Clara Josephine Wieck Schumann, 1819-1896, German musician, was considered one of the most distinguished pianists and composers of the Romantic era. She was married to composer Robert Schumann, and they had eight children. She was also a piano educator at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. Clara was sometimes referred to as the European Queen of the piano because of her unique technical ability. Despite choosing a career dominated by male musicians, her career spanned 61 years, and she left behind an impressive repertoire of piano compositions.
Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck, was a well-known piano pedagogue. Clara’s mother, Marianne Tromlitz Wieck, a talented soprano and pianist, contributed to her husband’s reputation through her concerts and teaching. She left the domineering and abusive man just before Clara was five. Clara was trained in music by her father from that time forward. Clara didn’t utter her first words until some time between four and five years old because of the tensions in the family, including Wieck’s rages. She seemed to understand very little and had no interest in what was going on around her. This condition was not entirely cured until she was eight years old. This pattern of delayed speech and later virtuosity is shared by other late-speakers, pianist Arthur Rubenstein, physicists Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, and mathematician Julia Robinson. Wieck was given custody of “his” Clara because Saxon law gave custody of children to the father in cases of divorce. He controlled the young girl’s life by training her vigorously at the piano. Her regular routine consisted of long hours at the piano, walks in the outdoors, lessons in music theory and composition, French and English. She only attended school briefly.
Clara met Robert Schumann, her father’s student, when she was only eight years old. Their friendship turned into love later, but Clara’s father didn’t approve. He threatened to shoot Robert if they married, but they married anyway. Clara and Robert intended to combine their two lives into one artistically. Clara premiered many of Robert’s works, including piano versions of the introductions to Robert’s orchestral works. Robert was subject to depression and instability most of his life, so Clara was the main breadwinner for the family. She did this by performing piano concert tours and teaching (as her mother had done for her father). In addition to having eight children, she took charge of finances and general household affairs. Clara was a concert artist by training and was one of the first artists to play concerts from memory. She did most of the work in organizing her own concert tours. She hired a housekeeper and cook for times when she was gone on her tours. As Robert Schumann’s wife, she was limited in her artistic abilities while her husband flourished in his composing. They had two pianos in their home, but Clara wasn’t allowed to practice while Robert was composing, which was most of the time. Clara loved touring but Robert preferred to sit at the piano and compose.
Clara’s life was full of tragedy as well as courage. During the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849, she walked, while pregnant, into the city through the front lines, getting around a pack of armed men to rescue three of her children. In 1854, her husband, Robert, attempted suicide, and was committed to an insane asylum for the last two years of his life. He was also diagnosed with syphilis. Four of her children also preceded her in death, and she took care of these grandchildren.
Clara Wieck produced a large body of work until middle age. Clara once wrote, “Composing gives me great pleasure. There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.” Later in life as she was burdened with other responsibilities in life, she found it hard to compose regularly. She 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 been one able to do it. Should I be the one?” Her composing decreased considerably after the age of thirty-six.
Robert Schumann admired Clara’s talent, but he really wanted a traditional wife to bear children and make a happy home. In his eyes and in the eyes of society this was in direct conflict with the life of a performer. He expected his wife to subordinate her creativity to his. Robert Schumann said, “Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity. But to have children and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination does not go together with composing.” (I wonder if he ever considered living in the world of reality part of the time to allow for her creative talent to flourish.) The couple worked together on some songs, but her pieces were more popular than his at the time.
Now to the love triangle, one of the most retold love stories in music history. Johannes Brahms was in love with Clara Schumann, but she was married to his best friend. In a letter he stated, “I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you and tell you all the good things I wish for you.” When Robert was admitted to the asylum, Brahms came to stay with Clara and to help support the family. The relationship blossomed into more than friendship. Brahms was very supportive of her professional career, and often accompanied her on her tours. Clara was the first to perform publicly Brahms’ Andante and Scherzo from the Sonata in F minor. Brahms and Clara visited Robert regularly at the asylum and were with him during his last few days. Brahms wrote in a letter to a friend, “At first, he (Schumann) lay a long time with closed eyes, and she kneeled in front of him. Once he desired clearly to embrace her and threw his arms around her. We (Klara and I) have put in order the papers that Schumann left. If you write to Frau Schumann and me, address us at Dusseldorf, to which we are returning very soon.”
Clara Schumann has been depicted on screen several times. In 1947 Katherine Hepburn portrayed her in the film, Song of Love. Paul Henreid played Robert Shumann and Robert Walker starred as Johannes Brahms. In 1954 she was portrayed by Loretta Young on “The Loretta Young Show: The Clara Schumann Story. She was also portrayed by Martina Gedeck in the 2008 Franco-German-Hungarian film Gelliebte Clara.
Stimulated by the women’s movement, new research in the 1980’s has revised Clara Schumann’s traditional image. We now see a human struggle for survival amidst competition, devastating sorrow, disappointments, and the challenges of managing both a career and family. She is recognized as a composer in the “new Romantic” school and as a master pianist and teacher.
Clara Schumann, pianist and composer, was a pioneer in the women’s movement and in the history of music. In 1856, 40 years after the death of her husband, Clara Schumann achieved legendary status, labeled a “priestess,” dedicated to her children and to her art.
Clara, a woman MAY compose if that’s what she desires. by Sally Fletcher