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Clara Schumann – prodigy, performer, proponent and pioneer

Clara Wieck was born in Leipzig in September 1819. Although for decades she has been predominantly known as the ‘wife of Robert Schumann,’ her contribution to music as a performer, composer and inspiration was immense.

As a woman in a male-dominated world, she gives us a fascinating glimpse into creative relationships, and perhaps a sense of what other women could and did achieve, despite the familiar list of traditionally male historic composers.

She is to be celebrated for her own achievements, for the support she gave to Schumann and Brahms amongst others, and for the lost voices of many other women who were unable to achieve the same level of emancipation. Notably, while Clara’s work has often been marginalised by claims that her husband was the ‘real’ composer behind her work, she earned most of the money in the Schumann household, which was extremely unusual for the time, and her pieces were more popular than his.

Clara Schumann was a child prodigy. As Schumann’s wife she juggled an international solo career with motherhood to eight children, seven of whom survived infancy. She composed, promoted and inspired a vast amount of music, shaping the 19th century in a way few other artists could. 

Daughter of the ambitions piano teacher and instrument dealer, Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann spent the first 25 years of her life in Leipzig. Before her birth, her father had resolved that she would be a great musician. She made her concert debut in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus at the age of nine, her first complete piano recital was in 1830 (age 11) and her first extended tour to cities including Paris, Vienna, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg, was in 1831.

In 1830, Robert Schumann came to live and study with Weick. Seven years later, when Clara was 18, he asked permission to marry her. Weick objected and did all he could to prevent the wedding, but Robert and Clara went ahead, marrying the day before her 21st birthday, on September 12th 1840. 

From a modern perspective the image of the pushy father who had already decided his daughter’s career path and a man of 20 moving to live in a household where he subsequently married the daughter who had been 11 on first meeting doesn’t scream emancipation. But Clara was ambitious, and within the framework of society at the time, this path allowed her familial and creative happiness.

Her playing was said to be characterised by technical mastery, poetic spirit, thoughtful interpretation, a singing, tone, depth of feeling and strict observance of the composer’s markings. At the age of 13, she was one of the first pianists to perform from memory – standard practice amongst concert pianists today.

It was expected in the 1830s for performers to play their own compositions in recitals and Clara’s early compositions were written to show off her skills as a pianist, including writing for wide stretches up to tenths, due to her large hands.

Clara was just 13 when she began working on her Piano Concerto Op 7 and she performed it just after her 16th birthday at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The work showcased Clara’s skill on the piano and gives the impression of improvisation. 

The work is being performance at the BBC Proms on Sunday 18thAugust at 7:30pm and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

One reviewer commented, “If the name of a female composer were not on the title one would never think it was written by a women.” However not all reviews were positive and one critic took issue with the unconventional key changes between movements. His only explanation for this was that, “Women are moody.” Comments such as these may help to explain Clara’s insecurities about her compositions.

While Clara’s ambitions as a concert pianist and composer were naturally hindered by the responsibilities of family life (though she still managed a career total of 38 concert tours outside of Germany), Robert encouraged her to compose. Their musical discourse was intense, and they studies scores, performances and literature together. They would write diary entries to each other, chronicling a significant and intimate narrative of the lives of two artists.

In 1853, composer Johannes Brahms met the Schumanns. Brahms remained a close friend of both until their deaths, despite the fact that he was in love with Clara.

In 1854, Robert, who had various mental health problems, attempted suicide, and was, at his own request, placed in an asylum. Brahms, who at this point came to stay in their home to offer support, was allowed to visit, but Clara could not visit her husband. She did not see him again until two days before his death in 1856.

Clara was 36 when her husband died, and notably, given this personal tragedy and the loss of her creative champion, all of her compositions date from 1853 or before. She simply stopped composing.  

In later life she said:

I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?

In 1857, after her husband’s death, Clara moved to Berlin. Here, she taught, performed (she played regularly with the violinist Joseph Joachim and others) and edited Robert’s works and letters continuing to support her family.

Having had a direct influence on their compositions, she became known as both advocate and interpreter of the music of Brahms and Schumann. Brahms was always supportive of Clara’s professional career, and she was the first person to publicly perform any of his work (specifically the Andante and Scherzo from the Sonata in F minor, in Leipzig, 23 October 1854).

Clara continued to travel, whilst the children were looked after at home. In 1856 she first visited England, where critics received Robert’s music coolly. However she returned to London in 1865 and made regular appearances there in later years.

She became the authoritative editor of her husband’s compositions for Breitkopf & Härtel. It was speculated that she and Brahms destroyed many of Schumann’s late works which were tainted by his illness, but the Violin Concerto, the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra and the Violin Sonata No. 3, all from 1853, have entered the repertoire, and only Five Pieces for Cello and Pianoare known to have been lost. She was instrumental in getting the works of Robert Schumann recognised, appreciated and added to the repertoire, promoting him tirelessly. Although when she began, his music was unknown or disliked, and the only other important figure in music to occasionally play Schumann was Liszt, she continued until the end of her long career. Those, therefore, who consider Schumann to have been influential on the 19thcentury must look to Clara for the fact that this influence has been realised. 

In 1878 Clara Schumann was honoured at a ceremony in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus to mark her 50th year as an artist.

She died on May 20th, 1896 (aged 76) in Frankfurt.

Her compositions include 29 songs, 3 partsongs, 4 pieces for piano and orchestra, 20 pieces for solo piano, and cadenzas for 3 piano concertos by Beethoven and Mozart; her works are numbered up to Op. 23, with 17 others without opus numbers. She set poetry by: Heine, Rückert, H. Rollet, E. Geibel, Kerner, F. Serre, Goethe, Lyser, and Burns (translated by Gerhard).

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