Clara Schumann (1819–1896)
Program note for Tippet Rise Art Center
Performance by St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, July 14, 2018
Not to be reprinted without permission
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019
Clara Schumann may be best known today as the wife of Robert Schumann, but there was a time when Robert Schumann was best known as the husband of the great pianist Clara Wieck. Though the piano had long been a favorite instrument of virtuosos, Clara Schumann was one of the first to give solo recitals with loftier goals, playing music by a variety of composers and emphasizing seriousness over spectacle. Many earlier musicians had played the piano, but Clara Schumann was among the first true pianists.
Unlike many girls of the time, whose families saw musical training only as an asset to marriage, Clara’s professional ambitions were driven by her father, even brutally so. Friedrich Wieck was an educator first, a musician second. His success as a piano teacher had no basis in a performing career of his own—he had studied theology and worked as a private tutor before opening a piano shop and teaching studio in Leipzig. In 1825 he divorced Clara’s mother, Marianne, and took custody of their five-year-old daughter. When she was seven, he gave Clara a diary in which he wrote many entries himself, bizarrely assuming his daughter’s voice. At age 11, she made her solo debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. At age 12, she toured Paris. At age 18, Vienna.
Clara studied composition and performed her own works on her childhood concerts. Her artistry as a pianist was never questioned and her ability to write showpieces was admired, but it was widely believed that a woman could contribute nothing when it came to more expressive, artistically ambitious composition. Friedrich Wieck thought otherwise, but even Clara was partially resigned to the idea, writing in 1839:
I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose—there was never one able to do it. Am I intended to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that. That was something with which only my father tempted me in former days. But I soon gave up believing this.
Except she didn’t actually give it up, as she published 23 pieces intermittently between 1831 and 1856. Robert’s composing was always the family’s priority, but in September 1852 they moved into a new apartment in Düsseldorf, where Clara had her own room with her own piano. There she wrote her last four published works, including the Three Romances for Violin and Piano. After Robert’s death in 1856, she truly stopped composing.
The Three Romances were written for Joseph Joachim (just two months before he introduced Clara and Robert to Brahms). Over the years, Joachim and Clara gave hundreds of concerts together across Europe, performing the Romances six times between 1854 and 1869. In 1855, they were published by Boosey & Hawkes. In these last pieces, filled with long lines and undulating pianism, it seems Clara finally wrote the kind of music she most wanted to play.