BBC Music Magazine
Writer and journalist
‘Clara Schumann’s bicentenary has at last brought her out from her husband’s shadow. I’ve loved delving into the life and work of the prodigy, pianist, composer, mentor, mother, muse and all-round powerhouse.’
In 1854 an English traveller named Mary Ann Evans – better known as ‘George Eliot’ – encountered a famous German pianist in Weimar. ‘An interesting, melancholy creature,’ she noted. ‘Her husband went mad a year ago and she is bringing up eight children.’
Clara Schumann was indeed suffering a harsh fate. Robert Schumann was in an asylum following a suicide attempt in February, so Clara was left to grapple with schooling and caring arrangements for the children (including baby Felix) so that she could earn her family’s living.
Too often, though, she has been depicted as sidekick to Robert or as stoical widow after his death – at which time she was only 36.
Yet she was famous throughout Europe long before he was. And as Europe’s ‘Queen of the Piano’, composer, professor, editor and de facto adviser, she helped to shape the evolving direction of classical music itself. The late 19th century would not have been the same without her. And her 200th anniversary is an ideal chance to shout this from the rooftops.
CLARA WAS BORN IN LEIPZIG on 13 September 1819, daughter of Friedrich Wieck, a piano teacher and instrument dealer, and his wife Mariane Tromlitz, a fine pianist and singer. ★er parents divorced when Clara was just five; the home atmosphere sounds somewhat traumatic and the little girl did not speak before the age of four. Throughout her life, however, she found strength and solace in music.
The story of how she met Robert Schumann is well known: he was the family’s lodger and a music student of her father’s, but they married only after painful years of rebarbative resistance from Wieck. Famous, too, is how in the painful years before the couple took
Wieck to court and won the right to marry, Schumann filled his piano music with coded messages to his beloved Clara: impassioned emotions, musical ciphers (using notes as letters) or symbolic themes, such as a falling five-note motif which represented Clara herself. Less widely recognised is that sometimes the themes were, in fact, hers.
Clara’s own compositions are witness to what might have been under different circumstances; and her influence as a pianist still bears fruit today. She was a vital force impacting significantly upon German music in the 19th century. If the bicentenary of her birth can establish once and for all the towering role she played in her musical life and times, it has arrived not a moment too soon.
A brilliant composer
Wieck had encouraged his daughter to compose as a child; part of any virtuoso pianist’s career involved performing music of his or her own. As a prodigy, she played her own pieces in concert and improvised for the audience, and in 1831 her four Polonaises Op. 1 became her first published works. ‘Composing gives me great pleasure,’ Clara once wrote. ‘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.’
★er output included a large number of piano pieces, chamber works, songs and a piano concerto. Franz Liszt, staying in the same Frankfurt hotel as her in 1838, wrote to Marie d’agoult: ‘★er compositions are really very remarkable, especially for a woman. There is a hundred times more ingenuity and true sentiment in them than in all of Thalberg.’ And Louis Spohr, hearing her in Kassel, commented: ‘★er playing is distinguished from that of the ordinary prodigy in that it is not only the result of rigorous classical training but also springs from the heart, as is testified by her
compositions which belong, as does the young artist herself, among the remarkable phenomena of art.’
During their courtship, Robert harboured ideals of artistic as well as personal fusion with Clara: this is why he borrowed her music to use in his own. The opening phrase of his Davidsbündlertänze, for example, is from Clara’s Mazurka Op.6 No. 5; and the slow movement of his Sonata No. 1, though based on a song of his own called An Anna, also bears a clear resemblance to the central movement of her Piano Concerto Op. 7, a work she composed over several years beginning when she was all of 13. Those are but two examples.
The notion of artistic unity nevertheless proved short-lived. ‘Clara knows her primary occupation to be that of a mother … a situation which simply cannot be changed,’ Robert declared while they struggled with the conflicting demands of small children, two musical vocations and an apartment with thin walls.
Clara Schumann’s music has a strong, recognisable voice: serious and spirited, with a driving sense of purpose and a language that nods towards Mendelssohn and Chopin. Robert beautifully captured her tone in his Carnaval’s ‘Chiarina’ – though the piece’s rhythmic obsessiveness is all his own.
