One of the most renowned figures among classical musicians of the nineteenth century, Clara Schumann (1819–1896) was sometimes known as Europe's Queen of the Piano. Her life was partly defined by her marriage to German composer Robert Schumann, whose keyboard works she championed as a performer, but her own accomplishments, which include a small but important body of compositions, have been investigated, in increasing detail, as interest in the creative lives of women has grown.
Indeed, when Schumann's life story is viewed from a perspective that places her rather then her husband at its center, it emerges as an unusually tumultuous one. Her mother left her when she was five, and her father, a dictatorial but musically informed taskmaster, raised her. She fell in love with Robert Schumann while he was living and taking piano lessons at her family's home, and the two had to go to court to obtain the right to marry over her father's objections. In the 1840s and 1850s she composed some of her best music and toured as a pianist while raising eight children and dealing with her husband's resistance to her performing career. She faced the nightmare of seeing her husband decline into untreatable mental illness, and, at the deepest point of her troubles, she was both heartened and unnerved by romantic attentions from a man much younger than she was, a composer who, she realized, was Robert Schumann's equal. It is not surprising that with the resurgence of interest in Clara Schumann in the 1990s and 2000s, came a novel, an opera, and a play drawn from her life.
Raised in Piano-Dominated Household
Schumann was born Clara Wieck into a middle-class family in Leipzig, Germany, on September 13, 1819. Her father Friedrich Wieck was a piano teacher and music dealer and her mother Marianne was a concert pianist who continued with her own career even during a period in which she had five children in seven years. Clara did not learn to speak until she was four, possibly adopting a withdrawn personality because of frequent arguments in the household; her parents were afraid that she was deaf, but realized she was not when she responded with obvious intelligence to melodies her father played for her on the piano. Early in 1825, Marianne and Friedrich Wieck divorced. This event was traumatic for Clara. Mother and daughter, however, continued to write letters to each other, and undoubtedly Clara was influenced musically by both parents.
Clara started taking piano lessons from her father even before the divorce, and as her talents rapidly developed Friedrich Wieck decided to try to make his daughter into a musical prodigy. She studied not only piano but also music theory and composition with the top teachers in Leipzig, a musically rich city, and she benefited from her father's progressive teaching methods, which emphasized quality of practice over quantity. Wieck's personality was domineering. Clara began a lifelong habit of keeping a diary, and for a time he dictated what she should write in it. This habit did have some positive side effects: Wieck's frequent observations of the business of music and the life of a concert pianist helped prepare Clara for an independent career, and today they offer insight into the musical world of the time.
The year 1830 was an important one for Clara in two respects: she gave her first full recital, at age 11, in Leipzig (having performed at the famed Gewandhaus concert hall two years earlier), and she met the love of her life when Robert Schumann began taking piano lessons with Wieck and rented a room in the family home. Her love for Schumann went through several stages, beginning with preteen infatuation, and by the mid-1830s the two were passionately in love. "When you gave me that first kiss, I thought I would faint; everything went blank and I could barely hold the lamp that was lighting your way out," Clara later wrote to Robert (as quoted by her biographer Nancy B. Reich). Their relationship was deepened by their common musical interests; they played the piano together, studied works by other composers together, and, increasingly often as Clara's own creativity flowered, exchanged compositional ideas.
Robert Schumann proposed marriage in 1837, but Friedrich Wieck refused to give his permission for the match and threatened at one point to shoot Schumann if he ever came near his daughter again. His objections were numerous; Schumann had a reputation as a womanizer and a party animal, and he suffered spells of severe depression, perhaps related to the syphilis that eventually killed him. He was very much a struggling young composer at the time, although his reputation was rapidly on the rise in the late 1830s as he spread his own name through his editorship of a music magazine he created. A lack of respect for Schumann's talents was not among Wieck's objections; even when relations between himself and Schumann were at a low point, he assigned Schumann's piano music to Clara during her lessons. The two lovers wrote each other letters in code, made an engagement in secret, and finally took Friedrich Wieck to court to obtain the right to marry. The court proceedings were messy, as Wieck told some true tales and other nasty and exaggerated ones about Schumann's habits, but Robert and Clara won their case and married on September 12, 1840, a day before her 21st birthday.
