Clara Schumann (1819-1896), the Queen of the Piano, the Priestess of Art, was a powerful force in classical music’s Romantic Era. Her career as a composer and pianist shaped the piano repertoire as we know it and influenced the most prominent European musicians of the mid 19th century.
Today, she’s most famous as the wife of Robert Schumann and the love of Johannes Brahms’s life. But her role as inspiration and infatuation for two of history’s most romantic composers is the veil over her formidable legacy. The classical musical canon as we known it would be highly altered if not for her tireless career and authoritative taste.
For most of their lifetimes, Clara, the touring virtuosa, was more famous than either Robert or Johannes. The artistic partner and facilitator throughout the careers of both men, her promotion of their work was the vehicle for their success.
Who was Clara Schumann?
One of the greatest pianists and composers of the 19th century, she played a considerable role in the living on of Beethoven’s sonatas, Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, as well as Chopin and Mendelssohn’s piano works. She had one of the longest performing and touring careers in history–over 60 years. Her career as a pianist was only rivalled by Franz Liszt, and hers was three times longer and far more influential on the lasting repertoire.
Clara toured Europe from the age of ten, giving dozens of concerts across the continent every year. Between 1828-1889, her performances numbered in the thousands with sold out performances from London to Paris, from Vienna to Berlin, from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg. She used her concerts to shape the tastes and values and choices of what music lived on in the public’s memory.
In short, there is a lot of music we would not know today if it wasn’t for her.
Childhood and Education
Born in 1819, Clara Wieck was extensively educated in piano and composition from the age of six by a father who didn’t care about the gender of his first child. Fredrich Wieck planned for her to be a great, money-making prodigy before she was born. At the age of nine, she performed her early compositions for Paganini who was so impressed, he invited her to share the stage with him. She published her first opus of piano pieces at age ten. Then next year, she was given a medal by the playwright, Goethe who said, “She plays with the strength of six boys.”
At age twelve, she toured to Paris and met Fredrich Chopin, and composed five more opuses of virtuoso piano pieces, on par with Chopin and influenced by him, but in her own style. She was the first to play his “unplayable” La ci darem la mano Variations and the first to perform full concertos from memory in Germany. By age sixteen, she was a favorite pianist of Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted the premier of her Piano Concerto the next year.
That’s right. She composed a piano concert on original themes and wrote her own orchestrations to be performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus at the age of sixteen. She composed the entire third movement first, at the age of thirteen, studying orchestration and counterpoint from the age of twelve. She finished the concerto the summer before her sixteenth birthday and premiered it the month after.
The concerto was a smashing success on her tours to Vienna and Prague. At the age of eighteen, she was named Honorary Court Virtuoso to the Austrian Imperial Court, a title never before given to a protestant, a young person, or a woman.
She was dubbed Queen of the Piano and was in line to be the next Mozart. But despite being better educated than either Robert or Johannes, something happened.
Robert Schumann, that’s the short and the long answer. He moved into the Wieck house to study piano with her father when Clara was just twelve years old. Having grown up as little more than a commodity to her father who separated her from her mother at just five years old, Clara was desperate for love and attention, a girl who spent little time with friends and never had a real childhood. Their relationship began on a solid imbalance of power.
Robert doted on her, telling her stories, making her laugh, and generally making her feel like a human being instead of just a piano performer for the first time in her life. At age thirteen, his mother said to her, “I wonder if you’ll marry my son someday.” By the age of fourteen, she was in love with him. And despite him being nine years old, when she was sixteen and he was twenty-five, he declared his love for her too. They became engaged in secret.
So even though she was touring and having a rigorously successful career, in private she was just a normal teenager, writing love letters late at night behind her father’s back. Robert loved her and saw her as a woman and a person the way her father never had, he was very prideful and Clara knew it. He criticized her concerto in his journal and allowed it to be reviewed as a “lady’s work.” He encouraged her to stop performing it, so despite its success, after other reviewed it as a “lady’s work” too, she gave up composing for orchestra. She gave into the beliefs of the society around her that women weren’t supposed to be composers, but she didn’t stop composing.
Her opus 8 and 9 are sets of variations on par with Chopin’s and Liszt’s most virtuosic works. Her opus 10 Scherzo is a lightning fast crowd pleaser. But her opus 11, her first set of Romanzes, are her first truly romantical works that start to foreshadow the intimacy of Johannes Brahms’s late intermezzos and the thick textures of Rachmaninoff.
When Clara’s father disowned her for her engagement to Robert, she attempted a solo tour of Paris, where she met with success from many who called her “the 2nd Liszt.” But the conservatoire refused to let her play because she was a woman alone without a man to advocate for her. She needed a husband if she wanted to succeed in the world without her father. Clara also wanted a break from her famous, tiring touring life, to be a normal woman with a husband and children.
Robert sued the court for Clara’s hand. Friedrich Wieck insisted Robert was an alcoholic libertine who was too poor to support a family and insisted he would ruin Clara’s career. But in 1840, Clara married Robert for love anyway.
At the age of twenty-one, she believed in Robert’s compositions more than her own (neglecting to remember he was nine years older than her), and devoted herself to supporting Robert’s work. She was forbidden to play piano during the day because it disturbed Robert’s composing.
But somehow, during the next ten years, Clara still composed a remarkable Piano Sonata in the style of Beethoven, a catalogue of Lieder that are some of the best in the repertoire, and a Piano Trio equal to those of Brahms and Mendelssohn (with superior counterpoint to her husband’s). Her extensive fugal studies lead her to write her opus 16 Preludes and Fugues, on par with the best of Bach. But all with her own distinct compositional voice. Her works compare to the those in the canon, and yet are unlike them in a very unique way. No one wrote music like Clara Schumann.
