The 2019 documentary The Three Lives of Clara Schumann gets it right in the title. Clara Schumann lived an enormous life, in three very distinct periods, through her 76 years. Getting all three into one novel is simply impossible. So for the current book I’m working on (hopefully to be published in 2022 *fingerscrossed*) I’m focusing on her third and final incarnation.
During the first period, from her birth in 1819 to her marriage to Robert in 1840, Clara Wieck grew from mere piano prodigy into a successful, independent virtuoso and composer, revered on Europe’s stage as the Queen of the Piano. Most of this period of her life was domineered by her father (the original ultimate tiger mom), and the early arrival of Robert Schumann as a student of her father’s. He would move into her house when she was only 12 and he was 21.
The second period, which is perhaps her most famous, the one you’re most likely to see referenced today, was 1840-1854, as wife of Robert Schumann. She composed over half her music during this period. Though this is the time most referenced in her life’s story, she was least in the public eye. She gave much fewer performances and only four short concert tours. Instead, she gave birth to eight children and enabled her husband to compose his largest works. Many who talk about Clara’s history imply her life ends with the loss of her husband in 1856, entirely missing, forgetting, or neglecting the third and most ambitious period of her life.
The original biography of Clara Schumann by Berthold Litzmann of 1906 says of this moment, “She was standing only at the threshold of her own artistic career. And as little did she guess that in crossing this threshold, she must cross the grave of him whom she loved.”
But of course, with Robert’s absence, now enters the other important man in her life. The novel I’m working on begins, October 1st 1853, the day Johannes Brahms arrived at the Schumann house. Ah yes, that famous day in music history, when the “successor to Beethoven” walked into the Schumann parlor.
Within 5 months of meeting Johannes, tragedy struck. Robert experienced debilitating auditory and visual hallucinations culminating in his jump into the freezing cold winter Rhine, necessitating he be committed to a hospital. He was consigned, as Clara later called it, to a living grave. She became for all intensive purposes a widow with seven children to support. At the age of 34, she’d already lived so much. Most normal people would lay themselves down and say, I’ve survived enough. But Clara remade herself, again.
In October of 1854, with Johannes living in her house, Clara undertook a rebirth of her performing career, the third major period of her life, that would essentially last until she retired from the stage at the age of 69. In the years Robert was hospitalized, 1854-1856, Clara gave more concerts than in any other period in her life. She toured Germany, Vienna, and London with a dizzying schedule that would make any performer’s head spin. Let alone a mother of seven with a husband lying on his death bed for 2.5 yrs.
Practically speaking, she was forced into it. She needed the money. Robert’s hospital care was exorbitant, and supporting a household of seven was no meager task with the loss of her husband’s composer income and conductor’s salary. But her underlying motivations were so much more.
She’d felt a higher artistic calling her whole life. During her marriage, though she loved her husband and children deeply, artistically she felt stifled at not being allowed to travel and tour except when Robert could also go with her. The way she coped with her husband’s tragedy was to pursue what she’d always believed was her duty: to share great music especially Robert’s with the public.
This last period of her life, the rebirth of her career after the tragic loss of her husband, was perhaps the richest professional period of her life. It’s the period I’m attempting to capture in fiction, right now. If I get my way with writing more books, I’ll be doing other books about the other periods of her life. But for now, writing about her later career is fascinating and intriguing with an unavoidable emphasis on her pervasive, persistent, and dramatic relationship with the enigmatic young genius, Johannes Brahms.
This book is also a vehicle for exploring Johannes’s early career and Clara’s significant influence in the rise of his to fame—how Clara was the driving force behind his early compositional process and bringing his music into the public eye. Her taste and encouragement were the major support behind the insecure, shy, slow to develop composer who wouldn’t become the bearded giant of romantic’s late period until his forties. During the fragile first twenty years of his career, Clara was his crucial mentor and champion. Without her, he may never have realized his full potential.
She did this all while supporting her seven children and pursuing her own exceptional career. Thanks Clara!