Clara Schumann: after 200 years still overshadowed by Robert

Clara Schumann in 1878, drawing by Franz von Lehnbach (c) Wikipedia

Two hundred years ago, on 13 September 1819, Clara Schumann was born in Leipzig, as Clara Wieck. She ranks as one of the greatest pianists of the nineteenth century. Against her father’s will she married Robert Schumann, whose work she fervently promoted. She also wrote well-received compositions herself, and was more famous than her husband.

Still, she was largely forgotten after her death, and even her 200th birthday did not unleash a tsunami of tributes. On Sunday 15 September there will be two memorial concerts in the Oude Jan in Velp and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Clara Schumann was brought up with music. Her father, Friedrich Wieck, was a music publisher, singing teacher, pianist and piano teacher. Her mother Marianne Tromlitz was a singer and pianist who performed in important venues such as the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. Her father was city cantor of Plauen, her grandfather was a well-known flutist and composer.

Although Clara’s parents shared their passion for music and soon had five children, their marriage was unhappy. Marianne was a strong and independent person, who could not cope with her husband’s many outbursts of anger. After eight years she divorced him, Wieck getting the custody of the children; Clara was only five years old. Later on she’d confess having missed her mother dearly, no matter how much love her father lavished on her.

Speechless but musical

Clara suffered from the tense atmosphere at home, and at the age of four she was still unable to talk. Only when she was of eight years old did she finally speak at the level of her age. Musically, on the other hand, she developed rapidly. Daddy may have been hot-tempered, but he was a gifted pedagogue. He taught in a playful way, adapting to the character of his students. Hearing and finger training exercises thus became pleasant activities. He moreover stimulated his daughter to develop her own feelings.

Soon Clara was able to play scores from scratch, while at the same time she was a great improviser. ‘Her scales swayed from high to low over the keyboard, like the waves of the sea’, her daughter Eugénie wrote years later. Clara attended concerts with her father and played in soirées he organised in their home. This developed into a hotspot avant la lettre: everyone who mattered in the cultural and musical world came to visit. Thus Clara learned to play for an interested but critical audience.

When she was nine years old, the violinist Niccolò Paganini praised her ‘sensitive playing’ and predicted a glorious future. That same year she played in the famous Gewandhaus for the first time, making her official debut there two years later. She performed works by Carl Czerny and herself, among others. This concert was an enormous success and launched an international career that would only end 61 years later.

Child prodigy with depth

Clara Schumann and her father toured all over Germany, where performances in smaller cities severely tested their stamina. Not only did they have to deal with rickety, out of tune pianos, but also they were often forced to stay in bad lodgings. In one of them, Clara’s precious concert dress was eaten by spiders. After this, father Wieck decided to limit concerts in the province as much as possible.

He kneaded his daughter’s career carefully; after all, she was not the only child prodigy. Clara had a dizzying technique, but Frederick understood that the audience would soon weary of empty, virtuoso performances. Her programmes therefore placed showy popular works alongside more profound compositions by herself, Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn. At the age of fifteen she wrote her sparkling Piano Concerto. Though this compares very favourably to Robert’s, it is rarely performed.

Rascal Robert

The success of their tours contrasted sharply with their concerns in everyday life. During one of the soirées Clara had met the composer and pianist Robert Schumann, who was nine years her senior. When she was eleven years old he enrolled as a piano student with Wieck and came to live with the family. Robert and Clara fell deeply in love – to her father’s annoyance. Wieck did acknowledge Robert Schumann’s talent, but found him a rascal, who smoked and drank too much and had little discipline.

Wieck’s attempts to curb the burgeoning love between his daughter and Robert Schumann failed miserably. In November 1835 they gave each other their ‘first kiss’, after which Wieck threatened to ‘shoot Robert if he ever tried to meet Clara again’. Clara and Robert secretly wrote each other love letters, which were delivered by a mutual friend. At a concert in Leipzig on 13 August she played three of Robert’s Etudes symphoniques. The next day the couple got engaged and Robert officially asked permission from her father to marry Clara.

This was followed by an unsavoury period of harsh confrontations. It took a lawsuit for Robert and Clara to finally be able to get married, on 12 September 1840. Thus ‘all those nights of care, insomniac thinking of you, and all this miserable sorrow, came to an end’, wrote Clara in her diary. The couple moved into an apartment in Leipzig. – It was not until three years later that Clara’s father reconciled with this marriage, mainly because he noted she kept composing and continued her intensive concert practice.

‘Are you musical, too?’

At that time Clara was much better known than Robert. She had travelled as a concert pianist all over Europe and was placed on an equal footing with such greats as Liszt, Thalberg and Rubinstein. Lovingly she was dubbed ‘Queen of the Piano’. She played with an extremely lyrical tone and a glowing expression. She would grab the audience’s  attention with a popular virtuoso piece, then feeding them serious works by herself and composers such as Mendelssohn and her husband. Thanks to Clara, Robert Schumann became known throughout Europe: she performed the premieres of almost all of his pieces.

The extent to which she surpassed her husband in fame is illustrated by an anecdote about Prince Hendrik, a younger brother of the Dutch King William II. During a Clara Schumann concert in The Hague he asked Robert: ‘Sind Sie auch musikalisch, Herr Schumann?’ (Are you musical, too?)

Depression taken out on Clara

Clara had grown up in a family full of tensions, but her own marriage was not easy either. Robert may have loved her very much, even paying tribute to her compositions in his own works, but he suffered from depressions, which he took out on her. When he was not happy with something, he would start picking on her, making her feel insecure. In 1853, she wrote in her diary: ‘What good is the applause of others if I can’t please him in any way?’

However, this year was generally a happy one: Clara enjoyed having her own room in the Düsseldorf apartment they had just moved into: ‘If I can study so much, I really feel in my element. It’s as if I’m in a completely different mood, lighter and freer, and everything seems happier and happier.’ That same year she composed her beautiful Sechs Lieder aus Jucunde opus 23.

Johannes Brahms

In 1853 the violinist Joseph Joachim introduced his friend Brahms in Schumann’s home. The cheerful young composer was a bright spot for Clara at a time when her husband was getting ever sicker. Robert attempted suicide and was admitted to a sanatorium in Endenich in 1854. To her desperation Clara was not allowed to visit him, after which she sought solace from Brahms. This has led to wild speculations about a possible love affair. According to Clara herself, she only had maternal and friendly feelings for her young admirer. She was his muse and Brahms would submit all his compositions for her to review.

Despite her grief and the effort it took to support herself and her seven children – and shoulder the cost of the sanatorium – Clara Schumann continued to compose. In 1855 she published her Three Romances opus 22, which she dedicated to Joseph Joachim. It would be one of her last compositions. When her husband died in 1856, Clara Schumann stopped composing, it’s not quite clear why. She remained active as a pianist and pedagogue until the end of her life. In March 1896 Clara Schumann suffered two strokes shortly after each other, succumbing on 20 May; she was 77 years old.

Her compositions were forgotten, but thanks to the efforts of feminist musicians and musicologists, these are gradually gaining more appreciation. Nonetheless, on her 200th birthday, Clara still stands in the shadow of Robert. – May the next hundred years bring the recognition she is due.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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