20 May

Tribute to Clara – 120 years after her death

 Clara Schumann (13 September 1819 – 20 May 1896).


At least among pianists, she usually goes by her first name only: Clara! Her father named her so already before she was born. Friedrich Wieck had decided that if he got a daughter, she should be called Clara – meaning bright, shining – because she would become a bright and shining star on piano heaven. Wieck was confident that his clever guidance would bring her there. When his wife, Marianne Tromlitz, divorced him (!) in 1824, he – as any man would at that time – was awarded sole custody over Clara.

It seems that Wieck commenced her daily music lessons from about this point. Clara’s rapid progress made her an excellent emblem of her father’s authority as a pedagogue. He also made sure that she studied counterpoint, harmony, composition, music theory, violin and singing. In other words, she received a thorough and splendid music education early on; this was unheard of for women and rare even for men.

Allow me to digress for a moment before we proceed with Clara’s story. I want to remind you of how the 19th-century viewed women’s abilities for anything theoretical, logic or scientific. German philosopher and theologian Karl Rosenkranz (1805-79) is sadly representative, despite “feminist voices” like the ones of the Damen-Journal of Leipzig since the end of the 18th century. In one of his many books, Karl Rosenkranz writes sarcastically in 1848:

“Nowadays, popularity is often equaled with making oneself understood by the ladies without any difficulty; a didactic triumph, as one simultaneously achieves to do away with everything profound and complex, merely says what already is immediately available to all and sundry, disposes of the seriousness of the matter, and does not spare in illustrations, anecdotes, jokes and colloquialities.”
(My translation; from Die Pädagogik als System. Ein Grundriss von Karl Rosenkranz, Doctor der Theologie und ordentlichem Professor der Philosophie an der Universität zu Königsberg. Königsberg, 1848, pp. 102-03).

Rosenberg’s sarcasm regarding the “didactic triumph” assumes the common view that girls could not understand math, theory or abstract matters. Even when comparing study plans from the Leipzig conservatory, it is clear that the curriculum of music theory around 1850 was easier for women than for men!

As we already have understood, Friedrich Wieck did not comply with contemporaneous expectations in this regard. (Let’s appreciate that!). In a time when women should play the piano to prove themselves worthy of a providing husband, Mr. Wieck provided Clara with an education equaling that of the greatest composers. Other girls could play a few tunes to entertain, but Clara was a professional musician every sense of the word before other girls had packed away their Barbie dolls (well, you know what I mean!). At 9, she made her public debut in her hometown Leipzig and at 11, she made her first tour to Paris. By this time, her opp. 1 and 2 were published, testifying of an impressive technique for her age, and a secure grasp of harmony and form.

About the same time, she met Robert Schumann. Despite her young age and the fact that he was 9 years her senior, a friendship evolved. (I will return to that in a later post!) If we dive into their correspondence, we get glimpses of Clara’s musical life. On 17th September, 1832, 13-year-old Clara writes to Robert:

“My dear Mr. Schumann!
Ha, ha! I hear you think, there we go! A letter from the girl who forgot what she promised. Oh no, she does remember. Read on and see why I did not write any earlier.
On the same day as the concert at Molique’s I got ill with scarlet fever. Until a few days ago, I could do nothing but stay in the boring bed. Yet, it turned out to be a rather light attack, meaning that I can be up a few hours per day and play the piano again. But I had to cancel the concert at the Concert house.
Everyone is afraid of being infected by me now, but you, dear Mr. Schumann, should not refrain from coming [to Leipzig] – as I will surely be well by New Year. On 8th January, I have to play at the Concert house again.” (My translation)

Two years later (Leipzig, 1. september 1835), she gives an account on her recent activities:

“I have been very diligent. Go ahead and laugh, but it is true! I have finished my manuscript [Partitur]; I have written out all the parts myself, in just two days; I have made a fair copy of my variations in F major and also Une nuit de Sabbat (Hexenchor). I have also commenced the task of orchestrating my piano concerto.” (My translation)

These excerpts certainly testify of her unusual discipline, diligence and professional approach to rehearsing and composing – her age (and gender!) taken into account.
As you understand, her entire life cannot possibly be covered in a single blog post. With this little appetizer, I just wanted to spark your curiosity! 120 years after her death, music history still bears Clara’s footprints, and she is remembered as an excellent pianist, teacher and composer – as well as the wife and editor of Robert Schumann and mother of his eight children.

What would she answer if we asked her whether a woman can “have it all”? She would probably say “Sure, you can! But keep in mind that neither romantic holidays (or any holidays!), girls’ nights out, taking the kids to amusement parks or simply enjoying a relaxing day by yourself are part of the deal”.
Please join me in commemorating Clara Schumann!

(For more on Clara and Robert – please watch the presentation of my Carnegie debut program!)