She performed enough concerts during marriage to keep her career alive and make money to support their household income, but her composing and performing were curbed by her husband’s declining health and the birth and care of their eight children. She took care of all household and family matters, enabling Robert to devote himself to composing. She acted as Robert’s assistant, helping to edit all his music and transcribing all the piano reductions of his orchestral scores.
Tragedy and Brahms
Her final year with Robert, in Dusseldorf, they finally could afford an apartment where Clara had her own study to compose in. Her last three opus are thanks to this gift: her opus 20 variations on a theme of Robert’s built on the inspiration of Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, her most harmonically advanced opus 21 Romanzes for piano, her opus 22 Romanzes for violin and piano written for Josef Joachim, and her opus 23 song cycle on poems by political poet, Rollett.
In October of 1853, 20 year old Johannes Brahms knocked on Clara’s door, a great story with its own blog post. Five months later, tragedy struck. Robert’s health had been failing for years with an inexplicable nervous condition that resulted in cycles of hallucinations and debilitating melancholy. (He was dying of syphilis, though it’s doubtful Clara ever knew this.) February 1854, (Clara was five months pregnant with her last child), after ten days of unceasing hallucinations, Robert attempted suicide by jumping in the freezing river Rhine. He couldn’t swim.
Though he was rescued, he was taken to a sanitorium where Clara was not permitted to see him for 2.5 years, until the day he died there.
But two remarkable things came out of this tragedy:
One, despite how greatly Clara grieved her husband, she was now free of the burdens of child bearing and caring for a husband. She resumed her touring career. She refused charity and took on the financial burden of her children and her husband’s exorbitant hospital care alone.
Two, the twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms, for love of Clara, her husband, and her children, put his life on hold and moved in. He became her primary confidante and friend, trading countless letters during her 2.5 yrs of lonely touring while fearing for her dying husband. Johannes looked after her household and family in her absence, played surrogate father to her children, and visited Robert in the hospital when she wasn’t permitted to go.
But this wasn’t a one sided arrangement. What began during these years between Johannes and Clara was far from just an undefinable personal relationship that would last the rest of their lives. It was also an intense professional partnership that would enrich both their careers immeasurably for the next forty-three years.
Clara became Johannes’s compositional mentor and piano teacher during his early years. He consulted her for opinions and input on every single one of his works. She became his number one encourager-in-chief, since Johannes’s biggest obstacle was his own insecurity. When she had too many offers for performances, she gave him all the gigs she couldn’t accept, including students, concerts, and court appointments.
During those early years of Johannes’s career, when all the critics were against him and the world mocked him for being “Robert’s Messiah,” Clara was the constant voice begging him to write more. She loved and depended on his work.
Whether she also loved the man as more than a friend and surrogate family member is a mystery we will never know.
The Rebirth of a Career
After the loss of Robert, Clara remade herself once more and entered the most rigorous decades of her career. Though it’s the part of her life least talked of today, the next forty years were Clara’s most influential on music history. From 1854, Clara matured from the piano prodigy queen into what Liszt and Brahms restyled her as, “The Priestess of the Piano.” Her concerts took on the tone of religious experiences, where she preached the legacy of the greats from the piano keys.
She cemented the standard piano repertoire, the first to devote her career to the canon works we take for granted – Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Robert Schumann with some Scarlatti, Schubert, and Mozart thrown in. Her influence expanded far beyond the concert stage. In every town and city, she played at palaces for royalty and gave soirees of Robert and Johannes’s music to the most prominent artistic circles. The respect she commanded made her opinions and tastes gospel among the musical elite. She devoted herself to the works of the great composers with a monastic fervor, on a mission to negate the New German School of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner which proclaimed the music of the greats to be dead.
She toured England with her eldest daughter Marie no less than sixteen times. She made numerous more tours to Vienna, and to Paris and Russia. She received at least three offers to tour America, though never accepted on the account of not wanting to be separated from her children for a year.
Her Later Years
But Clara endured further tragedies with her adult children. She was forced to commit her eldest son, Ludwig to an asylum for life. Felix and Julie died of tuberculosis in the 1870s, and Ferdinand died a decade later of a morphine addiction, begun from injuries he sustained as a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War.
Throughout these difficult years, Johannes remained a source of constant support. When Ferdinand’s six children fell under sixty-nine year old Clara’s financial care, Johannes, now rich with his success, gifted her a sizeable sum to invest in their future.
But Clara’s daughters, Marie, Elise, and Eugenie all became renowned piano teachers in their own right. Clara gave lessons to countless students throughout her career and joined the faculty of the Frankfort conservatory for the last two decades of her life. Her influence on piano pedagogy and students who went on to have successful careers is incalculable.
Even though Johannes and Clara never lived in the same city again after 1856, they spent half their summers together, performed countless concerts together, and visited each other multiple times a years. Though Clara always insisted they were friends, she endured salacious slander over the nature of their close relationship. (Rumors that she was unfaithful to her husband during his hospitalization still chase her today, though are MOST likely very untrue.) Johannes and Clara exchanged volumes of letters up until her death, and she would forever be the inspiration, motivation, and most ardent consumer of his compositions. Throughout his life, Johannes mailed first drafts of all his work to her for her approval before sending them to the publishers.
In her last years, Clara’s hearing slowly deteriorated so orchestras were painful to hear, and her hands developed bad arthritis so playing piano became difficult. But still Johannes would visit her and wrote many of his intermezzos for her to play and hear.
In 1896, Clara died from a stroke at the age of 76 with Marie and Eugenie by her side.
Johannes died eleven months later.