★er Piano Concerto Op. 7 is audibly influenced by Chopin’s works for piano and orchestra – for instance in the slow movement entitled ‘Romanze’, the filigree decoration of the piano line and the Polish dance finale (in hers, a polonaise). The concerto is impressive for one so young; it is not without flaws that betray her extreme youth, but the cello solo in the Romanze is notably original and beautiful. (It’s interesting that Brahms, who later harboured feelings for Clara, put a cello solo into the slow movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2.)
Clara’s mature works are fewer in number than her teenage ones, but higher in quality. The Piano Trio (see p6), written in 1846 after Robert had suffered a nervous breakdown, is remarkable for its inventiveness, warmth and depth. ★er songs are heartfelt pieces with soaring melodies and demanding piano parts, and the lavishly melodic Romances for violin and piano, written in 1855 for her friend and duo partner, the violinist Joseph Joachim, are becoming recital favourites.
Then – silence. Beyond 1856 she wrote only a few brief pieces, in the 1890s, plus cadenzas for Mozart and Beethoven concertos. ‘I once believed that I possessed creative talent,’ she wrote, ‘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?’ Perhaps the harsh reality was that Clara felt her music did not meet her own astronomically high standards. Or perhaps after Robert’s death, her compositional fire simply went out. Today we would love to make her emblematic of the lost genius of female composers over the centuries. She might not have agreed.
Pianist and teacher
By contrast, Clara’s commitment to her piano never wavered. ‘My old friend, my piano, must help me in this,’ she wrote to Joachim while Robert was hospitalised. ‘I thought I knew what a splendid thing it is to be an artist, but I only realise it for the first time now that I can turn all my suffering and joy into divine music, so that I often feel quite happy!’
Clara first performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus aged 11; her tours found enthusiastic audiences and critics across Europe, and she seemed undaunted by life on the road. She played music by contemporary popular virtuosos, including Herz, Kalkbrenner and Moscheles. When she was 12, the elderly Goethe noted: ‘the girl has more power than
Clara’s tours were met by enthusiastic audiences and critics across Europe
six boys put together’. And as a wife and mother, she had no intention of stopping. She toured Denmark, leaving Robert at home with the children; and Russia, taking him with her, rather in her shadow. Felix Mendelssohn was a friend and Leipzig neighbour; she often performed concertos under his direction at the Gewandhaus. She performed from memory, a novelty at the time, and championed ‘serious’ music: Bach fugues and Beethoven sonatas, Scarlatti and Schubert. It’s telling that she was dubbed ‘the priestess’ of the piano.
Her youngest daughter, Eugenie, recalled her warm-ups: ‘Her scales surged up and down like the waves of the sea, ebbing and flowing in magnificent harmonies as they moved from one key to another.’
After Robert’s death, from her new home base in Berlin and summer-house
It’s telling that Clara was dubbed ‘the priestess’ of the piano
near Baden-baden, she organised her concerts and tours herself, supported by her eldest daughter, Marie. Watching her tiring schedule, her closest friend, Johannes Brahms, encouraged her to stop. ‘You regard it only as a way to earn money,’ she told him. ‘I do not. I feel a calling to reproduce great works, above all, also those of Robert, as long as I have the strength to do so... The practice of art is, after all, a great part of my inner self. To me, it is the very air I breathe.’
In 1878 she became a piano professor at what was then the Hoch’sche Conservatorium in Frankfurt, where her students included many successful and influential pianists, among them Fanny Davies, Carl Friedberg, Adelina de Lara, Ilona Eibenschütz and Mathilde Verne. They and their pupils carried Clara’s legacy on to generations more. (In one lovely twist, Friedberg taught Nina Simone.) Clara prescribed for them a wide repertoire, plentiful sight-reading,
frequent trips to the opera and the chance
to attend orchestral rehearsals to follow the music with a score.
Adelina de Lara, whom Clara regarded as one of her best pupils, noted that Clara carried ‘by direct descent the tradition of Bach, Beethoven and other classics’. ★er reminiscences contain much intriguing information on her pianistic methods, such as pedalling and fingering.
‘She wished that we should never use fingers just to make a phrase easy
… that is very wrong,’ she steadfastly declares. ‘The hard way is the best way.’ And she recorded: ‘Tone quality, rhythm and phrasing, as well as sincerity of interpretations and absence of affectations in any form whatsoever are the solid foundations of the Schumann school and the basis of the Schumann tradition.’
