SEPTEMBER 13, 1819 – MAY 20, 1896
On the afternoon of May 3, 1849, the sun shone on Saxony. It shone on Dresden and it shone on the house close to the edge of the city that Robert and Clara Schumann shared with their four children.
Latticed shadows from the window fell across the piano where Clara sat and placed her hands on the keys, longing to play but having to wait until her husband Robert had finished his work setting Schiller’s Senn’s Farewell to music upstairs in the room he used for composition. Music beyond that playing in his head was too much of a distraction and his mental health was fragile enough, particularly so soon after the death of his brother Karl the previous week.
Suddenly the silence of the house, on Reitbahngasse, was broken by the peal of church bells. Not the measured rhythmic chime of a call to service but an urgent, panicked clanging. Clara stood up and went to the window. Upstairs Richard was hauled out of his compositional reverie. He scribbled, “interrupted by alarm bells” at the foot of his unfinished manuscript page and went downstairs to join his wife.
The reverberations of the revolutionary fervour that swept across Europe from 1848 had hitherto only reached the wine taverns and beer halls of Dresden. The artistic and cultural centre of Saxony, the city had seen fervent discussions and a groundswell of revolutionary support as news filtered through of insurrections in Berlin and Vienna, but few thought outright rebellion would break out. On that sunny spring day events took a sudden and unexpected turn.
An initially peaceful demonstration in the main square had surged suddenly towards the city armoury. The militia reacted by opening fire and in the ensuing violence 14 people were killed. Street-to-street fighting began as scythe took on musket while church bells across the city sounded the alarm.
The Schumanns spent a nervous night at home and the next morning, during a pause in the fighting, Clara ventured into the city to see barricades going up at strategic points manned by agitated young men, while at the courtyard of the hospital she saw the 14 bodies laid out under sheets. The air was thick with revolution.
“The tension was fearful,” she wrote afterwards. “How would it all end, and what bloodshed would become of it?”
She arrived back at Reitbahngasse to see the revolutionary Guard of Safety hammering on doors conscripting every man of military age to join the insurrection. She hurried home to ensure she answered the door: Robert’s mental health was so fragile the last thing he needed was to be frogmarched from his home, posted at a barricade and handed a rifle.
When the knock came Clara told them her husband was out. She said the same thing when they returned a couple of hours later and realising that a third visit would result in a search of the house she acted quickly. Gathering up a few belongings – not many, she didn’t want to look as though they were actually fleeing the city – Clara, who was seven months pregnant, left the three youngest children with the maid Henriette, took the eldest, seven-year-old Marie, by the hand and ushered Robert through the back door of the house and out into the fields beyond.
She led them to the nearest railway station where she managed to talk their way through a patrol and on to a packed, slow-moving train before making the last two miles of the journey on foot to the village of Maxen and the home of a friend, where they found other familiar, pale Dresden faces had already arrived. The six-mile journey had taken eight hours, all the while hearing the booms of ordnance from the fighting in the city they’d left behind.
Tortured by the absence of her other three children, the following night Clara took a carriage as near to Dresden as she dared before creeping through the fields in pitch darkness. A party of men armed with scythes passed close to her but she remained unobserved.
Hampered by her heavy pregnancy, Clara made her way quietly through streets littered with detritus from the fighting, jumping nervously with each shout and explosion from skirmishes still taking place across the city, before slipping in to the house. She found the children asleep in their beds but the maid delirious with what turned out to be smallpox. Gathering her offspring she stole out into the night and made the arduous journey back to Maxen.
The story of Clara Schumann and the Dresden uprising characterised a life defined by resilient determination against events out of her control. These days she’s remembered almost exclusively as the wife of Robert Schumann but in fact, especially considering the restraints placed by European society on its women of the age, the truth lies the other way around, certainly during their lifetimes. Only a year before Clara’s extraordinary Dresden rescue mission the Illustrated London News had described Robert Schumann as “the husband of the celebrated pianiste Clara Wieck”.
A brilliant performer who toured Europe from childhood until her 70s, Clara’s own compositions have long been overshadowed both by her husband’s and her friendship – some say relationship – with Johannes Brahms that flourished after Robert’s death in 1856. Indeed, despite producing some exquisite pieces for piano in her younger days she all but ceased composition in her early 30s on the grounds that, “a woman must not desire to compose. There has never yet been one able to do it – should I expect to be the one?”
Clara Schumann’s life was never easy: raised by a brutal, demanding father before coping with a husband a decade her senior whose growing depression required constant care, she also gave birth to eight children, four of whom predeceased her. Only 36 when Robert died and far from financially secure, Clara had to undertake gruelling tours of the salons and concert halls of Europe to support her family, even when in later life her hands were blighted by rheumatism that could take a week to abate after a concert or recital.
Her first performance took place in
1817 at the age of eight, when her father Friedrich paraded her at a soirée at the home of the doctor in charge of the insane asylum at Colditz Castle. Already studying piano, violin, singing, theory, harmony and composition every day, Clara Wieck was a walking, playing advertisement and endorsement for the strict teaching methods of her father.
Friedrich Wieck demanded high standards, high enough that his insistence on joyless discipline and endless practice drove away his own wife Marianne, a gifted pianist and singer, when Clara was still a toddler. So determined was Friedrich that Clara should be his project that he sued for custody and won, commencing a regime for his young daughter that featured at least three hours at the piano keyboard every single day.
As a result of the trauma Clara did not start speaking until she was four years old and whenever her brothers were brutally beaten by their father for some minor transgression or other she would walk quietly to the piano and start to play. Playing would be her refuge for the rest of her life.
Robert Schumann arrived at the Wieck household in 1828 as an 18-year-old boarding student of Friedrich’s. As he watched Clara grow into a young woman and a pianist so successful she performed for Goethe, drew praise from Liszt and Chopin and received an invitation to perform with Paganini, he became more and more besotted, proposing marriage when she turned 18. Friedrich was set against the union: by then Clara was a successful touring performer known right across the continent and the prize asset of his teaching methods. The last thing he wanted was the distraction of a husband so he withheld his consent. Schumann sued, eventually winning the case, and the couple married on September 12, 1840, symbolically the day before Clara’s 21st birthday, when she would no longer need her father’s permission anyway.
Pyrrhic victory though it was, this was about the only blow she would ever land successfully on the prevailing system of patriarchy. As her husband’s career began to flourish during the 1840s and the family began to increase in size, so Clara’s own career and ambitions began to diminish. Robert’s increasingly regular bouts of depression necessitated the kind of care and protection she demonstrated during the Dresden uprising, but even she was unable to prevent him attempting suicide five years later by throwing himself into the Rhine near their home in Düsseldorf. Transferred to a hospital, once his physical injuries had healed Robert was placed in the asylum where he would die two years later.
The second half of Clara’s life was spent torn between looking after her family and working to keep their home afloat. For most of her long widowhood Clara had to play at least 50 concerts a year to pay the bills, as well as editing her husband’s work and being occasionally forced to sell his manuscripts.
A different era, a different gender and it is possible Clara Schumann would be mentioned today in the same breath as Chopin and Liszt.
“There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation,” she wrote, “if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.”
Instead she found her own creativity constantly stifled, sitting at a piano on a sunny spring day, her fingertips brushing and clicking noiselessly over the keys, that world of sound kept strictly within the boundaries of her own mind.