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Clara Schumann

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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Dazzle Ships

September 6, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I get very excited when the world combines disciplines in an unexpected way. Recently, I came across a children’s book entitled, Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton and illustrated by Victo Ngai. Not only is this book elegant, descriptive, and interesting, it talks about the combination of art and war in a way that I had never seen before. The book interested me mostly because of the art, but also, the perspective and combination of disciplines. The idea of dazzle ships combines lessons of history, gender studies, art, science, warfare and even popular culture.

The idea for dazzle ships arose during World War I when Britain was losing up to eight ships a day to German U-boats. The losses weighed heavily on the British, who were often known for their naval expertise. Initially, U-boats captured or sank unarmed merchant or cargo ships. They held these ships hostage by using a system which involved turrets (a movable enclosure that protected guns) and torpedoes. The torpedoes were only useful, however, from a distance and a fixed location. They had to be fired using data points such as the opposing ship’s speed, location, and direction. While torpedoes function based entirely on informed guesses at a distance, the guns, on the other hand, were only useful at close range which made the torpedoes useless. So, when the British began arming merchant ships, the Germans resorted to using torpedoes alone to sink ships.

Roy R. Behrens, an expert on camouflage, explains that many people in various countries arrived at the idea of distortion, dazzle, and camouflage, around the same time. He notes: “As early as 1915 (before the US joined the war), an American muralist named William Andrew Mackay collaborated with US Navy commander Joseph O. Fisher at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in designing disruptive (not low-visibility blending) schemes for American submarines. It is not clear if the two were acquainted with Kerr’s experiments, but we do know (according to Mackay, and from photographs) that their camouflage made use of ‘stripes and bars, and there evolved the first principles on which modern camouflage is based’” (6) .

It was also about this time of desperation that British lieutenant-commander Norman Wilkinson (also an artist) proposed painting British ships in dazzling colors and patterns. The idea was not exactly to camouflage the ships, but to disorient the viewer. Camouflage is better used for stationary objects, but distortion works on bodies in motion. “Whereas concealment has to do mainly with motionless objects, distortion is concerned for the most part with objects in motion. The moving object cannot, as a rule, be hidden, but it can be made less definite, more puzzling, a more ‘tricky’ and difficult target, by certain arrangements of color and pattern” (quoted from Gerald H. Thayer “Camouflage in Nature and War” in Brooklyn Museum Quarterly. Vol 10, 1923, p. 161.) In other words, dazzle works because of the way that the human eye is able to organize information.

Whoever arrived at the idea first, both the British and U.S. Navies began developing dazzle ships. They experimented on small wooden replicas painted with bright colors and designs. For this task, the United States Navy sought women with experience in landscape painting who were then employed to dazzle a variety of ships. (It is interesting to note that: Camouflage artists are known as camoufleurs or camofleuses (which also recalls the idea of the previous -ess suffix discussion!). Experts in periscope viewing tested the small models and those which successfully disoriented the viewers were then transferred to large battleships. The idea was that the dazzle would confuse the U-boats, making it impossible to correctly gauge direction or speed. The sea’s constant motion and humidity are inherently disorienting. Also, ships emit noxious oils and smoke. Therefore, the painted designs intended to capitalize on movement and disorder.

These dazzle ships took advantage of the way that the human eye works. It navigates by focusing on definable shapes. So, dazzle ships worked more like an optical illusion, which made the human eye inefficient, and the periscope viewer could hardly render a knowledgeable guess about size, shape, distance and direction. This Smithsonian article claims that “By June 1918, less than a year after the division was created, some 2,300 British ships were dazzled, a number that would swell to more than 4,000 by the end of the war.”

Of course, the idea of dazzle did not end with the war. Rather, cubist painters and others picked up on these trends and they became so fashionable as to even decorate swimsuits for a time. I was surprised to find Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD) wrote a song about them as late as 1983! This seemingly simple children’s book astounded me by its combination of art and history, but also by the rich illustration and depth of knowledge. My gratitude to Chris Barton and Victo Ngai for introducing me to these marvelous ships and their complicated history.

You can find more information at the following links:
HENI Talks 10 min video: https://henitalks.com/talks/dazzle-how-a-british-artist-transformed-the-seas/

Behrens essay about camouflage and its misconceptions:
http://www.bobolinkbooks.com/Camoupedia/DazzleCamouflage/dazzle.html

Public Domain Review with a number of images:
https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/dazzle-ships/

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The Day After Independence

July 5, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

What happened the day after independence? Or the next day, or the day after that? How does one go about constructing a cohesive, yet flexible, democratic society? What is it like to transition from a single goal – defeat the British – to a much more fluid goal of a free society? To better understand some of the history of this period, I have been reading Cokie Roberts’s books Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty. Roberts includes some amazing research which helps to paint the picture of the day. She worked tirelessly reading through notes, letters, receipts, transactions, logs – basically any existing writing which would offer clues about the time period. With this research, she writes eloquently about the struggles of founding a nation – and also the prominent female voices of this time period. Roberts cautions that these are not books about the common experience of the day, but rather ones focused on those with means and power. Today’s blog will glean a few details about the powers that be in the years that followed the fight for independence. I truly appreciate Roberts’s work and recommend these books to anyone interested in the history of America and/or women’s rights in general.

