Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman by Nancy B. Reich
The Great Composers: Robert Schumann
In an era when women, apart from singers, almost never performed in public or composed, Clara Schumann did both. She distinguished herself as the foremost interpreter of her husband Robert’s work, but she was also a primary force in reintroducing eighteenth-century keyboard music to the public. Unfortunately, her own compositions remained unknown until the second half of the twentieth century. Many are still unpublished and owned by private collectors, so we still cannot appreciate the full extent of her compositional achievements.
Studies with Friedrich Wieck
Clara Josephine Schumann (née Wieck) was born into a musical family on September 13, 1819 in Leipzig, Germany. Her father, Friedrich Wieck, studied theology in school but made his career in music. After concluding his studies, he settled in Leipzig where he taught piano, opened an instrument-selling business, and began a music lending library.
He soon gained a reputation as a first-rate piano teacher and he even taught his future wife Marianne, whom he married in 1816, and his future son-in-law, Robert Schumann. When Clara was five, Wieck and Marianne divorced after eight years of marriage. Clara and her four brothers became the legal property of their father. Marianne remarried and moved to Berlin, limiting contact with her daughter to letters and intermittent visits.
Wieck recognized his daughter’s talents and saw to it that Clara had the finest musical education, but unforunately, he somewhat neglected her general education. She studied piano with her father and violin, theory, and various areas of composition with the best teachers in Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin. Clara also attended all of the important performances given in Leipzig and learned about the business of music by copying her father’s letters into her diary.
Career as a Virtuoso Pianist
In 1828, at the age of nine, Clara performed for the first time in the Leipzig Gewandhaus and made her formal debut at the age of eleven. Until 1838, when she turned nineteen, Wieck acted as Clara’s manager and mentor as she toured Germany, France, and Austria. During this time, Friedrich sometimes behaved cruelly towards her, but Clara considered his strictness a blessing because it made her a more solid musician.
Clara was one of the few pianists of her time to perform music from memory. In addition, not only did she promote her own compositions, but she also introduced the works of other major composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Robert Schumann. Due to a self-inflicted injury to his right hand, Schumann was the only composer of piano music among his contemporaries who did not perform in public, so Clara took on this task for him, beginning at the age of twelve, when she gave the first performance of his piano work Papillons in 1831.
Clara and Robert Schumann
By 1836, Clara had become completely infatuated with Robert Schumann and her father’s concern over the suitability of the match was apparent. In his view, Robert Schumann was simply another unknown composer, while his daughter was already a famous and accomplished performer. Wieck loathed the idea of Clara, the supreme achievement of his life, marrying someone who he considered beneath her. In order to limit contact between the two, Wieck sent Clara, then seventeen, to Dresden and broke off all ties with his former pupil. Clara was kept on a hectic performance schedule with some tours lasting up to seven months. For years, she was torn between the father she revered and the man that she loved. While she was touring, Clara and Schumann wrote to each other secretly through an intermediary.
The couple faced resistance from Wieck after announcing their plans to marry. According to German law, a woman could not marry without her father’s consent and Wieck refused to give it. Since Clara was still underage, Schumann turned to the courts in order to force Wieck into consenting, but Wieck countered with charges against Schumann, claiming everything from financial irresponsibility to alcoholism. After nearly a year of legal battles, the court sanctioned the marriage. Clara and Schumann wed on September 12, 1840, one day before her twenty-first birthday and settled in Leipzig. Four years later, in 1844, Schumann experienced a severe breakdown and the couple moved to Dresden at the recommendation of his doctors.
During their marriage, Clara was pregnant ten times and bore eight children: Marie, Elise, Julie, Emil, Ludwig, Ferdinand, Eugenie, and Felix. Even with such a large family, Clara continued to perform, compose, and teach piano, while at the same time she supported Robert and his career. Schumann encouraged Clara’s composing and contracted publishers for her, but made it clear that his creative work took priority over hers.
On the surface, the relationship seemed to be confining, but it proved to be quite beneficial for her as well as for him. Clara arranged many of his instrumental works for piano and performed them during her concert tours. Conversely, he paid homage to her compositional efforts by including many quotations from her works in his.
As the years passed, Robert suffered from increasing mental illness and eventually attempted suicide in 1854 by throwing himself into the Rhine. Fishermen pulled him out of the icy water before it was too late. He entered a sanatorium in Endenich (near Bonn). Because his doctors considered him to be dangerous, they forbid Clara to visit him for the two-and-a-half years he was there. During this time, Clara relied on support from her close friends, including the singers Pauline Viardot and Jenny Lind, the violinist Joseph Joachim, and the composers Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms. It was with Brahms in particular that she developed an especially close bond. Clara did not see her husband again until the days just before his death. Schumann died in July of 1856 and Clara became a widow at the age of thirty-seven.
Clara resumed her concert tours after Robert’s death, but ceased composing except for a march (titled simply, March) that she wrote in honor of a friend’s anniversary in 1879. Her compositions remained relatively unknown until interest in her creative output developed in the 1870s. During these years Clara devoted a considerable amount of time to tasks related to Schumann’s work, including editing the Gesamtausgabe of his works and a volume of his Jugendbriefe. In 1878, Clara became the principal teacher of piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, while simultaneously continuing her career as a performer. She appeared publicly for the last time in 1891 but continued to teach until she passed away in Frankfurt on May 20, 1896.