How Clara Schumann Became Queen of the Piano by Age 18

Clara Wieck was intended from the cradle to be the Paganini of the piano. Before she was old enough to sit at the piano, she listened to piano lessons and her mother practicing arias and piano concertos for performances every day. As a late speaker, she took lessons for almost two years before she could utter a complete sentence at age 6.

Clara learned simple five finger exercises and melodies at age four, all the scales and key signatures and the beginnings of improvisation by age 6. Learning to read music came before she could read the alphabet or numbers, and she studied piano for 2 years before she started school.

Music became her primary language and method of expression.

Each day she had a piano lesson for an hour but wasn’t allowed to practice for more then 2-3 hours. An integral part of her daily routine was walking for an equal number of hours she practiced.

Her debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus happened at age 9, a four-hand piano piece with another pianist. The papers reviewed her as a “young talent to watch.” That same year, she played her first Mozart concerto with a chamber orchestra.

Clara Wieck age 9

Paganini visited Leipzig. He heard Clara play her small piano compositions and was so impressed, he invited her to sit on stage with him at his concert. Seeing Paganini was Clara’s first glimpse of the dream to become a superstar. And she wanted it.

By age ten, she was performing in nearby towns and in the palace at Dresden. She played for the aging Goethe who gave her a medal and declared, “She plays with the strength of six boys.”

At age twelve, the winter of 1830, she travelled to Paris. She played for Chopin, both his compositions and her own. He was impressed and they planned a concert together, but Chopin grew sick and had to cancel the performance.

Clara Wieck age 12

When she returned home, she began studies in counterpoint and orchestration with master teachers in Leipzig and Dresden. By the next year, she wrote the first movement of her first concerto. She also wrote an orchestral overture that’s since been lost.

Between her studies, she gave extensive concerts throughout Germany with performances in Berlin and Hamburg etc. In every town, she played for royal palaces and at soirees for the rich and artistically influential.

Mendelssohn arrived in Leipzig, and Clara became a favorite pianist of his. She regularly appeared in concerts with his orchestra at the Gewandhaus—including premiering some of his works and performing Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy.

During her fifteenth year, she finished her concerto and its orchestrations, and a month after her 16th birthday, premiered it with Mendelssohn conducting at the Gewandhaus.

Clara Wieck, age 16

A month after Clara turned 18, she set off for Prague where she gave concerts to rave reviews. In Vienna, she was an immediate smashing success from her first soiree. Competition for tickets to her concerts caused riots in the streets. The Viennese declared a “Clara War,” and the debate on everyone’s lips: “Who is better? Wieck, Thalberg, or Liszt?”

There was even a dessert named after her: Torte a la Wieck. Franz Grillparzer wrote his famous poem about her, “Clara Wieck and Beethoven,” that made international papers.

Clara Wieck, unfinished portrait painted in Vienna, 1838, age 18

Clara played repeatedly at the Hapsburg Palace for the Emperor and Empress. She became such a favorite of the Empress that rumors abounded Clara would be made Honorary Court Virtuoso. Though it was presumed impossible since Clara was a North German protestant and the Austrian court was Catholic.

But it happened—the first protestant, youngest person ever, and the first woman to be named Honorary Court Virtuoso to the Austrian Imperial Court. It made her honorary Viennese.

The critics across the land dubbed her the reigning Queen of the Piano.