Ladies of Liberty begins with the death of George Washington, which had the potential to be a truly destabilizing event. Washington was revered by all. He and Martha had long served the country and in his wake, Martha received many visitors long after George was no longer in office. He died during John Adams’s presidency at a time of rising factions in the U.S. and problems with the French. In fact, Washington had warned against both of these things at the end of his presidency. His eloquence did not assist the second president, however. Instead, political rhetoric and vicious party fighting marked the campaign for the second presidency. Roberts writes:

“Political parties emerged in this country soon after the men who had fought together in the Revolution and struggled to ratify the Constitution formed the first federal government. With each side claiming to carry the banner of the Spirit of Seventy-Six, John Adams’s Federalist Party – which advocated a strong central government – was derided as pro-British and monarchical while Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party - more inclined to support states’ rights – was attacked as pro-French and anarchical. Since it was considered unseemly to seek the job of president openly, surrogates waged this first presidential campaign through the bitterly partisan newspapers, with intraparty shenanigans making the outcome unknown. When the ballots were counted the results proved interesting indeed. Under the system at the time, the man with the most Electoral College votes became president, the number two in the tally vice president. As president of the Senate, John Adams announced the totals on February 9, 1797: John Adams 71, Thomas Jefferson 68, Thomas Pinckney (running for vice president as a Federalist) 59, Aaron Burr (running for vice president as a Republican) 30. Not only was it a hair-thin victory for Adams, but the president and vice-president for the first – and last – time would hail from opposing parties.” (8)

In addition to the creation of political parties and state roles such as vice president, the newly born America witnessed the birth of the position of “First Lady.” Both Martha Washington and Abigail Adams worked tirelessly to support their husbands and their country. They viewed civic responsibility with utmost importance and both sacrificed much personal pleasure. Like John Adams, Abigail was in the unique and difficult position of following in Washington’s footsteps. Adams’s presidency also encompassed moves from New York to Philadelphia to D.C., into what would ultimately become the White House. In its initial days, the move was a struggle, making consistency difficult. It also created major problems with entertaining, an important role for any First Lady. Furthermore, the role of entertaining and receiving guests came entirely from the president’s own pockets. Roberts notes, “As the first person to play the role of Second Lady, Abigail enjoyed her time in the temporary capitals – New York, then Philadelphia – but found that the constant entertaining was taking its toll on the family finances, which she had so carefully husbanded for many years” (7).

During John’s reelection bid, Abigail returned to Philadelphia and then to D.C., to no avail. John Adams served only one term before losing to Thomas Jefferson in a bitterly fought battle. During the campaign, Abigail continuously noted the lack of factual information in the papers, which were strongly partisan (something else that Washington had warned about). During the heat of the campaign, John Adams wrote to Abigail from the White House: “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof” (42). Roberts notes that today those words are “inscribed above the fireplace of the State Dining Room” (42).

John and Abigail Adams wrote many letters and their correspondence paints a portrait of their characters, strong will, determination and opinions. In fact, Abigail kept up such correspondences that we are blessed to see a rich picture of the day, both in and out of the White House. From these (and other resources), Roberts highlights important American firsts, such as the first American Sunday School set up by Catherine Ferguson in New York City. Her story, like many others in her day, was an unlikely one. Born into slavery, she received freedom only after raising $200 to purchase her independence. It is thought that some of this money came directly from Abigail Adams who opposed slavery. Catherine lamented the numbers of poor children on the streets of New York, and so she “took charge of forty-eight kids, both black and white, either placing them with other people or taking them in herself. In about 1793, when she realized how little the children knew about religion, she set up Katy Ferguson’s School for the Poor in New York City” (53). This school subsequently moved to the Murray Street church which, Roberts tells us, launched the Sunday School movement in New York (53).

Two other exciting finds from Roberts’ research include mentions of female authors at this time. Roberts notes that “Hannah Adams, a distant cousin of John Adams, published a couple of texts about religion in order to earn a living, making her the first woman in the country to live off her writing income” (53). Other writers included Susanna Rowson, who was a school teacher as well, but published one of America’s first popular novels, Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. In fact, this time period at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s saw great changes in printed materials. As technology advanced, publications reached new and specialized markets, including women’s magazines. Roberts explains that “More publishing meant not only more bookstores but the birth of lending libraries – making books, newspapers, and, especially, magazines available to all comers” (59). Also during this time, Amelia Simmons published the first American Cookbook.

