September 13, 2019
“Nothing surpasses the joy of creation.” - Clara Schumann
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
I am indebted to Jade Simmons (pianist and storyteller) for most of this information. Check out her podcast Decomposed for a more detailed history of Clara Schumann.
How is it that Clara Schumann became a famous classical pianist at a time when women were not allowed on the stage? And, why is Robert Schumann arguably more famous than Clara?
Clara Josephine Wieck was born on this day (September 13, 1819) in Liepzig, Germany. Her mother was a famous singer and her father was a famous piano teacher. Clara was her father’s prize student and he pushed her intensely, nearly dominating every aspect of her life. Due to Mr. Wieck’s pressure and intractability, Clara’s mother divorced him when Clara was five. Clara remained with her father who saw a brilliant future at the piano for her. She first toured at age eleven, and was such a success that she continued touring for many years under her father’s guidance. During this time, Clara became a huge celebrity. She was famous throughout Europe as a child prodigy. She also composed a number of her own pieces.
Around the time she turned nine, her father took on another student, Robert Schumann. At age eighteen, nine years older than Clara, Robert came to piano very late in life. While Clara’s father took her on tour, Robert was left as a lodger in the Wieck family home. During her teenage years, Clara and Robert began writing letters to each other and eventually fell madly in love. Though her father forbid the marriage, the couple decided to sue her father for the right to marry. Furthermore, he would not give Clara any of the money that she had earned during ten years of concert tours. The court decided in favor of the young couple. Robert and Clara married immediately, one day short of her twenty-first birthday, on September 12, 1840.
The day after their marriage, Robert gave Clara a journal that was to connect them both. They would each keep the journal for one week, and then give it to the other for a week. Robert writes, “This little book that I am starting today has for us a deep significance: it is to be a diary of all that concerns us in our domestic and married life; to be a record of our wishes and our hopes, and the means whereby we may convey to one another any requests we may have to make, for which words may not suffice; and to be a mediator and reconciler should we chance to misjudge or misunderstand each other. In short it will be a good and faithful friend, to whom we may always come with open hearts...”
It seems odd that Robert chose to give Clara a journal for the two of them to write together particularly because her father had done the same. Clara’s entire life was directed by her father who wrote her every thought for her. He penned many entries in Clara’s journal and then signed Clara’s name as if she had written them. He also dictated what she played and how. This odd, obsessive treatment overshadowed Clara’s ability to develop her own skills, at her own pace. Even as a married woman, free from her father, Clara still had to fight for piano time, which meant, she still wasn’t free to play as she would like.
Life as a wife and mother took precious time away from Clara’s piano career. In fact, she continually notes in her journal that it was hard to find time for herself, or her music. Due to her years as a child prodigy and a tour celebrity, she could earn more money than Robert, but that arrangement was unacceptable in the culture of the day. Rather, she continued with housework and raising children, while trying to sneak time for the piano in stolen moments. Though, she did tour on occasion but she nearly stopped composing, famously saying, “A woman must not desire to compose.”
A rare exception occurred after Clara Schumann suffered a miscarriage when she wrote the Piano Trio in G minor. A year later, Robert wrote a Trio which seemed to overshadow her own piece and in her mind, she started to see herself more as a wife than as a performer and composer. However, at this same time, about 10 years into their marriage, Robert began to display symptoms of a severe illness. Finally, he entered a mental institution, where he died about two years later. His death was devastating to her, but during the illness and after his death, she had to earn as much money as possible, which meant that Clara once again left on tour.
As her life had evolved, Clara’s relationship with music necessarily changed too. She began to see herself as an interpreter of music and very much enjoyed the performance element. She also was one of the first to memorize music for the stage. And though she composed very little anymore, at age sixty-six, in a concert in London, she chose to play one of her own pieces in public, on stage. As Jade Simmons explains, maybe she was beginning to rethink the idea that a woman should not compose.
To put this in perspective, she was born two years after Charlotte Brontë, which means that during her celebrity years, the Brontë sisters attempted their own unheard of feat: to publish a novel. They succeeded only by resorting to pseudonyms. It is curious to think of the legacy of women in unique positions such as these. I do not know if Clara Schumann is still considered famous, but I do believe that Robert’s legacy overshadows her own. I also wonder why Jane Eyre (for example) has seen such resurgence, but the same is not (yet) true of Clara Schumann’s works. It brings to mind questions of difference between the arts, such as music and novels. How does society consume, perpetuate, encourage, or desire any of the arts? I do not believe that these situations are entirely analogous, but they are not totally divergent either. In my mind, Clara Schumann has much to teach us, if we would listen.
Analysis of Clara’s Trio in G minor; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmU2F3U3tbY
Clara Schumann’s Trio in G minor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzTcsluFxU4
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