Preserving Robert’s legacy
Much has been made of Clara Schumann’s role as ‘muse’. Robert’s love for her fed his compositions in a very direct way.
The youthful Brahms, who became her devoted support when Robert fell ill, was mesmerised by her – there’s no mistaking his feelings towards her in his letters – and he, too, filled his works with references to her. The first draft of his C minor Piano Quartet evoked images of Goethe’s Werther, the novel concerning a young man driven to suicide by love for a married woman.
The original version of the B major Piano Trio was equally loaded with emotionally charged thematic references. Years later, he extensively rewrote both.
Not so the great horn melody that shines out of the introduction to his Symphony No. 1’s finale. It appears on a postcard he posted to Clara from the mountains: an Alphorn melody inscribed with ‘Hoch auf’m Berg, tief im Tal, grüß’ich dich viel tausendmal’ (‘high on the mountain, deep in the valley, I greet you many thousand times’). And even in some of Brahms’s late piano pieces, notably Op. 118, Schumann’s descending ‘Clara’ theme can be easily detected.
But one crucial role Clara inadvertently played has been remarked upon less. During the later 19th-century ‘war of the Romantics’ that split the direction of musical development in two, she was one of the turning-points-in-chief.
This divide set the ‘progressives’ like Wagner and Liszt on the one hand against the ‘classicists’, especially Brahms, on the other. Robert Schumann, intriguingly enough, had inclined towards the experimental, pushing the envelope of structure, styles and sources of inspiration. Liszt never hesitated to draw upon extra-musical ideas; and Robert, in his early piano music, obliquely evoked the writings of Jean Paul and ETA Hoffmann – the former in Papillons, the latter most significantly in Kreisleriana. But Clara, probably with an eye on likely sales
income, tended to praise Robert most for work that was ‘not too obscure’.
Liszt was, however, direct competition to her as a pianist and in many ways he was her complete antithesis. Despite his unfailing friendliness and generosity, her dislike of his music, his showy style and his womanising intensified over the years. She went to Weimar at his invitation in 1854 (on this occasion she met George Eliot), but thought his playing sounded ‘like infernal, devilish music’. Their paths rarely crossed after Robert’s death.
Joachim was a major lynchpin in the ‘war of the Romantics’. ★e had led Liszt’s orchestra in Weimar as a very young man – at which time Liszt was a solicitous mentor to him. In 1857
Liszt invited him back to Weimar to take part in a festival, but now the violinist repulsed his suggestion in extraordinary terms: ‘Your music is entirely antagonistic to me,’ he wrote. ‘It contradicts everything with which the spirits of our great ones have nourished my mind.’ This was only months after Schumann’s death. A few days later, he wrote to Clara, offering her financial help. With Joachim and Brahms (who were both in their twenties) orbiting the bright star that was Clara and the memory of Robert, the influence of her high-set musical tastes – that stringent purity, sincerity and lack of ostentation – was likely a driving force. The division of armies is already clear. And there was only one thing worse than Liszt, for Clara: Wagner.
With time, Clara’s standards became ever more demanding. After Brahms discovered and published the first version of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 – unconventionally written in one unbroken span – she did not speak to him for several years.
This reaction left her old friend startled and upset. Some of his late piano pieces eventually helped to heal the wound when he sent them to her.
Robert’s late works posed Clara with a still more painful challenge: she believed they betrayed his deteriorating mental condition. This was why she elected, with Joachim and Brahms’s support, not to add the Violin Concerto to the first complete Schumann Edition (and as Robert’s last orchestral work, it doubtless held appalling associations). It remained unpublished until the 1930s.
Until recently, Clara’s lasting reputation remained ‘niche’; she was championed by a small handful of cognoscenti, yet always overshadowed by her husband and known as muse first, supreme musician second. To make matters worse, the 19th century was regarded in post-war decades as poor relation to both earlier and subsequent eras, a view that ran roughshod over ‘Romantic’ performance styles, regarding its attitudes as outmoded and the popularity of its music as somehow inferior. Now, though, that has run its course; and Clara’s pervasive influence has reached the spotlight. The principles of her pianism are recognised as a foundation for interpreting music of her time; the finest of her works grace the concert platform. And today’s belated yet volcanic eruption of awareness about the work of female musicians should mean that, finally, Clara Schumann will never be forgotten again.