Monday, October 01, 2012

The Extraordinary Life of Clara Schumann

She was considered one of the greatest pianists of her time though she’s primarily remembered as the wife of composer Robert Schumann today. Only recently have people begun noticing she was herself a composer and few realize that, during the peak of her career, her husband, better known as a critic who wrote about new music rather than composed it, was often thought of as “the husband of Clara Schumann.” Theirs is one of the great love stories of the century and I’d just like to begin with a bit of music Robert composed for his wife to play, the slow movement of the Piano Quartet. The cello melody was described as a “love song” the composer wrote to be sung to his wife who, not coincidentally, was intended to be the pianist. And since she frequently played her husband’s music – and was frequently playing it while away on tours – she could always hear this melody and be reminded of his love for her – even after he died. (Click here, then click on track 7's play button.)

This was music composed two years after their wedding. It’s a long story, how Clara Wieck, wunderkind and already recognized as a leading pianist of her day, became Mrs. Robert Schumann the day before her 21st birthday.

About 40 years before Clara Schumann was born, Mozart’s mother died. We don’t know much about her – but her story is intriguing. I highly recommend a novel by Pittsburgh-based writer Lianne Ellison Norman called “Stitches in Air: A Novel about Mozart’s Mother.” Her name was Anna Maria Mozart, born Pertl. A decade before her birth, an English essayist of the Enlightenment wrote, "A woman is a daughter, a sister, a wife and a mother, a mere appendage to the human race." The Age of Enlightenment may have been full of the Rights of Man but these rights did not necessarily extend to women. As Ms. Norman puts it, “Enlightenment thinkers, though they endorsed the Rights of Man, were aware that someone had to darn Man’s socks and cook his dinner, tasks they thought women were Endowed by their Creator with the unalienable right to perform.”

The general attitude was: it was alright for a woman to be a musician up until the time she married. At that point, then, all of her energies must be channeled into the needs of her husband and family. There were superstitions that if a woman composed, it would drain the creative energy needed in child-bearing – her womb would dry up as a result – and the time spent writing music would take away from her duties as a wife and mother. And there was still that thing about witchcraft…

By Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn’s generation, it had become more a “class” thing – it was not suitable for a woman from a wealthy family to be paid to perform: it “looked” bad. If they wanted to perform, they could do so in their private homes, building music rooms large enough to hold 100 people or so. With the rise of the middle class, women who wanted to perform could accept fees if they were… well, middle class. Fanny Mendelssohn’s family was too well off for that. Clara Schumann’s, however, was not.

Looking at the roster of pianists who performed in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus, perhaps the greatest of Germany’s concert-halls, in the almost 100 years between the end of the 18th Century and Clara Schumann’s last performance there when she was 68 years old, a third of them were women. She gave 74 concerts in that hall, more than any other pianist, male or female, of that era.

Clara Schumann was going to be a concert pianist from the day she was born. This had nothing to do with exhibiting signs of talent right out of the womb – her father was convinced his child was going to be a concert pianist, because he was determined to show the world his teaching methods could do so. That it was a boy or a girl was immaterial – and though Friedrich Wieck comes out the villain in the history books, it is to his credit that his teaching methods did work, in her case, and that he didn’t say “oh well, a girl – let’s try for a boy next time.”

Friedrich Wieck was not, initially, a musician. Destined for a career in the ministry until he found out he didn’t care for preaching, he took up some new-fangled teaching philosophies and became a general tutor to wealthy families where the music teacher, a man named Adolf Bargiel, introduced him to music and the idea of going to concerts. When he moved to Leipzig following the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars, he opened up a music shop where he sold pianos, sheet music, music periodicals and exercise devices designed to help pianists with their hands – finger stretchers and other contraptions that were like those machines for physical fitness today but intended for pianists’ hands. He married a singer named Marianne Tromlitz who received favorable reviews for singing the soprano solos in Mozart’s Requiem six months after her wedding and already pregnant with her first child who would die within a year. Shortly after the birth of Clara, her second child, she now appeared as the piano soloist in a concerto with the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Over the next four years, her concert career was barely interrupted by the birth of two sons. She continued to practice daily under the guidance of her husband, and eventually taught the advanced students. Wieck “methods” consisted primarily of ways of practicing with very intense and rigorous practice schedules. The better students had to endure not weekly lessons but daily lessons. But his wife was also supposed to be a mother to three children, oversee the household as well as perform in public – she was, basically, his best advertising campaign – and teach on a daily basis. With the birth of a fourth child, she announced she’d had enough and left him. The law in Leipzig was that the father would get custody of the oldest children because they were considered, basically, his property, but Marianne ran off with her oldest daughter, Clara, who was not yet five. Eventually, Wieck got a court order and sent a maid to retrieve his daughter from the hands of her mother, and so Clara was now immersed in a life that would lead her to the concert stage.

