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Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896)

The German romantic composer Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896) was one of the most famous pianists of her time, one of the great stars of 19th-century musical Europe. She premiered new works by Frederic Chopin, Johannes Brahms, and her husband Robert Schumann. While she composed prolifically from the age of nine, her spectacular performing career and the responsibility of supporting seven children after her husband's early death limited her output in her later years. Nonetheless, her musical output was 66 pieces.

Clara Josephine Wieck was born in Leipzig, Germany, on September 13, 1819. Her father was a piano store owner and a highly esteemed piano teacher. Her mother, a daughter and granddaughter of a musical family, was a talented pianist and soprano; she helped her husband in the store and taught the advanced piano students. Whenever Marianne Wieck performed, Friedrich Wieck's reputation as a music teacher improved and sales increased in the piano store. Marianne ran a household, maintained a concert career and bore her husband five children in seven years. But Clara and her brothers received very little affection from their parents.

Clara did not begin to speak until she was 4 years old, and her parents thought that she might be deaf. When Clara was 4, her mother left her father. She took her daughter Clara and her infant son with her. A few days before Clara's fifth birthday, Wieck took custody of Clara as was his right under Saxon law at that time, and the Wiecks were divorced when Clara was 5. Clara's mother Marianne remarried soon after the divorce, and her father remarried when Clara was 9. From the time of her parents' divorce the young Clara rarely saw her mother.

After her parents' separation, her father began teaching 5-year-old Clara piano pieces by ear, initially to convince himself that she was not deaf. Clara was a fast learner and it was her father's great pleasure to create a musical prodigy. By the age of 9 she played public concerts, and as an 11-year-old she toured Paris playing solo recitals.

Clara was not allowed a normal childhood, for she spent her time practicing and taking music lessons from her domineering father, being tutored in languages and music theory, and attending concerts. Her father was her first and only piano teacher.

Friedrich Wieck was blunt and demanding, prone to fits of rage. He displayed outbursts against Clara, but was even harder toward his sons. Still, he earned the affection and respect of many very talented musicians through his progressive teaching method. For example, he believed in efficient practicing rather than long hours of practicing, and his idea about performing style was to avoid conspicuous mannerisms. Clara's own performing style was apparently greatly influenced by her father.

At age 14, Clara began composing the Piano Concerto in A Minor. She performed the completed concerto at age l6 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn.

Friedrich Wieck encouraged Clara to perform the newest and finest music of the 1820s and 1830s including Carl Maria von Weber's piano sonatas, and Frederic Chopin's latest works. She played them in the salons of Leipzig's rich and famous. Along with Felix Mendelssohn, the poet Goethe was among her admirers. Clara made concert tours to Dresden, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna. In Vienna Clara received what was, for her father, the highest possible validation of his efforts as music teacher; the Emperor honored Clara with the title of Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa, a great distinction. Clara had earned a reputation as a musical child genius, a pianist of unbelievable virtuosity and musicianship hailed throughout Europe.

Another important influence of her father was in Clara's writing habits. Throughout her young life, Clara kept a diary, into which she copied what her father dictated. Because she wrote throughout her life, there is a great deal of valuable primary source material about both Clara and her husband available to us today.

As a teenager, Clara fell in love with Robert Schumann, one of her fatherís piano students, who became one of the most beloved composers of the 19th century. Schumann, who was 9 years older than Clara, had been living in the Wieck household as a piano student and boarder since Clara was 11.

When Wieck learned that Clara and Robert were in love, he was furious and threatened to shoot Robert if Clara ever saw him again. Wieck had good reason to oppose the match, for Robert Schumann had a history of drinking and depression, had no visible means of supporting a spouse, and had had other unsuccessful relationships with women.

And as much as she cared for Robert, Clara had her own concerns. She wrote, "I have also considered the future very seriously and I must tell you one thing: I cannot be yours until circumstances have entirely altered...I require much, and I realize that much is needed for a proper life. Robert, test yourself. Are you in a position to offer me a life free from care? Consider that though I have been brought up simply, I have never had a care. Must I bury my art now? Love is all very beautiful, but , but---."

Clara and Robert were not allowed to see each other or to communicate openly. Sympathetic friends delivered letters that were addressed in code. However much Wieck objected to Robert as a potential son-in-law, he did not reject him as a composer. In fact, it was Wieck who gave Schumann's piano piece "Papillons" to Clara to learn. One of the things that defined Clara's later career was her promotion of her husband's music. "Papillons" was one of the first of his pieces she performed.

