Schumann, Clara (1819–1896)
Schumann, Clara (1819–1896)
Famous German concert pianist, composer and music teacher, wife of the composer Robert Schumann, whose innovations in performance during a 60-year career helped to shape the standard modern-day piano repertory. Name variations: Clara Wieck. Born Clara Josephine Wieck in Leipzig, Germany, on September 13, 1819; died at Frankfurt am Main on May 20, 1896; daughter of Friedrich Wieck (a music teacher) and Marianne (Tromlitz) Wieck (a wellknown singer); received only a few months of general education, then education in music from her father, and languages; married Robert Schumann (the composer), on September 12, 1840; children: Marie (b. 1841); Elise (b. 1843); Julie (b. 1845); Emil (1846–1847); Ludwig (b. 1848); Ferdinand (b. 1849); Eugenie (b. 1851); Felix (b. 1854).
Made performance debut at age nine (1828); during an extended tour in Austria, awarded the honorary position of chamber musician (K.k. Kammervirtuosin), generally reserved for established performers, in Vienna (1837); after marriage to Robert Schumann and despite the births of eight children, traveled to Russia, Denmark, France, and England to perform the music of Liszt, Rubinstein, Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms; appointed principal piano teacher at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt (1878); made last public appearance (1891).
During the 19th century, no pianist dominated the concert stage for a longer period than Clara Schumann. From her first public performance in 1828 until her 60th-year jubilee in 1888, Schumann's artistry continued to grow. On stage, she became a towering figure in the musical world, introducing some of the finest works of her day while also shaping what is now recognized as the standard piano repertoire; off stage, her teaching influenced generations of young performers.
Clara Josephine Wieck was born in Leipzig, Germany, on September 13, 1819, the oldest child in a musical family. Her father Friedrich Wieck supported the family through teaching music, operating a musical lending library, and handling the rental, sales and repair of pianos; her mother Marianne Tromlitz was a singer who performed frequently in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and had also grown up in a musical family. Clara's great-grandfather, Johann George Tromlitz, had been a widely known flutist, teacher, and flute maker; her grandfather, George Christian Tromlitz, was a cantor. Clara had three brothers and a half-sister, Marie. Four months after her youngest brother's birth in January 1824, her mother requested a legal separation. Marianne was permitted to keep her young daughter with her until Clara's fifth birthday, when she was required by law to return her to her father. A year after the divorce, Marianne married Adolf Bargiel, a piano teacher and close family friend.
Although Schumann remained close to her mother, her father was the dominant figure in her life. Clara initially appeared to be a disappointment, as she did not speak until she was past four and was assumed to be hard of hearing. Despite this slow start, she proved to be an intelligent child, and Wieck, a brilliant, creative teacher whose methods continue to hold interest for piano pedagogues, wanted to use her musical gifts to validate his pedagogical approach. Schumann's general education was limited to a few months in a primary school, with eight additional months at a larger institute. She also studied languages in preparation for an international concert career. Most of the time, her days were devoted to studying the piano, with lessons also in theory, harmony, counterpoint, composition, singing, score reading and violin.
Wieck had definite ideas about the upbringing of female musicians, and he did not want his daughter performing the "feminine arts"; all his piano pupils were advised against sewing, knitting, or crocheting. Clara's domestic duties were kept as light as her study schedule was heavy. But Wieck also believed in addressing the needs of the whole pupil, and saw to it that she took long daily walks in the fresh air.
When Clara was nine, her father remarried, and her stepmother proved to be kind and loving. By that time, Schumann was an acknowledged child prodigy, who had played for Paganini and Goethe. In preparing her for a career, her father never doubted her ability or viewed her gender as a drawback.
Leipzig was a center for music, visited by many of Europe's leading musicians. Clara was still only nine when she met Robert Schumann at the home of friends. He was 18, and asked to study with Herr Wieck after hearing Clara play. About two years later, in October 1830, he moved into the Wieck household as a boarder, and saw Clara daily. By 1833, when Clara was 14, she knew she was in love with him. When she was 15, Robert was briefly engaged to another of Wieck's pupils, Ernestine von Fricken , but this relationship was soon broken off. During the years 1832 to 1835, Robert Schumann composed some of his greatest works.
In 1832, Clara began a seven-month performance tour that included a lengthy stay in Paris. On April 28, 1833, she played part of a Schumann symphony, a first in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. She made tours of northern Germany in 1835, at age 16, and Leipzig also had an exceptional musical season that year, with visits by both Mendelssohn and Chopin. This was also the year that Robert first kissed her. When her father discovered their growing love, he was furious and forbade them to meet, fearing that marriage might end a brilliant career.
—Nancy B. Reich
In 1837, Clara Wieck won great acclaim for her appearance at the Royal Opera House in Berlin. Robert meanwhile did not give up his suit, and met her in secret. On October 15, 1837, Clara set off on a tour of Austria, where she risked playing new music by Liszt, Schumann, and Beethoven. In Vienna, her appearance was such a sensation that she was awarded the honorary position of chamber musician (K.k. Kammervirtuosin), generally reserved for much older performers.
As Herr Wieck continued to reject Robert's requests to marry his daughter, the couple finally decided to go to court for permission to marry without his consent. The lawsuit opened in July 1839. Although the court attempted to reconcile the parties, Wieck would have none of it and poured slander after slander on Robert's head; he also appropriated Clara's savings and refused her access to her personal belongings. In early 1840, the lawsuit was still unsettled, and Clara was under great strain when she began a new series of concerts. The court finally sanctioned the marriage on August 1 of that year, and the couple married on September 12, the day before the bride's 21st birthday. Severed from her father, Clara Schumann now faced combining marriage with a concert career, and although she continued to appear in concerts around Leipzig, her longer tours became increasingly rare.
