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Reappraising Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann is still best known as the wife of fellow composer Robert, but on the 200th anniversary of her birth she is being celebrated in her own right.

By the time Clara Schumann died in 1896, she had had eight children, was one of the most famous pianists of the century, and had produced a significant body of original work. She is still best known as the wife of fellow composer Robert (who died in 1854, half a century before her), but she was admired by Liszt and Chopin and bewitched a young Brahms.

In 2019, the 200th anniversary of her birth, she is being celebrated for more than her associations with male musical greats. Her home city, Leipzig, has held a series of concerts in her honour this year, while 2019’s Schumannfest in Bonn was dedicated to her. In the UK next month, the pianist Lucy Parham will perform “I, Clara” – a “composer portrait” blending music and narration – at the London Piano Festival, while Reiko Fujisawa will perform “Clara Schumann: Prodigy, Muse, Virtuoso” as part of the Southbank Centre’s Women in Music series.

Though Clara was undoubtedly a prodigy, muse and virtuoso, neither the title nor the programme of this Southbank event does much to recognise her own creative output, including only two of her own compositions alongside seven by Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin and her husband Robert (all conventionally named on the programme by just their surnames – while she, at an event in her honour, is listed as “Clara Schumann”). Even now, programmers appear reticent to give much airtime to women composers; it is hardly surprising that during and after the mid-19th century, Clara was overshadowed. As she wrote in her diary in 1839: “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.”

There is, nonetheless, much to explore in her compositions, although her life was characterised equally by her talent as a performing pianist – a much less controversial career for a woman of her time. She was raised in Leipzig by her piano teacher father, Friedrich Wieck, who was determined that Clara should become a successful musician and devised a rigorous piano regime for her to follow. Aged just nine, she gave a private performance where she met the 18-year-old Robert Schumann. He subsequently became a pupil of Friedrich and moved into the Wieck household in 1830, when Clara was 11.

The couple married in 1840. Clara’s father denied her hand to Robert, who was showing signs of the mental illness that would plague him for the rest of his life, and was struggling as a composer; the pair sued Friedrich in order to marry. As he put it in an 1838 letter, Robert was “charmed immeasurably” by Clara – not least because of her musical talent. Their artistic relationship was often collaborative, each using snippets of one another’s work, but Clara was the much more professionally successful of the two as a sought-after concert pianist. She played concerts of contemporary music such as Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Robert’s own works. She was also praised for her renditions of Beethoven, whose shadow loomed over the 19th-century music scene.

It would be easy to paint Clara, known for her expressiveness as a pianist, as a vehicle for the work of these well-known male figures. In a review from 1856, the Manchester Guardian wrote that the piano “has become a golden gate through which her spirit passes”, and also rather backhandedly praised her performance of Robert’s work by noting: “fortunate the composer that has such an interpreter”. But she was not merely an interpreter or medium: she had her own clear voice, and found her performances cathartic. Clara wrote in her diary in 1872, “When I played, my overburdened soul was relieved, as if I had truly cried myself out.” She was, clearly, overburdened: Robert’s physical and mental health deteriorated throughout their marriage, and it was up to Clara to support him emotionally and financially.

Clara was critical in her judgement of other composers and unaffected by the public enthusiasm surrounding figures such as Liszt and Wagner. She thought Wagner both dull and lewd, mocking the final act of 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde in a pleasingly effusive line in her diary: “They call that dramatic!!!” She likened Liszt – himself a virtuosic pianist-composer, known for his flamboyance – to a “spoilt child”. She was disdainful of his celebrity, commenting after one of his concerts that “the women were, of course, mad about him – it was revolting”.

Just as her compositional instinct is reflected in her performing life, her affinity with the piano is apparent in her compositions. To honour this year’s anniversary, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason released a debut album, Romance, showcasing Clara’s works for the piano. Among them is opus seven, the Piano Concerto in A Minor, which she completed and self-premiered in 1835 aged 16. The piano entry is assertive, with quick ascending scales in octaves on both hands after a shift to a new key. The first movement – indeed, the whole concerto – is characterised by tonal fluctuations, with all of the second movement in A flat major. Tonal fluidity was not unheard of in the mid 19th-century and it was used assuredly by Clara. The key of A flat was in fact a deliberate flag used throughout the concerto to signal a return to earlier thematic material. But her progressive choices were misinterpreted. One Viennese critic could only conclude the key of the second movement was selected because “women are moody”.

Robert sometimes took direct inspiration from Clara. In 1845 he published his own piano concerto in A minor whose theme bears a resemblance to Clara’s. In 1847, he published a piano trio just a year after Clara published hers. This was a difficult period for the couple. She experienced a miscarriage in 1846, their son Emil died aged one in 1847, and Robert was suffering increasingly from severe depression. To help with his mental health, he and Clara began intensively studying Bach together. Clara’s resulting understanding of counterpoint would manifest in her trio, which layers themes across the three instruments in neatly deployed polyphony.

On 8 June 1853, Robert’s 43rd birthday, Clara presented him with her opus 20, Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann. Robert’s mental health was worsening still. The following year, he jumped off a bridge into the Rhine. He survived, but was admitted to mental hospital and died two years later in 1856. Clara saw him only once during this period, three days before he died; she was touring constantly to support herself and their seven children. Her Variations feel close and clammy, like the haze of Robert’s mental illness. But his theme sparkles in the upper register throughout, a remnant of the clarity of their mutual musical understanding.

Clara and Robert are often depicted as an inspiring love story. It’s true that their relationship was one of passion, not convenience, but it was not always easy. Robert wanted more and more children, himself unencumbered by them. As Clara became increasingly burdened with her duties as a wife, she composed less. “What will become of my work?” she wrote in her diary in 1847, when she became aware of her fifth pregnancy. And when Robert wanted to compose, Clara’s creative impulses were made secondary. She dedicated the 1847 piano trio not to Robert, but fellow female composer Fanny Mendelssohn: perhaps a nod to somebody with whom she could empathise.

During her lifetime, Clara Schumann was able to disentangle herself only so much from her life as a woman in order to pursue life as a composer. But 200 years after she was born, we have the opportunity to do this for her. What were in her time loose threads alluding to greatness can now be woven into a clearer picture. After all, as the Manchester Guardian put it in 1856 – “she is all music”. 

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.

This article appears in the 27 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace