Jessica Duchen

Blazing a trail: Clara Schumann at 200

10:20, 8th March 2019

Clara Schumann was a towering figure in the German Romantic movement, her gifts as a pianist and composer no less important than as her role as a muse and teacher who inspired other musical greats. Jessica Duchen celebrates the achievements of this all-round superwoman in the year of her birth bicentenary

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth and the timing could scarcely be better. Following the upswing of interest in under-represented female composers during last year’s centenary of women’s suffrage, it is the perfect opportunity to celebrate a musician whose name has long been well known – yet too often only as Mrs Robert Schumann.

Pianist, composer, teacher, editor, wife, mother, muse, advisor: such were the many facets of the intricately cut jewel that was Clara Schumann, née Wieck. Celebrations are ample, not least the year-long series of events in Clara’s hometown of Leipzig (CLARA19), and a six-concert festival at St John’s Smith Square in London under the artistic direction of Beverley Vong, a managerial associate at IMG Artists.

Vong has assembled a programme cleverly themed around the musical connections in Clara’s life, including Mendelssohn, Brahms, Joachim, Bach, plus of course her husband. Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte is set appropriately next to Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C major Op 17, where the composer quotes from the Beethoven in reference to Clara, his own ‘distant beloved’. The first concert presents Clara’s complete songs, and pianist Eugene Asti will give an associated masterclass on them.

‘In some of the songs, you can tell she was a pianist because the piano writing is so detailed,’ Vong suggests. ‘A couple of them are very dramatic, plunging straight in without giving you a moment to settle down. Her Piano Trio is wonderful, which is why I was so keen to programme it with Brahms’s C minor Piano Trio, which she especially liked.’ The couple embarked on an intensive study of Bach and contrapuntal technique as a way of helping Robert out of a nervous breakdown in 1845: ‘I’ve put her Preludes and Fugues in with Bach,’ says Vong, ‘because that played such a big part in her life while she was married to Robert.’

Clara Wieck was born in 1819 in Leipzig, not far from the Thomaskirche, where 70 years earlier Johann Sebastian Bach had presided as director of music. Her father, Friedrich Wieck, was a well-known professor of piano, if rather at his own evaluation. He was famous enough for the young Robert Schumann to seek him out in 1830, eager to switch from his initial studies, law, into a musical career. Schumann lodged in the Wieck’s home and thus first got to know Clara, who was only 11. Wieck exploited her exceptional talent from the start: by 13, she was already undertaking concert tours to Paris, Weimar and Vienna, lauded as a phenomenon wherever she went.

Robert and Clara attempted to become engaged when she was 18. This was not what her father had in mind. He considered Schumann an unstable character, with a propensity for alcohol and a chequered relationship history (probably including an illegitimate daughter with a local housemaid). Forbidden to meet, the young couple was forced to communicate chiefly through coded musical messages. Schumann sometimes used snippets of Clara’s compositions in his own works: his ideal, at this time, was for their union to extend to fusing their musical creations (not that this ideal later survived the realities of married life). He employed, for instance, a phrase from one of Clara’s Mazurkas to open his Davidsbündlertänze Op 6.

Musical marriage: Clara with her husband Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Musical marriage: Clara with her husband Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Eventually, with Wieck’s behaviour growing beyond unreasonable, Robert and Clara sued him for the right to marry. After a hellish few years in which they endured public scandals and often feared the worst, they won their case. They were married the day before her 21st birthday.

Though devoted, the marriage had its difficulties. Tensions inevitably surrounded Clara’s conflicts between motherhood and career. Robert, for example, noted: ‘Clara has written a series of small pieces, more delicate and richly musical in their invention than she’s ever achieved before. But having children and a husband who constantly improvises does not fit together with composing… Clara herself knows her primary occupation to be a mother.’ Clara may not have agreed entirely. She gave birth to eight children in 13 years – yet, having discovered that childcare could be engaged, was able to continue her concert life. After all, someone had to earn a living.

Robert, moreover, was plagued by depression and worse. It seems likely that he suffered from both syphilis and bipolar disorder. In February 1854, several years after the family had moved to Düsseldorf, he suffered a mental collapse and attempted suicide, throwing himself into the river Rhine. Subsequently he was incarcerated in an asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, where he died in July 1856. Clara was not permitted to visit.

She was fortunate to have help from Johannes Brahms, who had first come to play to them a few months earlier, winning their admiration and affection. While Clara struggled to maintain her household and career, the 20-year-old Brahms took on duties ranging from accounts management to childcare. Her daughter Eugenie Schumann, in her memoires, describes him performing gymnastics on the banisters to entertain them. Brahms’s heartrending letters prove that he was desperately in love with Clara – if probably unrequitedly. Their friendship continued, despite a few serious fallouts, for the rest of their lives; and to the last, Clara was almost as much a muse and advisor to him as she had been to her husband.

Clara’s sheer gumption in holding everything together after her husband’s illness and death would command admiration in the 21st century, let alone the mid-19th. Nevertheless, she is by no means above criticism. Her attitude to Robert’s late works is particularly controversial. She is thought to have destroyed some pieces that she considered below par; and her decision, supported by their friend Joseph Joachim, not to publish the Violin Concerto left this problematic yet beautiful work languishing in obscurity until the Nazis turned it into a propaganda piece in 1938.

Intertwining lives: Clara became a muse to Johannes Brahms (seated) and was a regular duo partner of violinist Joseph Joachim
Intertwining lives: Clara became a muse to Johannes Brahms (seated) and was a regular duo partner of violinist Joseph Joachim

Clara applied her almost impossibly high personal standards all round. She loathed Liszt for the perceived vulgarity of his showmanship and technical display; as for Wagner, she declared herself bored by the Ring cycle and (rather prudishly) shocked by Tristan und Isolde. Her criticisms of Robert’s works while he was alive had nevertheless shown a certain pragmatism: she constantly tried to persuade him to make them less obscure, more audience-friendly, more saleable. It is perhaps no wonder that Brahms valued her praise so highly: it came from the heart and could by no means be taken for granted.

Her merciless eye did not spare her own compositions. ‘There’s a lot of evidence that she didn’t want her music to be published or seen,’ says Vong. ‘She wanted things destroyed. I don’t think she felt confident about her own works.’ She composed little after her mid-30s, her style perhaps closer to Mendelssohn, and sometimes Chopin, than to her husband’s music. On hearing Joachim play the three violin Romances, one eminent listener – George V of Hanover – declared them a ‘marvellous, heavenly pleasure’.

But it was for her pianism, above all, that Clara was truly a legend in her own lifetime. Reviewing a performance she gave in 1856 at Manchester Town Hall, the Manchester Guardian reported: ‘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… has become a golden gate through which her spirit passes into the purest regions of harmony.’

For many years Clara’s reputation survived for posterity through the editions she made of her husband’s music – still used today. Pianists can relish, too, the reminiscences of her students, who included Fanny Davies, Ilona Eibenschütz and Adelina de Lara, among others. De Lara remembered in her recorded memoires that Clara had ‘in direct descent, the tradition of Bach, Beethoven and other classics’. She highlights matters crucial to Clara such as correct use of the pedal – ‘just touch it lightly’ – and recalls that using the soft pedal was forbidden: ‘Pianissimos should be genuine.’ She adds that in general presentation, ‘It is unnecessary to throw oneself about.’ And she remembers Brahms ‘popping in and out of the music-room, smiling, as we were having our lessons’.

It has taken too long for Clara Schumann’s full significance as a towering all-round musician to be recognised. ‘She was absolutely phenomenal,’ Vong asserts. ‘For her to be a woman in that era and achieve all these things at the same time is actually incredible. I hope people will come to the festival, learn and find it inspiring. She was superwoman!’

Clara’s most famous statement about her own music, though, was much of its time, and today can only induce frustration. ‘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?’ If only she could hear the chorus of ‘Yes!’ resounding back from the 21st century…

Jessica Duchen is a music critic and author. Her novel Ghost Variations (published by Unbound) explores the rediscovery of Schumann’s Violin Concerto in the 1930s

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