Traded Diary Entries
In the early years of their marriage, The Schumann's kept a joint diary, writing in the same book by turns. Their love story became famous, and Clara's devotion to Robert Schumann never waned. The marriage was not without strains, however. Robert Schumann's attitude toward his wife's musical career was ambivalent. During the courtship he had always encouraged her to compose, and he arranged for her music to be published and sometimes wove quotations from her pieces into his own works. The two had something of a symbiotic relationship as composers. Clara's music tended to focus sequentially on different genres just as Robert's did, and both passed in turn through phases of writing piano music, songs, and then larger works. After Robert Schumann's death, Clara stopped composing almost completely.
Conservative public opinion of the time favored the idea, however, that women should stay home and raise children, and Schumann had eight of them between 1841 and 1854. All survived to adulthood. Robert Schumann pushed his wife toward domesticity, and she was able to tour as a pianist only when the family's shaky finances required that she do so. There were other practical problems, too; the household had two grand pianos, but there was no such thing as soundproofing at the time, and Robert's needs took precedence.
Despite these difficulties, Schumann's career was slowed only somewhat during the 1840s. Her total published output of 23 works was small by 19th-century standards, but she got positive responses when publishing her own works. New recordings of such Schumann pieces as the Six Songs of 1840–43 have revealed a composer whose style was not a clone of her husband's but drew on influences from various contemporaries, including Felix Mendelssohn and Frédéric Chopin, whose music she often played. The ambitious Piano Trio in G minor of 1846, written with four small children in the house, is often considered Schumann's greatest work.
No matter how much Robert Schumann disliked it when his wife went out on the road, he was dependent on her to some extent: she understood and appreciated his music better than anyone else did, and she was widely known as its greatest interpreter. Robert Schumann, almost alone among 19th-century composers, could not play his own very difficult piano music; he had suffered nerve damage in one of his fingers early in the 1830s, possibly from a finger-strengthening splint he wore in hopes of improving his piano skills, but possibly from the effects of syphilis and its treatment at the time, which involved the ingestion of arsenic.
Separated from Husband During Illness
The last years of Robert Schumann's life were difficult ones for both Robert and Clara. She was left to raise eight children alone but also prized her independence and, when she could, turned down offers of financial help from friends. Robert began to complain of a constant tone he heard in one ear, and his condition soon worsened. He became delusional and aggressive, and in 1854, fearing that he might harm his wife and family, he institutionalized himself. The asylum where he spent his last years, though generally humane, did not permit visits by relatives, and Clara resumed touring and composing in order to support the family. Her three Romances for violin and piano, published in 1855, have passages of deep sadness. She did not realize how dire her husband's condition was until she visited him shortly before his death, which was due to syphilis, in 1856.
During this difficult period, Schumann often found moral support from the young composer Johannes Brahms. The two went walking through towns in the Rhine River valley, and Clara, as she had with Robert Schumann, correctly pegged Brahms as a great composer. Brahms wrote her letters that contain a strong element of suggested passion, but an affair behind the back of the hospitalized Robert Schumann was unthinkable. After Robert Schumann's death the two would have been free to marry; they met in Switzerland and had a long discussion of which the contents are unknown. They met again in Düsseldorf, where Schumann and her family were living, and after she saw Brahms off at the train station for his return to Vienna, she wrote (as quoted by biographer Monica Steegmann), she felt that she was coming home "as if from a funeral." The two remained close friends, probably platonic, for the rest of their lives, dying within months of each other.
If Robert Schumann's death put an end to Schumann's compositional career, it had the opposite effect on her concertizing. With both freedom and financial motivation, she restarted her performing career and gained international acclaim. She moved to Berlin in 1857 and was considered one of the elite musicians of the German capital, making nearly 20 trips to England, where she was especially popular, and touring as far away as Russia. Her interpretations were noted for their depth, and her programs for their variety; she played many of Beethoven's works, including four of the profound and punishingly difficult last five, and, at a time when very few other pianists did so, she looked back to the Baroque era of keyboard music, performing works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. She played a large part in establishing the permanent status of both Robert Schumann and Brahms in the piano repertory.
Schumann moved to Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, in 1878, and in her later years she taught piano at the Hoch Conservatory there. She continued to perform until 1891, and she died in Frankfurt on May 20, 1896. In the stressed, gender-conflicted culture of the late twentieth century, many people found Schumann an extremely compelling figure. Her life became the subject of an opera (Clara, by Robert Convery and Kathleen Cahill), a play (Clara's Visitor, by Stephanie Wendt), and a widely acclaimed novel, Clara, by Scottish writer Janice Galloway.
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