Her mother, then, moved to Berlin where she married Adolf Bargiel, ironically the same music tutor who first introduced Wieck to the world of music. It is interesting to note that while Wieck took credit for “creating” Clara, one of the four children his ex-wife had by her second husband grew up to become a composer as well, so perhaps Marianne may have had something to do with Clara’s talent, after all.

Curiously, Clara did not speak until after she was 4 years old. She wasn’t deaf, because Wieck started teaching her simple musical pieces which she processed easily – it was words that were apparently the problem. This situation continued to a lesser extent for two years after the separation from her mother. Today, it would be considered “selective mutism,” where the child, for emotional reasons, chose not to speak. We know that Wieck was cruel to his sons, both emotionally and physically – Robert Schumann later recounts an incident where he witnessed Wieck beating his son Gustav for not having prepared his piano lesson adequately, throwing him to the floor and pulling him by the hair, all the time yelling and kicking at him. By devoting herself to her father and the music, Clara found a safe haven, a refuge from the rage around her. In times of crisis later in her life, she would give concerts when other people suggested she should give up playing because it put too much of a strain on her. She responded it wasn’t because she needed the money that she performed (though she did), but because music was her life and since her childhood the only place she found peace: it was as important to her as breathing.

She spent three hours a day at the piano – two, practicing; and one at a lesson – every day. She was 7 years old. She played regularly at the “at-home musicales” Wieck gave for his friends – she was already a better pianist than her father – and shortly after her 9th birthday, performed as part of a piano duet on the stage of the Gewandhaus, Leipzig’s major concert hall – and she became, in a way, another advertising billboard for her father’s teaching skills.

Into this sphere comes a young man who had started to study law but found himself interested in everything but law – Robert Schumann was almost 18 when he first heard Clara play at one of these musicales – she was 9, then – and he thought he would like to study piano with her teacher. Taken on as a boarding student, he lived in their house, practiced and studied daily and was also a kind of big-brother to Clara and her younger brothers. When Clara began composing a piano concerto of her own – she was 13 – he helped her with the orchestration, though he had only just started seriously to compose himself. It was only after he had damaged his hand with one of Wieck’s gymnastic contraptions – a finger-stretcher attached to the hand to strengthen the weak 4th finger – he realized he would never make it as a concert pianist. So he began to compose – and founded a new music magazine that championed the causes of younger composers who were following in the traditions of Mozart and Beethoven but being overlooked by the empty-headed flash-and-dash that was all the popular rage. This would be the way Schumann was best known to the music world – as a critic and an advocate of new music.

Clara wrote her first work, four polonaises, when she was 10, the same year Robert began writing his first published piece, the “Abegg” Variations, which took the notes of its theme from the name of one of the young ladies he admired at the time. It is one of the few works by Schumann Clara never played in public.

When Clara was 12, her father sent her off to Dresden to continue some technical studies – English & French, composition and so forth – and when she came back that summer, one of her father’s students, Ernestine von Fricken, was no longer quite as friendly as she’d been before... and Schumann seemed a little distant, too. She soon realized that in her absence, something had developed between these two – in fact, they were all but engaged. When Ernestine’s father found out about it, he descended on Leipzig and removed his daughter from Wieck’s school. Whether or not Robert had been in love with Clara at this time, diary entries indicate Clara might have been in love with him – she decided to pay attention to another of her father’s students living in the house and it turned out this made Robert jealous. This was when he wrote the suite of short character pieces called “Carnaval” in which Clara AND Ernestine are both depicted with their own musical portraits, along with two sides of Schumann’s own personality, the dreamy Eusebius and the out-going Florestan. Eventually Robert declared that he was no longer in love with Ernestine who had been described as “physically luxuriant and intellectually insignificant.”