Friedrich Wieck opposed their marriage, and the law was on his side. Clara could not marry without his permission until she was 21. Robert Schumann was equally determined and filed a lawsuit to set aside the need for the father's consent. The proceedings, during which Wieck frequently slandered Schumann, took over a year. After years of conflict with Wieck, Clara and Robert won the court settlement and were married, but only one day before Clara was 21.
On the day after their wedding, Robert gave a diary to Clara for her birthday, suggesting that they each write and exchange the diary weekly. They continued this diary for several years. Today it serves as an intimate narrative of the lives of the two artists and the love affair of the century.

Clara and Robert went on to a musical life together -- she primarily as a concert pianist, and he as composer. Robert encouraged Clara to compose; he secretly published the songs that she wrote during the first year of their marriage, and then presented them to Clara on their first anniversary. Their musical interaction was intense, as they studied symphony scores together, shared reactions to performances, and read similar literature. As much as Robert admired Clara's talents, he wanted a quiet, stable home life. Clara wanted to provide that life to Robert, but she was a child of the performing life. Soon after they were married, she began talking about concert tours. Clara did not want to be forgotten, and she was always mindful of family finances.

Eventually, family responsibilities, career concerns, and health problems overtook Clara and Robert. Because of the physical and mental instability of her husband, Clara took many of the family responsibilities upon herself. These kept her from practicing, performing, and composing. Also, the proximity of their two pianos often made it impossible for Robert and Clara to work at home simultaneously; they distracted each other. Clara and Robert's shared passion for music produced both friction and fruitful collaboration. The problem of maintaining two active careers caused problems between Robert and Clara during their whole marriage; Clara loved touring-- Robert hated it; Robert needed quiet to compose -- that meant Clara couldn't practice. Finally, Clara set her music aside in deference to Robert.

During the 1849 revolution in Dresden, Clara helped her husband to escape Dresden and courageously led her children through dangerous territory to safety. Robert was offered a conducting position in Dusseldorf and they were warmly welcomed there. But soon it became apparent that Robert was in over his head. He was not a gifted conductor or administrator, and complaints began to pour in from musicians and critics. Clara tried to protect him.

While in Dusseldorf, Johannes Brahmes enter their lives. Robert Schumann had frequently advised and helped other composers, but this new friend stood out from the crowd. Brahms visited Robert and Clara every day, and for a while, their excitement over him helped them to forget their troubles.

When Clara was 35, Robert Schumann's bouts with depression continued, leading him to commit himself to an asylum after 14 years of marriage and eight children. He died there two years later. Clara was left to support her family through giving concerts and teaching. Her pianistic gifts were considered by many to be equal or superior to those of Liszt. Claraís solace was her music. It sustained her through the rigors of her concert career that spanned 60 years, the tragedies of Robert Schumannís attempted suicide and his eventual death, and the deaths of four of their eight children. She came to depend also on composer and pianist Johannes Brahms for friendship and inspiration. Brahms remained a steadfast friend through Clara's final days.

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms were aware that their relationship provoked gossip. Their letters to each other covered all aspects of life: finances, family, career and their music. Brahms sent many scores for Clara Schumann to look over. She played them through and gave her opinion. Clara Schumann evidently felt that Brahms was writing his music for her, just as she thought Robert had done.

In 1878, concerts were arranged at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig to celebrate the 50th jubilee of Clara's performing career. It was an unforgettable occasion. The Gewandhaus was decorated with green and gold wreaths and garlands of oak leaves. The audience rained flowers on her as Clara moved onto the stage. The program was comprised of only Robert Schumann's music.

Clara was often in acute physical pain as she performed. She had had trouble with rheumatism, for which opium was prescribed. She went to spas, tried water treatments, massage, and various other cures.

In March 1896, Clara Schumann suffered a stroke. Her friend Johannes Brahms canceled plans for an Italian vacation to wait for news of her improvement. On her deathbed, she asked her grandson Ferdinand to play her husband's F-sharp major romance for her. That was the last music Clara Schumann heard. She died May 20, 1896. Brahms attended the funeral. He died eleven months later.


Recordings
Chamber Music 
Preludes & Fugues 
Scherzos