Looking at the political rhetoric of the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams debates - driven largely by media and newspapers, factions and political parties - one realizes that the past is not so distant. On the other hand, education models and recipes evidence a bit more change. Does custom influence one arena more than another? How are customs intertwined with laws? Where do these customs come from and who sets the precedent? This book explores mostly those with money and power, but yet also notes women of small means who took great risks in order to influence higher powers, such as Catherine Ferguson. Certainly their legacy is worth more than a footnote.

America’s founding figures are rich with intrigue, flavor, romance, debate and, of course, politics. I find the reading entirely enlightening, educational, and entertaining.

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Poems That Celebrate Mothers

May 10, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I am blessed with strong women in my ancestry. Like most women, however, I find that their strength is often invisible. This invisible strength appears daily, hourly, routinely, in the way they made time for others, spent late hours fixing others’ problems, carrying the weight of the household in more ways than one. I love Alberto Ríos’s poem “Nani” which eloquently demonstrates this idea of invisible love. In the poem, Nani serves albondigas to a grandchild. In the poem, they have apparently lost a common language. The narrator explains that he is full, but then asks for more, realizing that she intends to serve. He writes, “All my words/ make her smile. Nani never serves/ herself, she only watches me/ with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.” They speak through an unwritten language which involves gratitude, faith, love. The narrator calls her the “absolute mamá,” which is a phrase that puzzles me, but I imagine that this absolute power grants her an ability to intuit scenarios of right and wrong, to offer help and sustenance.

Much of his poem speaks of a language divide which embarrasses the narrator. Yet, the two do communicate, and even though the foreign words make her smile, she does understand the narrator. Furthermore, there is so much unspoken dialogue in this poem. The narrator notes grandmother’s wrinkles, or the way her fingers work tortillas. Ríos writes, “I watch her/ fingers in the flame for me./ Near her mouth,/ I see a wrinkle speak/ of a man whose body serves/ the ants like she serves me….” She tempts fire for her family. She tends the stove and hearth. She bears the burden of the dead. She works steadily, aware of her grandchild, attentive to his needs. Furthermore, the poet links her to mother earth, and the relentless nature of nature. In describing the essence of this strong woman he writes, “Her insides speak/ through a hundred wrinkles, now, more/ than she can bear, steel around her,/ shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?” Though there is no dialogue in this poem, the reader feels a real connection between the two. The dynamic imagery, the string of actions we observe really ask us to question the language barrier that divides them. What is language? What does it mean to serve someone? The poem ends with: “Even before I speak, she serves,” which makes me wonder in what way(s) is language important to this poem and these two characters?

“Nani” celebrates a matriarchal figure. The way that the speaker critically narrates their own language gives the poem a bit of nostalgia. In Ríos’s poem, the reader feels the narrative presence of two figures, of the stove and albondigas, of the mint that sustains them all. That food is central makes sense for this poem, as it is another form of conversation.

However, in a poem like ee cummingsif there are any heavens my mother will,” word and deed and life have all been abstracted. cummings replaces any actual lived experience with an abstract expression of love. This poem describes the mother by comparing her to flowers. He writes, “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have/ one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor/ a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but/ it will be a heaven of blackred roses.” The image of blackred roses invokes both strength and beauty, as opposed to the fragility of lilies-of-the-valley or the common pansies. The poet’s mother, then, is extraordinary in some important, and perhaps indefinable, way.

The poem also depicts the father gently swaying in this garden of blackred roses. His eyes are petals, and their faces sway, much like the poem’s line breaks, fluidly moving in and out. Regardless of what the father actually does for a living, cummings calls him a poet, perhaps because he lingers over beauty, or because he loves with such devotion. Whatever it is, the narrator describes the richness of love with the way his father lingers over the deceased mother. This man is tall and strong and devoted. The poet, too, recognizes the genuine beauty of love in the act of lingering. As the father sways, he performs an act of gratitude to this incredible woman. The poem ends:

(suddenly in sunlight

he will bow,

& the whole garden will bow)

The interconnected world of flowers is the same as the interconnected world of humans. cummings gives voice to, what I believe, is one of the most elemental aspects of humanity: the idea that one act has the potential to reverberate. Here we see the father bow and, in response, the whole garden is likewise moved.

These poems of love and gratitude are interesting because they both involve unspoken language. The two characters of “Nani” share a room, but not a language. cummings’s poem, on the other hand, demonstrates a type of nostalgic devotion that exists when the mother is no longer present. Their care and nourishment remains, however, and in fact increases as the poets discover language adequate to represent such forceful emotions. These mothers are strong, capable, enduring, much like mothers everywhere.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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