Over the next few years, the relationship between Robert and Clara went from being fellow-students and big-brother/little sister to... composer and interpreter: she became the primary performer of his music. And from there, it developed into one of the most famous love-stories in classical music. From the time she turned 18 until their wedding the day before her 21st birthday, however, it was one constant battle with her father who tried to break up the romance and even took them to court to stop their wedding plans.

Consider it from Wieck’s standpoint. While he was never much of a father to her and he had torn her away from her mother – her step-mother was only a shadow in this family though it’s amazing to consider she remained married to Wieck for 45 years – he had invested his whole life into her career. And I use the term ‘invested’ because that is precisely what Clara was to him: like his first wife, Clara advertised his prowess as a piano teacher. She was the darling of the music world and all the glory and the money reflected back on her teacher, her father Friedrich Wieck. After having instilled in her a strict regimen of practicing and studying, performing and composing, this was all going to be ruined by this irresponsible untalented young up-start who was going to take away his meal-ticket. There was also the very real loss of influence over her now that, by law, she would be Mrs. Schumann and no longer primarily the daughter of Friedrich Wieck. When the break came, Wieck responded with a slanderous letter-writing campaign, attacking not only the character of her intended husband but even of his daughter, advising people to stay away from her concerts and not let young girls go near her, much less study with her, for fear of being “contaminated” by her.

The inevitable finally happened, and Clara Wieck became Mrs. Robert Schumann. It was a blissful time for both of them, despite these trials. Schumann’s happiness came out in a torrent of creativity, mostly songs and chamber music. Marie, their first child, born the next year, would eventually take on many of the responsibilities of the household, looking after the younger children and helping her father when Clara was away on concert tours. Marie never married and remained with her mother until her death.

Clara continued to give concerts before and shortly after the birth of their second child, a daughter named Elise, born two years later. Elise would be the most independent of the children, becoming an adequate pianist: she said performing made her too nervous to want to pursue a career. Clara was not kind to Elise, often comparing her unfavorably to Marie. Small wonder Elise left the family early to pursue a life as a governess and a piano teacher before marrying at the age of 34 and settling for a time in America. She and her husband would later have a cordial relationship with Clara, helping her in her final years, but it was not a happy one.

Julie, born another two years later, was always sickly but grew up to become the most beautiful of the daughters. She would eventually marry an Italian count, but more on that later.

To stay closer to home these years, Clara organized a piano trio and concertized mostly in Leipzig and Dresden, the two main cities in the Kingdom of Saxony. They moved to Dresden where they met Richard Wagner who at this time was writing Lohengrin. Schumann had been an advocate of new music but found Wagner’s music difficult to endorse. Wagner considered Schumann old-fashioned. Schumann was often melancholy after bursts of creative intensity: he began sinking further and further into the dark world of mental illness, what today would be called “manic-depressive” disorder. She went from being his advocate to becoming his protector and defender... and soon enough had to deal with being a care-giver as well.

Their first son, Emil, was born two years after Julie, and shortly after his birth Clara composed her largest work. There were problems of course being married to a composer: when Robert was composing, she could not even practice. She found very little time to compose herself, but after she’d formed a piano trio in Dresden, she decided to write a Piano Trio for them which Robert thought very fine. It inspired him to write one of his own. Whether he intended it as such, Clara was unsettled by the comparison. The fact she could write this – her most ambitious work – is amazing in itself, at a time when Robert needed to take “the cure” – rest at a spa to alleviate the symptoms of his depression – not long after the birth of their son Emil and then apparently also suffering a miscarriage. And then Emil died when he was only 16 months old: by this time, she was now pregnant with their next child, Ludwig who, it turned out, would have the unhappiest childhood and cause his mother the most anguish.

