Saturday, April 23, 2016

Clara Wieck Schumann, Composer and Musician

Clara Wieck Schumann was a musician and composer whose career spanned six decades at a time when female musicians were exceedingly rare. She did all this while raising a family and supporting her musical husband.

"Composing gives me great pleasure... there is nothing the surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it, one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound." ~ Clara Wieck Schumann

Clara Wieck was born on September 13th, 1819 to Friedrich and Marianne Wieck in Lepzig, Germany. Her mother Marianne was a concert pianist and singer, and her father was a piano teacher and musical dealer.

While both parents were musically trained, it was her father who pushed Clara the most. Friedrich was highly ambitious and had decided even before she was born that his child would be a musical performer of the highest rank.

He began giving Clara piano lessons at the age of five, quickly shifting into the role of dominant taskmaster as he had her practice for hours every day while also learning languages and musical theory. Among Clara's lessons were those in piano, violin, singing, composition, harmony, and counterpoint.

Having long had their differences, Clara's parents divorced when she was five years old. Her mother married a man with whom she had been having an affair, and Clara went to live with her father.

She began attending school in addition to her musical training, and received lessons from Heinrich Dorn, director of the Leipzig Opera.

In March of 1828, Clara performed in the home of Dr. Ernst Carus. There she would meet another musical student who was nine years her senior, Robert Schumann. Robert enjoyed Clara's music so much he asked his parents for permission to discontinue his law studies, which had never really inspired him, and to begin piano instruction with Clara's father Friedrich.

While taking lessons from Clara's father Robert would stay at the Wieck residence, at one point staying for nearly a year. He developed a bond with the young Clara and would entertain her endlessly, even dressing up as a ghost to scare her. It was the beginning of a friendship that would grow in the coming years.

A solo career

In the early nineteenth century it was necessary to perform in Parisian salons, or gathering places, if one wanted to become a recognized and celebrated musician. In 1830 at the age of 11 Clara and her father left on a concert tour of these Paris salons, and other European cities.

Clara performed her first solo piano concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, playing the works of Herz, Kalkbrenner, Czerny, and two of her own compositions. Her performance was met with praise from the critics. In Weimar, she performed for the celebrated German politician and writer Goethe, who presented her with a medal and a written note saying "For the gifted artist Clara Wieck."

Delighted and encouraged by her success, Clara's father continued to take her on tours. At the age of 18 she performed a series of recitals in Vienna from December 1837 to April 1838. She performed to sell-out crowds and critical acclaim, such the report from that day by an anonymous critic:

"The appearance of this artist can be regarded as epoch-making... In her creative hands, the most ordinary passage, the most routine motive acquires a significant meaning, a color, which only those with the most consummate artistry can give."

Austria's leading dramatic poet, Franz Grillparzer, wrote a poem dedicated to Clara after hearing her perform. Composers Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt came to her concerts and praised her effusively in published journals and reviews. On March 15th of 1838 Clara was named "Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso" in Austria, their highest musical honor.

Personal life

While her professional life thrived, Clara had fallen in love in the meantime - with her father's student, the boy she met when she was eight, Robert Schumann. Her father disproved of the match, believing it would only distract Clara from the musical career to which he had dedicated so much time. Despite his vehement opposition, Robert and Clara became engaged. This led to a bitter estrangement between Clara and her father.

In 1840 when Clara was 21, the couple applied for permission from a court to marry without Friedrich's consent. The judge allowed it, and the couple were wed.

Clara's life changed dramatically after becoming married, as one might expect - she was now not only in a new relationship with Robert, but out from under the domineering influence of her father. Motherhood came to Clara in 1841, and the couple had eight children in relatively quick succession over the next thirteen years.


Clara continued to play and compose music while raising her children, a rare feat for any woman living in mid-19th century Europe. She performed not only due to her nature and training, but to raise money for the family - Robert suffered from depression and offered little support with either the children or the finances.

Clara was the breadwinner of the family and also organized her own concerts and tours, while continuing to teach. Tragedy would befall her family numerous times, as her first son Emil died when he was only one year old.

She was a proud and protective mother who would not accept the charity of others, even when it was offered from her friends. One story from the days of revolution during the May Uprising of Dresden in 1949 (an uprising in the streets of Germany against the King of Prussia and the constitution) describes Clara marching through the city to find her children and bring them home safely, stepping past mobs that confronted her with her children clasped in her arms.

Death and Illness

Though he was a talented composer who encouraged his wife in her own musical career, Robert was plagued with episodes of debilitating depression. It became so bad that in 1954, he attempted suicide, and he was committed to an insane asylum, where he spent the last years of his life. He died of syphilis in 1956.

Debate continued regarding the exact nature of his disorder, which has been described by different sources as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, manic depression, and "exhaustion brought about by overwork."

Regardless of the specific cause, the result was that Clara was left alone at the age of thirty-seven to earn a living and raise their seven children, one of whom also suffered from depression - this was her son Ludwig, who would similarly die like his father in an institution, in Clara's words, "buried alive."

Later Career

After Robert's death Clara resumed traveling more frequently, again with the purpose of earning money. In 1857 she toured Germany and earned a reputation as one of the country's elite musicians. She continued touring in Germany and England through the next few decades, though with less frequency in the 1880s as her health declined.

A champion of Robert's work while he was living, Clara became even more invested after his death, and dedicated herself to the interpretation and publication of his works. Though unpopular to begin with she promoted his works tirelessly, and she is credited with his compositions receiving the recognition and appreciation they do today.

While dedicated to her music Clara's family remained her primary focus, and when she lost two more children in 1872 and 1879, she was left to raise their grandchildren. She performed and taught classes to support them, working from 1878 to 1882 as a teacher of piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. She contributed greatly to the school's instruction of technique; students of Clara's would take these techniques and build them into tradition at other schools of musical distinction, such as the renowned Julliard School in New York.

Illness caught up with Clara in the 1880s, though she continued to tour with friends and give recitals when she could. She would play her last concert in Frankfurt in 1891.

Clara suffered from a severe stroke in March of 1896 in Frankfurt, Germany. She died on May 20th. She was 72 years old.


Though less well known that her husband, Clara was well established and respected in her day and left behind a small but significant body of work. Beginning composition at the age of fourteen, her output would decline after Robert's death in 1856, as she lost confidence in her work. As she once put in writing, "I once believed that I contained 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. Should I expect to be the one?"

Clara is credited with changing the way pianist perform, along several lines: one is that she was the first to commit long compositions to memory, so she could play them without sheet music. Additionally, she was instrumental in changing the programs concert pianists performed. In her early career, she played what was typical of that time, which were bold, almost show-off pieces that were intended to showcase the player's talent but when not played with enough heart, could leave the listener feeling empty - this was one of the criticisms of Robert regarding this type of performance.

As she matured however (and probably from the influence of Robert), she began to play more serious works, focusing almost exclusively on the works of Bach, Beethover, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. This was unlike what the more popular pianists were playing at that time, and it shaped what was performed going forward.

Clara was undoubtably a highly talented musician and composer who would make her mark during her lifetime and also following death, though her works and the teachings of her students. What was perhaps more amazing about her life was the amount of time she was able to give to her music at all considering her equal dedication to her husband and children.

As Robert wrote in a diary that the couple shared,

"Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out."


No comments:

Post a Comment