The Calling Of Clara Schumann

Banknote 100 Deutsche Mark with famed German pianist Clara Schumann.
Banknote 100 Deutsche Mark Celebrating Clara Schumann, Issued 1996/1997. 1

From a modern perspective, it is easy to typecast German pianist, composer and teacher, Clara Josephine Schumann, née Wieck (1819 - 1896), as the protofeminist archetype for a contemporary woman. Her personal and professional triumphs were indeed remarkable, quite rare for a woman in the 19th century, and more specifically unique to the field of classical music and solo piano performance. To characterize her in this way carries with it the presumption that we must in some way still qualify her success by the barometer of men, and if she did not live up to such heroinism, even in death, the honor could be taken away. Far more difficult it would be to see her without a label through the lens of her own times, understand the confluence of forces enveloping her public and private life, and witness the heroic in her as counterpoint to creating harmony and equality between the sexes.

The case clearly presents itself with a bias against domineering male energies, and how that may have shaped her thoughts and actions. Further reading, though, reveals a subtle nuance of compensatory ironies.

The Eccentric Methods of Herr Wieck

Her father, Friedrich Wieck, a brilliant and unorthodox piano pedagogue, who—despite despotic tendencies, personal prestige, and inordinately controlling behavior—not only enforced steady, daily training and practice, but equally articulated methods which emphasized general enjoyment of the music-making process, artistic freedom of expression and personality, while emerging the individuality of his pupils.

Young Clara Wieck at the age of fifteen (left), and her father Friedrich Wieck, aged 45.
Lithograph of Clara Wieck at age 15 (the year of her first kiss),
and father Friedrich Wieck, c. 1828
. 2, 3

Are we to judge a father for his excessive zeal in thwarting the love and marriage of his daughter to one of his other students, the older Robert Schumann? How he obsessively threatened to withhold her inheritance and personal earnings (as well as her grand piano, the beloved cherry wood 6-octave Stein), demanded ridiculous terms of appeal during court proceedings, and ultimately committed vicious slurs against her livelihood.

How does one reckon the extent at which the father debased himself to prevent his daughter from marrying? Was it for himself alone that he tried to protect the plans he'd meticulously drawn for Clara’s career? Indeed until her 19th year, her father escorted her on European tours in Germany, Austria, and France, writing in Clara's private diaries with his own imperious script notes about her repertory and concerts.

Fascinating to see how later in life Clara absorbed the early history of her father's heavy hand as an essential and indispensable part of her own nature:

My father had to put up with being called a tyrant; however, I still thank him for it every day; I have him to thank for the freshness that has remained with me in my old age (at least in my art). It was also a blessing for me that he was exceedingly strict, that he reprimanded me when I deserved it and in so doing, prevented me from becoming arrogant from the praise the world showered on me. At times the rebuke was bitter, but it was still good for me!
From Grove Music Online (Litzmann, iii, p.585) 4

It could be said of this early autocratic influence that it only bolstered the prevailing notions of the day, that a woman must somehow tame certain qualities over others, an attitude that may have preemptively borne into Clara the silent resignation she ultimately assumed regarding her own compositional efforts.

I once believed that I possessed 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?
20-year-old Clara Schumann from a diary entry, 1839 5

Becoming Frau Schumann

Clara Wieck watercolor drawing by Johann H. Schramm, Summer 1840.
Watercolor of Clara Wieck in her 21st year,
a few weeks before wedding Robert Schumann, 1840
. 6

We cannot categorically conclude this inward voice to be hardened by her new composer-husband, Robert Schumann, as he was known to have encouraged her to pursue composition and pushed her mature creations into publication despite his bourgeois expectations of marriage. But certainly there remained tensions to maintain her art for fear that her playing might 'fall behind.' Though devotional in spirit, she did not let the newfound responsibilities of children or her support for her husband and his expansive work deter her from pursuing her own desires.

Once she realized that wet nurses were available, that the baby could be boarded with relatives, that an additional maid could be hired for a pittance, that motherhood did not necessarily tie her down, she wasted no time. Clara composed, toured, played, and was fêted as in the old days before marriage and childbearing.
Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman by Nancy Reich 7

Embracing the challenges intersecting her art, she steadily became one of the most influential performing pianists of her time, 'acting as agent and impresario for her own concerts,' 4 a role which her father no longer constrained. And since Robert was one of the few among his contemporaries not to perform publicly (due to the affliction of 'The Musician's Cramp'), she became the breadwinner for her household and continued to do so throughout her life. To supplement her income, she also taught numerous students who benefited greatly from the virtues of her experience and pedagogy, some becoming teachers and professional performers in their own right.

Enduring The Loss of Robert

Certainly the most difficult of circumstances was the miserable fate of her husband—his ensuing madness, asylum, and death at the age of 46 (likely the result of the composer's early syphilitic contraction, subsequent mercury treatment, and diagnoses of schizophrenia and hallucinatory dementia). It was this monumental event in 1856 that ended her ambition to create more original works, but it did not stop her from hearing the calling of her music.

