“This young lady has more strength than six boys put together”

Clara Schumann on her 200th birthday

by Dr phil. Winfried Pogorzelski

Already as a twelve-year-old Clara Wieck must have been bursting with energy. Otherwise the 82-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, for whom she played the piano in Weimar in 1831, would not have characterised her as he did in the title. Clara Schumann’s extraordinary life achievement as an internationally renowned pianist, composer and professor of piano shows that his opinion1 was spot on. She also raised seven children. When her husband Robert Schumann, one of the most important composers of the Romantic era, died in 1856, the 37-year-old was solely responsible for the livelihood and well-being of her large family. She died in 1896 at the age of 76 as an outstanding artistic personality who had a lasting influence on the musical life of the second half of the 19th century.

The pianist: promising beginnings

Last year was Clara Wieck’s 200th birthday. She was born in Leipzig in 1819. Her father Friedrich Wieck was a piano teacher, music dealer and founder of a piano factory. Already at the age of five she received piano lessons from her ambitious father, who had great plans for her. Obedience and discipline were essential prerequisites for her father as teacher. In contrast to many other music teachers, Wieck saw the best possible musical training not only in merciless drill, but also in developing a deeper understanding of the sound and character of chords and harmonies. A music pupil should not only practice incessantly, but actively participate in order to develop a certain independence and to learn to fantasise on the piano in a playful way. In order to devote herself entirely to learning to play the piano, Clara, who had to cope with the separation of her parents at the age of four, was taught by tutors from the age of seven onward. It is no coincidence that she was intensively taught English and French, since the knowledge of foreign languages was an indispensable prerequisite for a successful international career, which her father began to plan early on.

Nothing was left to chance: he insured that Clara started to develop her own repertoire at the age of ten, so that she could actively advance her career. Father and daughter repeatedly visited important cities of European musical culture such as Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, London, Vienna and Paris; they succeeded in establishing contacts with prominent musicians. They met Niccolò Paganini, Frédéric Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and many others of musical prominence.

“Clara Schumann earned lasting merits as a representative of romantic piano music in her work as a composer, pianist and teacher, and as an editor of her husband’s music and life documents. She mastered her fulfilled life, often marked by strokes of fate, in an admirable way and gave us music that touches us with its youthful freshness and euphony in our innermost being.”


Piano virtuoso admired throughout Europe

At the age of eleven Clara Wieck gave her first concert in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. She played works by contemporary composers and her own pieces – the beginning of her career, which would end 60 years later in Frankfurt a. M. Initially accompanied by her father, she began the unsettled life of a pianist who spent a large part of her life on elaborate concert tours, mainly out of pure passion, but also to earn her living and that of her seven children.

Under the conditions prevailing at the time, this exhausting life took a toll on her: long distances across Europe had to be covered by carriage; the accommodations often left as much to be desired as well as the instruments on which she had to play. And the competition never slept either: “Greenhouse” and “miniature virtuosos”, as they were called by critics, haunted the concert halls; the audience was frequently clueless, ignorant and merciless. Contacts that were important for the future needed to be made and cultivated, public relations work on site and the organisation of the concerts had to be organised by the performers themselves. At eighteen, Clara Wieck was already attracting international attention. She increasingly broke away from her father and became her own manager.

As early as 1830 she met Robert Schumann, a pupil of her father’s, in her father’s house. Around 1835 the two became closer. They fell in love and finally married against the will of her father. The Schumann’s had seven children. After the early death of her husband (in 1856), with whom she also had an intimate artistic relationship, the 37-year-old found herself alone.

She was rewarded for her untiring efforts by success. Her repertoire was extensive and her concert programmes were ground-breaking – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Chopin, Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy as well as works by her husband and her own. With her engaging appearance, her charisma and her playing style she set standards. Her musical performances were temperamental, contoured and true to the work. At that time these qualities were only attributed to male interpreters. At the age of 72 and after about 1,000 concerts in many European cities, she gave her last concert in Frankfurt a. M. in 1891.

The composer

When Clara Wieck was 14 years old, her very first works were published: some polonaises and caprices. At the end of her life, she left behind an extensive body of work in a wide variety of genres and instrumentations. In the first place there are works for piano such as Impromptus, Scherzi, Sonatas, Romances, Waltzes, Preludes and others. Her chamber music compositions consist mainly of duets, trios and quartets. Works for piano and orchestra – including her only piano concerto – complete the variety.

Although an outstanding composer of the 19th century, she was not able to establish herself as one of the greats of music history; the male competition in that century was too strong for her to compose in all significant genres. Nevertheless, the diversity and scope of her work deserves the greatest respect, especially since it testifies to an intense engagement with contemporary music – as the cadenzas to piano concertos by Beethoven and Mozart show – and resulted in spite of the limited time available to the pianist, piano teacher and mother of several children.

The Piano Concerto in A minor op. 7, which she began composing at the age of 14 and completed at 16, deserves special mention. The orchestral accompaniment for the last movement was written by Robert Schumann. It is unmistakably the work of an ambitious young woman. The difficulty of the solo part is evidence of the stupendous virtuosity of her piano playing. The first performance by the composer herself took place under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in 1835 in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in G Minor op. 17, composed in 1846, should also be mentioned as a fully-fledged work. It is her most extensive work and her only chamber music work, which left the critics amazed, because they could not imagine that it was written by a woman. Clara and Robert inspired each other in composing and took an active interest in the work of each other. Thus, she took up his compositions in her works and dedicated her romances to him. Robert supported his wife in composing. After his death (1856) Clara fell silent as a composer.

The educator

Clara Schumann is the first woman to hold a professorship at a music academy. She trained pianists at the Dr. Hoch's Conservatory (a musical-artistic training centre for all age groups in Frankfurt am Main, became Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts HfMDK) from 1878 to 1892. She taught both individually and in groups, and was regarded as demanding, strict, unyielding, but also described by many as friendly and reserved. The faithful interpretation of the work, which had to be completely subordinated to the composer’s intentions, was the goal of her work as a teacher. Her impact reached as far as England and the USA, where her successful students passed on their skills to the next generation. As an established composer and pianist, she was privileged. She was given free time for her concert activities and could also receive students at home. In addition, she devoted herself increasingly to preserving her husband’s legacy. She acted as editor of his works and manuscripts.

Towards the end of her life, Clara Schumann feared that she would soon be forgotten, even though she had received the Grand Medal for Art in addition to many awards for Kaiser Wilhelm II’s 70th birthday. For a long time, her name was not found in specialist encyclopaedias and relevant music histories, although she earned lasting merits for the second half of the 19th century – and beyond – as a representative of romantic piano music in her work as a composer, pianist and teacher, and as an editor of her husband’s music and life documents. She mastered her fulfilled life, often marked by strokes of fate, in an admirable way and gave us music that touches us with its youthful freshness and euphony in our innermost being. Johannes Brahms, to whom she was a muse and advisor throughout her life and who accompanied and supported her as a loving friend for 43 years, contributed his share.•

1  Steegman, Monica. Clara Schumann, Reinbek near Hamburg 2019 (rororo monograph), p. 21

Other sources used:

Klassen, Janina. Clara Schumann, Musik und Öffentlichkeit [Music and the Public], Weimar, Vienna 2009; ISBN 978-3-499-50424-2
Marschner, Rosemarie. Das Mädchen am Klavier [The girl at the piano], Munich 2017; ISBN 978-5-423-24944-7
“Context”, radio broadcast, SRF 2 Culture, 12 September 2019
“Passage”, radio broadcast, SRF 2 Culture, 13 September 2019

Booklet of the CD: Clara Schumann, Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 7, Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Ragna Schirmer, Klavier, Ariane Matiakh, Dirigentin, Staatskapelle Halle, Berlin Classics, 2017
Booklet of the CD: Clara Schumann‘s Piano, CD, Clara Schumann (1819-1896): from Soirees musicales, op. 6; Souvenir de Vienne; Sonata for Piano in G minor; Trois Romances, op. 11; Quatre pieces fugitives, op. 15; from Three Romances, op. 21, Eugenie Russo, Fortepiano, paladino music, KHM CD edition, music – played on original instruments from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna 2013

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