1849 was a year of political turmoil across Europe. In Dresden, Wagner was arrested for treason for supporting the short-lived revolution and spent the rest of his life in exile. Schumann, in order to avoid forced conscription into the Street Guard, fled with his wife and their oldest child, now 7, leaving the other three in the care of a servant. Traveling by train and walking miles on foot, they reached safety. And then Clara, pregnant with her sixth child, turned around to retrieve the younger children, setting off at 3-am. With gun-fire down the street from their house, she managed to get them to safety as well. Two months later, she gave birth to her son Ferdinand.

Another two years passed, and Eugenie was born. She became the family historian even though she never really knew her father. She had some musical talent but remained living with her mother until she was 40 before moving off to pursue a career that never really materialized. Clara described their relationship in one phrase: “we unsettle each other.”

When Robert took a job as music director for the town of Düsseldorf on the Rhine, it was not a good match. He was not the conductor he thought he was, though at least the experience gave us his Rhenish Symphony. But he was descending into longer periods of depression and began exhibiting more disturbing symptoms – hearing music constantly in his head, for instance – and one afternoon he suddenly left the house while Clara was practicing and walked down to the river, throwing himself off of a bridge, trying to drown himself. Passers-by rescued him and he was sent immediately to the hospital and from there to an asylum. He never returned home again and Clara rarely was able to see him. At the time she was pregnant with her eighth child, born shortly after this horrendous episode, and he was named Felix after their friend Mendelssohn.

Into this family picture, let me introduce a young composer who had come to town to meet Robert Schumann, advocate for new music. He was not yet 20, short with long blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. After he showed up unannounced on their doorstep, he sat down to play some of his music for Robert but then Schumann tapped him on the shoulder asking him to wait: “My wife must hear you,” he said. And so Clara Schumann was introduced to Johannes Brahms.

It wasn’t long after this meeting that Schumann attempted suicide and was taken away to the hospital where he’d spend the remaining few years of his life. Young Brahms came to help, baby-sitting the children – the oldest was barely 13 at the time – and becoming “Uncle Johannes.” Clara found solace in music-making with Brahms and other friends, like the great violinist Josef Joachim who frequently came to visit. After the birth of Felix, Clara went on a two-month tour giving over 20 concerts, 16 of them in 5 weeks. If it was not suitable for wealthy women to earn money by playing on the stage, it was necessary for Clara who had seven children now to feed and no prospect of future income from her husband who would linger for a couple of years without ever really recovering. He was kept in the asylum where it was considered unwise for Clara to visit him. Summoned by telegram to the hospital, she arrived too late to see him alive and placed flowers on his brow, writing in her diary that he has taken her love with him.

She was 35 and highly regarded as a pianist – her modesty made her uncomfortable with the cut-throat competition of the day when critics and public and the pianists themselves pitted Liszt against Thalberg and so on, and she didn’t want to be drawn into that. She also was not playing the virtuosic fripperies that brought in the biggest crowds and the most money: she was playing chamber music, Beethoven sonatas and of course music by her husband... and also new music by this young man, Brahms.

Brahms confided in her about his compositions and often submitted newly finished works for her comments and approval, often rewriting things if he agreed with her criticisms. Was he in love with her? He was frequently with her and helped the family out when Clara was on tour, but he also had furtive and short-lived relationships with younger women that he never chose to marry perhaps because they could never match the inspiration he received from Clara Schumann. One of the women he was in love with was… Julie Schumann. During an idyllic summer when he was visiting the family, he was composing his Liebeslieder Waltzes, delightful love-songs they performed in the evenings after afternoons of boating parties and picnics. Then one day, Clara announced with excitement that Julie was going to be engaged to an Italian Count. Without saying a word, Brahms bolted out of the house and it was only some time later that she understood why. No one in the family had any idea…

Julie was always sickly and Clara was worried how she would handle the rigors of motherhood. Julie became increasingly ill after the birth of her second child and the news of her not unexpected death reached Clara in a telegram on the afternoon of a recital she was accompanying. Aware that cancelling would cause too many problems for others, she went ahead with the performance, not telling anyone until afterwards. It was typical of Clara, finding solace in music from the real world around her.

