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