Composer, Performer, Mother and Wife
Clara Schumann née Wieck was a complicated woman. She was a composer, a world renowned concert pianist, a mother of 8, and a wife to the troubled composer Robert Schumann. She was born in Leipzig in 1819 to an especially musical family, and was trained in music, languages, composing, and piano from a very early age by her father. Perhaps because of her father’s incredibly strict and even cruel ways, she debuted at the Leipzig Gewandhaus when she was just 11 years old. She continued to practice and perform throughout Germany and abroad (she performed in Paris at the ripe age of 12) under the stern eye of her father. Her father even wrote many of her diary entries! When her younger half-brother died before a performance, her father forced her to travel to Dresden the next day to perform. She became an expert at performing through illness, violence, pain, and despair. There is no question that her father’s intense and authoritarian teaching style paved the way for her to balance motherhood, performing, and taking care of Robert.
In 1828, was she was merely 8 years old, Robert Schumann entered her life as a live-in student of her father’s. By the time she was 13, she was in love with him, and he with her. He simultaneously was a proponent of her composing, and her harshest critic. He never truly believed that she was a “full artistic genius”, but he nonetheless needed her as a musical support. He never believed that she could succeed as an composer on her own, and that she must dedicate herself, both emotionally and musically to him. She followed this idea completely – even going so far as to legally challenge her father for the right to marry Robert in 1840.
After her marriage, it became difficult for her to find the time to compose – even to practice! Robert’s composition was the most important thing to him; Clara was of course responsible for raising their eight children, keeping house and cooking. He was not happy when she went on extended tours to keep the family in the black, but it was unavoidable. He believed that “the creative artist had higher status than the performer” (Sounds and Sweet airs, p 225). Even despite this, she continued to compose, and to perform. She was always a supporter of Robert and his music, even to the detriment of her own piano playing and composing. After his death, she dedicated herself to the interpretation of others’ music and to preserving his legacy, only composing one piece herself.
Clara found it difficult even at the best of times to compose, so perhaps it is no surprise that she did not publish much music. However, as she grew older and the societal view of women’s role in music in Germany became more close-minded, she too came to believe that women should not create music, writing that “a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it”. In my opinion, this belief that became pervasive in the 19th century was an incredibly destructive one; we have lost so much music because it was never allowed to become an idea, let alone be published. We should celebrate what little music exists today from these women – and I believe Clara Schumann’s music is worth celebrating. I hope you do too! Some of my favorite music of hers is from her 6 Lieder, Op. 13 – here is my recording of Liebeszauber (Love’s Magic), excerpted from our first livestream mini-concert. You can find the whole concert over in the Livestream section of the blog.
Op. 13, Clara Schumann
Lisa Newill-Smith, soprano
David Wishart, pianist
Sources I used for this blog post include Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs, and the article on Clara Schumann in Oxford Music Online. Much of her sheet music is available on IMSLP – please go and sing and play as much of it as you can!