Beethoven & the Schumanns will premiere online Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 7:00 PM, Pacific Time. This program includes compositions by Robert and Clara Schumann, two of the most influential musicians in 19th century Europe. Clara was known originally as a child prodigy, and later as an internationally celebrated pianist. While she was dedicated to the promotion and publication of her husband’s music, both before and after his death, she was also a composer in her own right.
Clara (Wieck) was born in Leipzig on September 13, 1819 to Friedrich, a noted music instructor, and Mariane, a famous soprano. Clara began receiving basic piano instruction from her mother when she was four years old. Mariane ended up falling in love with a friend of Friedrich’s, and they divorced when Clara was six. Because of the divorce, Mariane was forced to give up custody of her children and Clara began taking daily one hour music lessons from her father. He also required her to practice for two hours every day, following methods outlined in a book he had published titled “Wieck’s Piano Education for a Delicate Touch and a Singing Sound.”
In 1828, at age nine, Clara debuted in her first public concert. Later that same year, Robert Schumann–then a law student nine years her senior–attended a private performance of Clara’s and ended up writing to his mother requesting permission to study music instead. Robert took lessons from Clara’s father and boarded with the family for about a year. Originally he intended to become a concert pianist, but a hand injury dashed these hopes and he instead turned to composing.
Clara’s father, Friedrich, had grand plans for his daughter’s career and she toured Paris and other European cities in 1831 and 1832. She performed works by others along with her own compositions, including her Piano Concerto in A minor which she wrote at age 14. From December 1837 to April 1838, she performed a series of recitals in Vienna that received critical acclaim, leading her to receive the title of “Royal and Imperial Austrian Chamber Virtuoso,” Austria’s highest musical honor.
Clara and Robert Schumann had fallen in love during this time and he asked her to marry him in 1837 when she was 18. This did not fit with Friedrich Wieck’s plans for his daughter, and he forbade the couple to marry. After a long and contentious legal battle, Clara and Robert were married the day before her 21st birthday in 1840, when she would not have required her father’s permission to marry. Friedrich reconciled with them two years later.
While conventions at the time dictated that her role was to stay at home as a wife and mother, Clara’s determination and the family’s financial needs led her to continue performing. At the beginning of their marriage, she was a celebrated pianist and Robert was a little-known composer. Clara had to strongly curtail her practicing to give her husband quiet for his work, but her strongest wish was “that Robert can completely live in and for music and his pleasure, that no care can cast a shadow on his life as an artist.”
Over their 14 years together, Clara gave birth to eight children, one of whom died in infancy. She also gave at least 139 performances in places such as northern Germany, Russia, Vienna, and the Netherlands. Robert struggled at times with feelings of inferiority compared to his talented and famous wife, especially when he accompanied her on tours. For her part, Clara played his compositions and helped to make them famous to an international audience.
During the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849, Clara masterminded her family’s escape from the city by telling officers her husband wasn’t home when they came to conscript Robert into service, and then fleeing at night with her husband and their oldest daughter to an outlying village 15 kilometers away. Their other three children at the time were left behind with a maid so as to not arouse suspicion, but it became clear after hearing explosions coming from Dresden the following night that they were in danger. Clara chose to return the next day, taking a carriage as close to the city as she could get, then sneaking through fields under cover of darkness that were being patrolled by groups of men using their scythes as weapons. She found her children asleep in bed where she woke them and promptly turned around to guide them all back to safety. “The tension was fearful,” she wrote later, “and we didn’t know how it would all end and what bloodshed would result from it.” Clara was seven months pregnant when this occurred.
Robert had a history of severe bouts of depression, and in 1854 he attempted suicide by throwing himself from a bridge into the Rhine river. Rescued by boatmen, he was admitted to an asylum at his own request, where he stayed for the remaining two years until his death. On doctors orders, Clara was not allowed to visit Robert during this time, until two days before his death. After Robert had been admitted to the asylum, Clara had toured to support the family. Upon his death, she abandoned composing, but fully renewed her performing career and gained international acclaim for the depth of her interpretations and the variety of her concert programs. She became a teacher of piano at Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt in 1878, a post she held until 1892. Her last public performance was in 1891, and she died five years later due to complications from a stroke.
Clara Schumann played a large role in establishing the reputation of her husband, Robert Schumann, as well as family friend Johannes Brahms. She is also credited with refining the tastes of audiences through her presentation of works by earlier composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. At the beginning of the 19th century, prior to her birth, there was no such thing as the term or concept of “classical” music. Most music presented publicly at this time was new, which meant that musicians read from the page as they played. Clara also played new music, but she became increasingly renowned as an advocate for music of the past–which she played from memory, as most classical pianists still do.