to promoting her husband's legacy, including editing his complete works. She was perhaps single-handedly responsible for making Schumann's piano music an accepted part of the repertoire as she performed it regularly. She toured all over Europe, and especially to Britain (which she visited no less than 19 times). Quite apart from her connection with her husband's music, she was universally accepted as one of the great pianists of the age. She was regarded as the equal of pianists like Liszt, Thalberg and Anton Rubinstein and was called "The Queen of the Piano". Some even said she was greater than all the others and called her the finest pianist of the 19th century.

Her role in influencing European concert life can't be overestimated. Even when very young she performed from memory, something almost never done at the time, and along with Liszt was one of the few pianists to give recitals alone, without the involvement of associate artists. She was one of the first pianists to perform the music of Chopin and frequently premiered works by Mendelssohn. To quote Grove, "in her hands, the piano recital became an event in which public attention was focused on the composer rather than the virtuoso performer".

Schumann's death scored a line under Clara's composing career; apart from a very small piece written for a friend's anniversary, she wrote no music after resuming her concert touring. This is a shame, as she clearly enjoyed composing. During her marriage she wrote: "Composing gives me great pleasure... there is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound."

Schumann himself lamented the fact that his wife didn't get the time to compose that she deserved. In their joint diary he wrote: " have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out."

But despite giving up composing after his death, and in tandem with her renewed performing career, she became widely respected as a great piano teacher. In 1878, aged nearly 60, Clara Schumann became the principal piano teacher at the Frankfurt Conservatory, but this didn't stop her touring and performing. Students came to Frankfurt from all over the world to study with her.

Von Lenbach: Clara Schumann (1878)

While the majority of Clara's music is for solo piano, the three Romances for violin and piano written in 1853 comprise her only surviving chamber work apart from the piano trio. They are exquisite miniatures; this is the first of the set. [listen]

Clara Schumann gave her last performance as a pianist in 1891 when she was 71, crowning a performing career that had lasted more than 60 years. Her collection of 1,299 concert programs spanning her career from 1828 to 1891 is an invaluable historical resource, and is now held at the Robert Schumann House museum in Zwickau. [website]

After her retirement from performing, Clara continued to teach for another five years until her death in 1896 at the age of 76.

Grove rightly points out that Clara Schumann's life was marked by both musical triumph and personal tragedy. Her parents' divorce and the loss of her mother, her husband's mental illness and early death, the mental illness and four-decades long incarceration of one of her sons, and the deaths of four of her eight children all left their mark. But she was a resilient women with rare gifts. In later life she herself paid tribute to the tough training she received from her father, and when viewed as a whole, Clara Schumann's life is one of the remarkable stories of artistic and personal endurance.

I'll end here with music from Clara's Op 23, a set of six songs setting texts drawn from Hermann Rollett's novel Jucunde. These date from 1853, and were published three years later, the year Robert Schumann died. [listen]

Clara Schumann (c. 1890)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2015.

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