A Woman’s Mu­sic

19th-cen­tury pian­ist and com­poser Clara Schu­mann was an anom­aly in a man’s world

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Imag­ine if you were a woman born ex­actly two cen­turies ago into Euro­pean bour­geois so­ci­ety. What kind of life could you ex­pect to live? Per­haps you would be for­tu­nate enough to marry your child­hood sweet­heart, set­tle into do­mes­tic life, raise chil­dren and take care of your hus­band’s needs. And if you were very for­tu­nate, you might defy the odds and en­joy a long life of 75 or more years. If you were Clara Schu­mann (1819-1896), wife of the fa­mous Ger­man com­poser Robert Schu­mann (1810-1856), all of the above would be part of your life story, but not the defin­ing part—as Clara’s life, thanks to her mu­si­cal achieve­ments, amounted to much more.

Clara Schu­mann be­came one of the most fa­mous pi­anists of the 19th cen­tury, brought about in no small mea­sure by the machi­na­tions of her fa­ther, Friedrich Wieck, who early on de­ter­mined to make a pi­anis­tic sen­sa­tion of his prodi­gal daugh­ter. Daily les­sons from Wieck, fol­lowed by hours of prac­tice, started at the age of 5, and the best mu­sic teach­ers were hired to im­part to Clara their ex­per­tise.

By age 11, Clara made her pub­lic de­but and the next five years brought fre­quent tour­ing through­out Europe, with her fa­ther ac­com­pa­ny­ing as man­ager. Con­cert pi­anists of the time were ex­pected to present their own works (think of her con­tem­po­raries Chopin and Liszt) and Clara obliged, again with her fa­ther’s en­cour­age­ment; shortly after her de­but her first opus, a set of four polon­aises, was pub­lished.

Around this time, Robert Schu­mann en­tered the pic­ture as an­other promis­ing pupil of her fa­ther’s. Clara and Robert fell in love and even­tu­ally mar­ried, de­spite Wieck’s fierce ob­jec­tions that the pen­ni­less com­poser was be­neath her and that mar­riage would de­rail the promis­ing ca­reer he had spent years pre­par­ing for his daugh­ter. Worse, Schu­mann’s chances for a be­com­ing a suc­cess­ful soloist him­self were ru­ined when a con­trap­tion he had de­vised to strengthen his fin­gers left his hand per­ma­nently dam­aged, leav­ing Clara to cham­pion his works at the ex­pense of her own com­pos­ing. Dur­ing their 16 years of mar­riage be­tween 1840 and 1856, Clara bore eight chil­dren, while Robert’s men­tal in­sta­bil­ity brought fre­quent break­downs and even­tual com­mit­ment to an asy­lum in 1854, where he died two years later. Amid these enor­mous pres­sures, Clara kept her con­cert ca­reer alive, and in­deed was often the chief bread­win­ner, giv­ing an av­er­age of 10 per­for­mances a year, while also manag­ing to pro­duce her most sub­stan­tial com­po­si­tions. After her hus­band’s demise, she re­turned to con­cer­tiz­ing in full force, but left com­po­si­tion be­hind with a most tragic ex­pla­na­tion: “I once be­lieved that I pos­sessed cre­ative tal­ent, 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?”

Yet Clara’s de­ci­sion was a prac­ti­cal one, and her suc­cess as a per­former would prove phe­nom­e­nal, as one typ­i­cal re­view dat­ing two years after her hus­band’s death at­tests. In Eng­land on May 20, 1856, The Manch­ester Guardian wrote: “Com­par­ing Madame Schu­mann with the lead­ing pi­anists of the day, we would say at once that she sur­passes them all in that great qual­ity which we sum up ex­pres­sively by the word ‘soul.’ She is all mu­sic; and, as she bends over her in­stru­ment, it is very easy to see, from her ex­pres­sive ges­tures, that the wooden in­stru­ment, with its bits of ivory in front and its steel wires be­hind, has be­come a golden gate through which her spirit passes into the purest re­gions of har­mony.” As we con­sider Clara’s legacy in this, her bi­cen­te­nary year, we can ap­pre­ci­ate how this ex­tra­or­di­nary woman made a mark for her­self in a chiefly man’s world, with­out any fe­male role mod­els to rely upon. And her com­po­si­tions, though rel­a­tively few in num­ber, of­fer us a glimpse into one of the great mu­si­cal minds of the 19th cen­tury.

Pian­ist, in­struc­tor and mu­si­col­o­gist Erik En­twistle re­ceived an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in mu­sic from Dart­mouth Col­lege. He earned a post-grad­u­ate de­gree in pi­ano per­for­mance at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St. Louis. He earned his doc­tor­ate in mu­si­col­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara. He teaches on Sani­bel Is­land.

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