The next few years were devoted mainly to Robert's compositions and to a growing family. Clara Schumann gave birth to eight children—Marie Schumann (b. 1841), Elise Schumann (b. 1843), Julie Schumann (b. 1845), Emil (1846–1847), Ludwig (b. 1848), Ferdinand (b. 1849), Eugenie Schumann (b. 1851) and Felix (b. 1854). In a marriage which combined two careers with so many children, it was inevitable that some conflicts would arise. Since Robert could not support his large family by composing, Clara performed to help meet their expenses. She had never intended to give up her performing career, but travel now meant finding care for the young children, as Robert, who hated being separated from his wife, traveled with her. During their 14-year marriage, while she managed to perform on innumerable concert stages, he was composing some of the world's most beautiful music. Over time it became clear, however, that he was not well. In 1854, Robert was hospitalized after attempting suicide, and he died in 1856 without regaining his mental health.
To support her family, Clara Schumann went back to extended touring, eager now to bring Robert's music to the world. Time and again her children were dispersed to the homes of devoted friends, boarding schools, pensions, and grandparents, while tours could mean missing birthdays, confirmations, and sometimes even Christmas. Fortunately her relationship with her mother continued to be close, and she was reconciled by this time with her father. Professionally, however, her life was complicated by the fact that concert managers and agents did not exist in the mid-19th century. Apart from being prepared to perform, Schumann was responsible for scheduling her concerts, renting the hall, providing light and heat, renting and tuning pianos, arranging for newspaper advertising, and printing the tickets and programs. Under these conditions, she played over 1,300 public programs in England and Europe throughout her long career.
Economies of time and money may have been behind some of Clara Schumann's most lasting innovations in the concert hall. Finding an orchestra, another of the tasks required of a performer, sometimes proved daunting, so she dispensed with the custom. She became one of the first soloists to play concerts without supporting artists and soon considered it preferable. There were also times, however, when she performed with some of Europe's great orchestras, and she also enjoyed playing with chamber groups and for sonata and lieder recitals. She also began to play by memory rather than reading from music during concerts, which was then unusual. Over time, her repertoire improved, with the dropping of flashy display pieces in favor of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. Although these composers represent the standard repertoire today, in Schumann's era some were "modern," representing the avant-garde.
Schumann's children all assisted their mother, considering her "the greatest thing [they] possessed in all the world." Marie and Elise took over many household and musical tasks; Julie married at 23 and died of tuberculosis at 27, but Elise did not leave home for marriage until she was 34, and Eugenie remained until 40. Marie never left her mother. The lives of the sons were sadder: Ludwig was confined to an asylum in 1870; Felix, like Julie, died of tuberculosis; Ferdinand died in 1891, addicted to morphine due to chronic back pain, after which his mother assumed the financial support of his six children.
Clara Schumann wrote her first music while still a child, but as she grew older she found less time and energy for composing. After her marriage, she usually performed her husband's works rather than her own. Through her concerts, his compositions attained a much wider audience than they might otherwise have found. But Robert, the musical public, and reviewers all took Clara's compositions seriously. Although she was self-confident as a performer, she seemed less certain of her original works, and often needed Robert's encouragement to finish them. At the same time, she bridled if he attempted to change or revise a piece. Her insecurity is evident in an inscription to her husband on one of her creations which reads, "To my beloved husband, on 8 June 1853, a weak attempt from his old Clara."
In her late 40s, Schumann began to suffer from neuralgia and rheumatism, and she later grew deaf. Despite these infirmities, she continued to perform; her last public appearance would be in March 1891. In 1878, she embarked on a second career, becoming the full-time principal piano teacher at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt; musicians from around the world flocked to study with her. Wrote Clement Harris, a Schumann student: "I am proud to be a Schumann-scholar now. I never would have dreamed how difficult it would be to get accepted to her class. Everyone in my generation is trying for it." Like her father, Clara Schumann was an excellent teacher; she mothered her students and followed their careers with great interest. Leonard Borwick, Nathalie Janotha , Ilona Eibenschütz , and Adelina de Lara
were among her outstanding students, and even today there are performers who trace their musical pedagogy back to her ways of training.
When Clara Schumann died on May 20, 1896, at age 77, she had dominated the concert stage for much of the 19th century. Despite the loss of her husband and four of her children, and despite her own illness and pain, she had met the challenges of supporting her large family, changed the style of performance on the concert stage, and won the respect of some of the century's greatest composers, including Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, and her tragic, beloved husband.
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Burton, Anna. "Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck: a Creative Partnership," in Music & Letters. Vol. 69, no. 2. April 1988, pp. 211–227.
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——. Schumann. London: J.M. Dent, 1967.
Dubal, David. "Clara Schumann née Wieck," in The Art of the Piano. NY: Summit, 1989, pp. 236–238.
Harding, Bertita. Concerto: The Story of Clara Schumann. London: Harrap, 1962.
May, Florence. The Girlhood of Clara Schumann: Clara Wieck and Her Time. London: Edward Arnold, 1912.
Reich, Nancy B. Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
——. "Clara Schumann," in Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150–1950. Edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 249–281.
"Schumann, Clara Josephine (née Wieck)," in International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. 2nd ed. Edited by Aaron I. Cohen. Vol. II. NY: Books and Music USA, pp. 626–627.
Nauhaus, Gerd, ed. Marriage Diaries of Robert and Clara Schumann. Trans. by Peter Ostwald. Northeastern University Press, 1993.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia