Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso or Unknown Composer?

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Clara Wieck, a child prodigy at the piano. (1835)

Clara Wieck was a child prodigy at the piano, and went on to marry Robert Schumann. (1835) Image by Julius Giere.

The music world remembers Clara (Wieck) Schumann (1819-1896) as a concert pianist; a virtuoso, who spent her life promoting the work of her husband, Robert Schumann (1810-1856), and other composers of the Romantic era.

What few people realize is that Clara was also a composer, with a talent that was comparable if not surpassing that of her husband. What made Clara Schumann so special in her own right?

Clara Schumann, Piano Virtuoso

My experience as a young piano student involved a half-hour lesson once a week and a half-hour practice session once a day. As a piano teacher, I ask my students for the same commitment. Clara, however, experienced a more rigorous musical schedule.

Her father, Johann Gottlob Friedrich Wieck (1785–1873), was a well-respected and much sought-after piano teacher. He had great plans for his daughter and, to that goal, set up a strict regimen for his daughter’s music instruction: hour-long music lessons in piano, violin, singing, theory, harmony, composition and counterpoint each day! According to music historian Nancy B. Reich, Clara also had to do at least two hours of practice every day.

Clara Wieck: Performing in Public

I can remember, at a young age, being called upon by my parents to perform for visitors. It was never a formal affair. Clara, however, was only eight when she first performed at the Leipzig home of Dr. Ernst Carus, who was the director of Colditz Castle.

Clara gave her first public performance in 1830, at age eleven – only three years after the performance at Dr. Carus’ home. For this performance, she played the piano with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, (a German symphony orchestra founded in Leipzig, Germany in 1743) which, at the time, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) conducted. According to the Felix Mendelssohn Society, Mendelssohn earned recognition as a German composer, pianist and conductor of the early Romantic period.

Music historians like Reich tell us that Clara had such talent that she impressed the musical greats of her time, including Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), and Robert Schumann (1810-1856), the man whom she married in 1840 against her father’s wishes.

Clara Schumann and Her Husband’s Music

Upon her marriage, Clara transferred her talents as a piano virtuoso to promoting her husband; to perform his compositions and to make his name famous. Her career as a concert pianist not only promoted Robert Schumann’s work, but it also served to promote other Romantic composers. Her career as a performer, as well as a much-sought-after teacher, supported her growing family – as she and Robert had eight surviving children.

Clara Schumann and Her Own Music

As quoted by Smith in “Making a Great Man of a Woman,” Clara’s November 1839 entry in her diary read: “I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to? It would be arrogance, though indeed, my father led me into it in earlier days.”

At some point Clara gave up composing – she only created about seventy musical compositions. Composing took a minor role in her life and, sadly, as a result, her potential as a composer was never fully realized. Many of Clara’s works suffered neglect for the next century.

Clara Wieck. Drawing by Johann Heinrich Schramm, image by Wetwassermann.

Clara Wieck used her musical gifts to further her husband’s career and assure her family’s financial security. Drawing by Johann Heinrich Schramm, image by Wetwassermann.

Clara Schumann’s Musical Voice

What is so special about Clara’s compositions? In those we’ve recovered, we find her musical voice reflected the compassion and the emotions of her time. She wrote music for all of the instruments that her father taught her to play, but the piano and the human voice remained her instrument of choice.

At one point in their marriage, Robert was very supportive of his wife’s composing abilities. In 1837, Robert wrote an essay which was a review of Clara’s music and published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

In this essay, Robert wrote: “It may well be that her works derive from so exotic an imagination that mere practice alone will not suffice to pursue these rarely interlaced arabesques or from so profoundly tempered a spirit that, once the graphic, the representational in her compositions recedes into the background, one does not immediately grasp the dreamlike and the introspective.”

In 1841, the Schumanns jointly composed a collection of lieder (songs) based on a series of poems called Liebesfrühling by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). The contrast between the two composers is evident in this collection (identified as Warum willst du and’re fragen Opus 37/12, Clara’s being Opus 12).

Clara based her songs on poems that reflected devotion and passion, a uniquely female perspective. Her music expressed the same devotion and passion. On the other hand, Robert’s work used poetry that was full of metaphor, vivid imagery and classical themes. The songs, when performed, are intimate, like a touching dialogue between two creative souls who also love one another.

Passionate About Music

Clara was passionate about music, not just her composing. In a private letter cited by Nancy B. Reich in Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman, Clara made a firm statement that formed the motto of her life, “art is a beautiful gift. What is more beautiful than to clothe one’s feelings in sounds, what a comfort in sad hours, what a pleasure, what a wonderful feeling, to provide an hour of happiness to others. And what a sublime feeling to pursue art so that one gives one’s life for it.”

There is a definite passion evident in Clara’s compositions. Romance and passion occur in her use of long, flowing lines of compelling melodies accompanied with expressive harmonies, leading the listener through a subtle mirage of colourful expressions, of sentiments in sound. She had all of the qualities of a truly great Romantic composer.

Clara Schumann’s Legacy

This was a woman who, as a talented virtuoso, was a musical genius – not just in performing, but also as a composer, a creator of works, of compositions that reveal an intense compassion, so characteristic of the time and yet so uniquely her own.

She was a woman, unrecognized, at least not fully recognized in her time, and, yet, perhaps ahead of her time. It leaves us to wonder what this creative genius might have done, might have composed, had she been encouraged, had she been allowed the time and resources as well as the positive stimulus to continue with her composing.

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