Today is the birthday of Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of the Romantic age, who, as she matured, eschewed the flashy glitz of the preening virtuoso in favor of a more thoughtful approach to the music she played. She was also a fine composer, although many years would pass before she emerged from the shadow of her husband—even if, during the short and tumultuous life of Robert Schumann, she was by far the more well-known artist.
She was born Clara Josephine Wieck, in Leipzig in 1819. Her mother was a talented singer, and her father was the city’s preeminent piano teacher, as admired as he was feared for the uncompromising rigor of his methods. When Clara was five, her parents divorced. With her mother remarrying, she remained in her father’s custody. Early on, Friedrich Wieck identified his daughter’s talent and imposed upon her a daily schedule of piano lessons and practice; voice and violin studies; and as instruction in harmony, counterpoint, and composition. From a very young age, she was performing in public. In the audience at one recital, given when she was eight, was Robert Schumann—nine years her senior and a floundering law student at the time. Hearing Clara persuaded him to become a pupil of Friedrich Wieck’s. He soon abandoned his law classes to commit himself to music, even going so far as to become a lodger in the Wieck household.
Clara, meanwhile, embarked on concert tours, triumphing in Paris and Vienna as a teenager, impressing both the public and the critics, as well as musicians such as Chopin and Liszt. She began composing, too, and even her earliest pieces—her Opus 1, a set of four Polonaises, was published when she was 11—are remarkable. She seemed plagued, however, with uncertainty. In a diary entry in 1839, the 20-year-old musician wrote: “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?” We know now that her hesitation was unfounded. But what kind of a composer might she have become had she not agreed, upon turning 18, to Robert’s proposal of marriage? It’s a tantalizing, ultimately frustrating question. Although marriage would severely curtail her creative output, the two musicians were very much in love. The only party hostile to the union was her father, who hurled all manner of charges against his pupil Robert: that he was lazy, borderline illiterate, mentally unfit, a sexual libertine. This nasty public squabble ended up in the courts, with a judge ultimately permitting the marriage to take place over Wieck’s wishes. Robert charged Wieck with slander and won his lawsuit. Perhaps not the most auspicious beginning to married life, yet a day before her 21st birthday, on September 12, 1840, Clara Wieck became Clara Schumann—altering the course of her life in more ways than one.
In an article on women composers published in the Guardian a few months ago, the soprano Danielle de Niese wrote: “When Robert Schumann married Clara Josephine Wieck, one of the most talented musicians of her generation, what did he give her as a wedding present? You guessed: a cookbook. As if this weren’t enough of a message he also composed Frauenliebe und Leben for her: a song cycle with a clear subtext, a manifesto for dutiful marriage wrapped in romanticism.” Soon, Clara was preoccupied with keeping house and raising eight children. Given that Robert, a virtually unknown composer and critic in those days, made almost no money, she was also responsible for the household income. She toured extensively as a concert pianist and in the process, helped reinvent the piano recital as we know it today.
The couple inspired and encouraged each other, he quoting from her music, she from his. Furthermore, despite the significant domestic demands he placed upon her, Robert regarded Clara’s compositions highly, and he was aware of his complicity in her fate: “Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before,” he wrote. “But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”
Early on, she wrote bravura showpieces, such as an operatic paraphrase of Bellini that suggests how prodigious her keyboard technique must have been—after all, she composed these works for her own recital programs. Her Piano Concerto, the only orchestral work that has survived, is assured and impressive, as is her exquisite Piano Trio Op. 17, which has, among its many charms, a particularly lovely slow movement. She composed etudes and romances, impromptus and scherzos, as well as preludes and fugues—as a consequence of her thorough study with Robert of baroque counterpoint—until a barren period commenced in the late 1840s. “Composing gives me great pleasure,” she confided to her diary in June 1853. “There is nothing which surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.” At the time she wrote those words, she was returning to composition after some five years of writing nothing.
In 1854, Robert, who suffered from periods of mental illness, famously attempted suicide by plunging into the icy waters of the Rhine, after which he was institutionalized for two years; he died in a Bonn sanitarium in the summer of 1856. Afterward, Clara continued to tour, championing her late husband’s music, and establishing herself as an influential teacher, though she composed only intermittently.
The output she left behind may be slim, but it is filled with riches. The aforementioned concerto and trio offer numerous pleasures, as do the later pieces for solo piano, for example, the Three Romances Op. 21—lyrical, emotionally rich, moving, and more substantial than the florid works she wrote as a teenager. Perhaps the composition I find most compelling is her Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, written in the year of Robert’s suicide attempt. The theme comes from his Bunte Blätter Op. 99, a wistful and somber melody that barely rises above a whisper and that, over the course of 10 minutes or so, assumes many heroic and tender guises. The work is harmonically sophisticated (listen to those teasing, rogue-like chromatic chords in the first and third variations) and incredibly challenging to play; the impetuous second variation, the Chopin-like fourth, and the animated fifth—a tempestuous Romantic essay in miniature—would present obstacles to even the most technically assured keyboardists. The sixth variation concludes in haunting fashion, and there’s an incredible change in character in the middle of the roiling seventh variation: the music becomes suddenly expressive and gentle, touching many emotional registers, with the occasional fugitive harmony unsettling one’s nerves, too, before the delicate ending arrives, the final notes floating free. There, in that complex final variation, is a quote from Robert that is itself a quote from Clara—a theme from Robert’s Impromptus on a Theme by Clara Wieck. It’s a magical bit of musical symbiosis, and a love letter like no other.
Listen to Konstanze Eickhorst perform the Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann Op. 20:
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