But this was not the first tragedy she experienced with her children: her son Ludwig had always been a problem child, excitable and unable to concentrate on anything for very long. He wanted desperately to become a musician and she even taught him herself – something she did not do with the other children – but he had little talent either as a pianist or a composer much less discipline to make his dreams come true. When he was almost 22, he was sent to a clinic for observation where he was diagnosed with an incurable spinal disease that had affected the brain. Reluctantly, she placed him in an asylum that was more like a fortress (it would later serve as a concentration camp) and it was four years till she was allowed to visit him. Reminded of Robert’s illness, it was doubly terrible for her now, and after one more visit the next year, she never saw him again in the remaining 20 years of her life.

Around the time of her last visit to Ludwig, she was also dealing with her youngest son, Felix, who had been born shortly after his father’s attempted suicide. He had been diagnosed with tuberculosis as a teenager. He was too much like his father – intending to study law, he was more interested in music and poetry, and she tried to be practical, hoping to talk him out of it. He wrote poetry which Clara sent to Brahms for evaluation – he set three of them in his published songs – but she still tried to dissuade him, or to at least publish them under a pseudonym to protect the family name. Not much encouragement, but then she saw what the rigors of a career in the arts had done to her husband – and perhaps to herself – she wanted to spare her son the same fate. Eventually, he came home to live with her for the last years of his life. When the end came, it was her oldest daughter Marie who sat up with Felix the night he died: they wanted to spare Clara that much.

Her son Ferdinand, born in the midst of the 1849 Revolution, developed such severe rheumatism while in the army during the Franco-Prussian War, he become addicted to morphine. Clara had not approved of his marriage but when Ferdinand was helpless, on crutches and being shuffled from one institution to another, unable to care for his wife and seven children, Clara took on the responsibilities of looking after them, especially after Ferdinand died at the age of 34. Her grandson Ferdinand (Junior) lived with her until she died.

Her own health was failing and her expenses were mounting. She had now become the editor of her husband’s music and this brought in some income as did the sale of his manuscripts. She accepted donations from royalty and from foundations but to her any year that didn’t bring in income from about 50 concerts was a bad year. She had no talent for “being lazy” as she wrote to Brahms.

Before she turned 60, the year her son Felix died, her rheumatism was often so bad she found herself sometimes canceling concerts because of the pain. It now took her a week to recover after a concert. After years of wandering from city to city, she finally accepted a teaching position and bought a house, the first time she and her family could settle since her husband had died 22 years before. She found herself growing more hard-of-hearing. She continued to teach, to perform and to promote her husband’s music. In her last public concert, she and a colleague performed the original two-piano version of the Haydn Variations by Johannes Brahms: she was 72.

She had hardly written any music since her husband died, except for a Romance in B Minor which she never published: it was sent to Brahms as a Christmas present the year Schumann died. There was a march she sent to her friends the Hübners for their 50th Wedding Anniversary in 1876 – which might seem odd, except when you realize the Hübners were the legal guardians for her son Ludwig at the asylum in Colditz and 1876 was the time she last saw her son. In her last years, she was unable to play for very long periods of time, now, and it is thought the reason Brahms wrote so many short piano pieces at the end of his own career and sent them to Clara was to give her something she could manage. She had a stroke in 1896 and died that spring. Through a series of delayed telegrams and wrong trains, Brahms barely made it to the funeral in time. He himself had recently been diagnosed with liver cancer and would only outlive her by six months, prematurely old at 63.

When Clara was dying, her grandson was playing the piano for her. The last music she heard was by her husband – his beautiful Romance in F-sharp Major. And so the life had come full circle.

- Dick Strawser

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This is the text of a talk given this afternoon at the Welcome Wagon Club of York Alumnae meeting in 2006.


Top = Clara at 17, pen-and-ink drawing bt Elwine von Leyser
Middle = Clara & Robert Schumann, anonymous lithograph
Bottom = Clara painted around her 60th Birthday by Franz von Lenbach

To find information about Nancy Reich's biography,
"Clara Schumann: The Artist & The Woman" in a new revised edition, click here.
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  1. I'm sitting here watching "Song of Love" on TCM and page 2 of my Googling "Clara Schumann" led me here to this beautifully-written, concise yet richly informative biography.

    Thank you for educating me!

  2. Oh, my. Me too. Wonderful to find this...