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.
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:
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.
Becoming Frau Schumann
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.
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.
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.
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: