CLARA SCHU­MANN

SEPTEM­BER 13, 1819 – MAY 20, 1896

The New European - - Great Lives Eurofile - BY CHAR­LIE CONNELLY

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.

Photo: Contributed

Clara Schu­mann

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