German pianist, composer, and teacher, Clara Schumann, photographed by Franz Hanfstaengl, c. 1850.
Clara Schumann (1857) after the recent death of her husband,
wearing a widow's dark ribbon woven into her hair.
I feel a calling to reproduce great works, above all, also of Robert, as long as I have the strength to do so... The practice of art is, after all, a great part of my inner self. To me, it is the very air I breathe.
From an Exchange with Johannes Brahms 9

The extent at which Clara prevailed as a human, despite the personal tragedy in her life, is the more remarkable: a feat accomplished by nascent talent, unceasing discipline, and inimitable poise in front of the keyboard. It may also be attributed to her relationship to the music itself.

The Solemn Priestess

Respected and admired by her peers, she popularized a greater attention to the composer's text in an age when improvisational virtuosi held preeminence with their own extravagant programmes. She almost single-handedly introduced audiences to the works of J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Beethoven, Schubert, and in particular, Chopin and Mendelssohn, using her unique ability to perform music from memory to great effect.

Engraving of Clara Schumann by Adolf Neumann (1825 - 1884), based on a Daguerreotype by Franz Hanfstaengl.
Detail of engraving of Clara Schumann in Die Gartenlaube,
based on a daguerreotype by Franz Hanfstaengl
. 10

As a devoted partner to Robert Schumann in life and after his death, Clara tirelessly performed, arranged, and rehearsed his many compositions. Without her ceaseless evangelism of her late husband's memory and his music, the world may not have known the true personal statement and efficacy of the Schumann canon.

This month marks the bicentenary birth and legacy of one of the foremost European musicians of the Romantic era, a distinction that continues to extend its reach into the musical life of present and future artists without confinement to gender.

Celebrate the breadth of her accomplishments by listening to her piano works, chamber music and lieder:

YouTube Placeholder Image for xhDFHqOLgeQ
Clara Schumann Complete Works for Piano, Jozef De Beenhouwer. 11
End of Article

Page Sources

Deutsche Bundesbank.  Banknote 100 Deutsche Mark (BBk IIIa, 1997), Vorderseite.  1996.  Official work issued by a German federal or state authority. Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 14 Nov. 2010.  Web.  11 Sept. 2019.  Public Domain.
Giere, Julius.  Clara Wieck im Alter von 15 Jahren.  1835, Hanover.  Robert Schumann House Zwickau. Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 19 April 2009.  Web.  12 Sept. 2019.  Public Domain.
Unknown.  Friedrich Wieck (1785 – 1873) at the age of 45.  c. 1828.  Robert Schumann House Zwickau. Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 25 Sept. 2011.  Web.  12 Sept. 2019.  Public Domain.
Reich, Nancy B.  "Schumann [née Wieck], Clara (Josephine)." 2001.  Oxford Music Online.  Oxford University Press, 2007 – 2019.  Web.  12 Sept. 2019.
Bose, Sudip.  "Happy Birthday, Clara Schumann."  The American Scholar.  Phi Beta Kappa, 2018.  13 Sept. 2018. Web.  12 Sept. 2019.
Schramm, Johann Heinrich (1801–1865).  Clara Wieck In Her 21st Year.  Summer 1840.  Robert Schumann House Zwickau. Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 20 April 2006.  Web.  12 Sept. 2019.  Public Domain.
Reich, Nancy B.  Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman.  Revised Edition.  Cornell University Press; Revised edition (June 28, 2001): pp. 87-88.  Google Books.  Web.  12 Sept. 2019.
Olivhill.  Clara Schumann (1819-1896).  Circa 1850.  Detail of photograph by Franz Hanfstaengl (1804–1877). Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 10 Dec. 2007.  Web.  11 Sept. 2019.  Public Domain.
Bose, Sudip.  "Happy Birthday, Clara Schumann."  The American Scholar.  Phi Beta Kappa, 2018.  13 Sept. 2018. Web.  12 Sept. 2019.
Paulis.  Clara Schumann from Page 605 of Die Gartenlaube.  1882.  Detail of wood engraving by Adolf Neumann (1825 - 1884), Based on a Daguereotype by Franz Hanfstaengl (German, 1804–1877), Munich, 1860. Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 23 Jan. 2017.  Web.  11 Sept. 2019.  Public Domain.
Classical Music/Reference Recording.  "Clara Schumann: Complete Piano Works (Recording of the Century: Josef De Beenhouwer)."  Online Video Clip.  YouTube.  YouTube, 21 Aug. 2018.  Web.  12 Sept. 2019.  Standard YouTube License.
Additional References:
  • Schumann Network, ed.  www.Schumann-Portal.de.  SchumannPortal/SchumannNetwork Boon Office, Germany, n.d.  Web.  12 Sept. 2019.
  • "Clara Wieck Schumann Biography."  TheFamousPeople.Com.  Famous People, n.d.  Web.  12 Sept. 2019.