Power Imbalance in the Schumann Marriage

When Clara and Robert met, she was only 10 years old and he was 19.

They loved each other madly. There is zero doubt their affections endured without waning throughout their sixteen year marriage. And on Clara’s part– she loved him another forty years, past his death to her own. There are no signs that Clara was coerced into loving Robert or marrying him when she was young. They were fully committed for life without regrets.

But that doesn’t change the truth– Robert was nine years older than Clara, and they met when she was just a child.

Clara Wieck, age 9, a year before Robert first heard her play

Robert first heard Clara play when she was only ten and he was nineteen. He moved into her father, Frederick Wieck’s house to study piano with him when Clara was only twelve. Robert makes it very clear in his letters that he had no sexual or inappropriate feelings toward her until she was sixteen, after they’d been separated for a year. During their early years together, they spent hours daily at the piano, studying the same repertoire, taking lessons, and composing music together. They grew into mature artists side-by-side. In many ways, it was highly romantic.

But the dynamic of Robert as superior adult man and Clara as inferior girl child was built into the foundations of their relationship.

Times were different in the 19th century, we all say. Women in general married MUCH younger than they do now. Clara told Robert the story in a letter that the first time she thought of marrying him, she was fourteen. And he was 23… She was visiting his family, and Robert’s mother said to Clara, “I wonder if you’ll marry my son someday.”

Clara Wieck, age sixteen, when Robert first declared he loved her.

But this historical norm of grown men falling in love with and marrying teenage girls doesn’t change the inherent imbalance of power. Their relationship was built on Robert’s dominance over Clara in age, life experience, and gender. Even though in their musical profession she had more education, more experience as a performer, and a much more successful career, she spent most of their relationship apologizing for it.

Robert Schumann, 1839, age 29, a year before marriage

From the beginning, he was “Mr. Schumann” to her. She esteemed his opinions with similar value to her father’s, and as their relationship grew, she saw Robert as her teacher and sought his approval of her playing and work above anyone else’s.

Some examples of how this played out:

While Clara could be very critical of Robert at times, it’s clear from the start of their love declarations in her sixteenth year, she deferred to him in all things musical and personal.

In their letters, even when she did exert opinions, they were immediately followed by apologies or retractions, her begging his forgiveness for stepping out of her place. Or even promises that she would never do it again, that from then on she’d practice being a good wife for him and not give him a hard time. (Which she never actually did, thank God for her unwavering stubbornness.)

Robert did esteem her and value her playing, career and success, but from the beginning of their engagement, he decreed that as soon as they married, she should give up her performing and devote herself to wifely duties of supporting and caring for her husband. At first, they mutually agreed upon Clara giving no more than one concert a year, teaching no more than one or two lessons a day, and giving only one or two appearances at court per year.

As their betrothal letters progress, however, Robert negotiates those assertions down even further, saying that she really shouldn’t even perform one concert a year, and for the first year of their marriage, she shouldn’t teach any lessons at all. She never agrees to that in the letters, but only weakly pushes against him on the subject of money and how she could supplement their income. But she eventually gives up the fight.

Their first year of marriage, she gave no performances except in private soirees. In their marriage diary, the second month of their marriage she begs to be allowed to tour. “I must see to my career,” she says, but Robert’s responds, “I must write a symphony this winter.” And he needed her their to help him, apparently. Though how exactly he needed her help is left unclear. Clara writes he disappeared into his study for weeks and almost never came out until he’d finished the symphony.

She wasn’t allowed to practice or play the piano because it would disturb his composing. His work always taking precedence over hers. She could only steal a few hours to practice on the evenings he went to the pub.

Throughout their marriage, Clara would perform only a handful of concerts per year, but usually only in the town where they were living: Leipzig, Dresden, or Dusseldorf. She all but stopped touring.

Clara took only one solo tour, during their marriage– a one month trip to Copenhagen. But Robert wrote he was so miserable during her absence and unable to compose without her at home to care for him, she never travelled without him again. To be fair, she writes that the decision was mutual because she was miserable on the tour without him too. Though it’s also clear she enjoyed touring very much and had missed it. Clara took great pride in how much money she made on the tour.

The Schumanns around 1850, married ten years

For as few performances as she gave during those years, they often created discord. Robert’s symphonies were often performed or premiered on the same concerts as Clara would perform a concerto. Partly because her name on the program would ensure tickets sold when Robert’s name did not, and partly because it was more acceptable as wife for her to perform in service to her husband’s work.

Often more praise was given to her performance in reviews than his symphonies. She always protested and insisted the public should’ve valued Robert’s work and presence more—which was absolutely true. She believed in his work and was furious at the lack of recognition and respect he received.

She would devalue her own achievements in favor of his pride.

There are countless other examples that I’ll share some other time. On the subject of Clara as a composer, Robert made sure she knew her abilities were inferior to his as mere women’s work. (I’ll explore that more in another post about her composing.)

Robert also heavily influenced Clara’s playing style and musical choices, and when faced with his severe criticism, she would work to please him. I suppose his critique did result in change for the better, but that she was hurt by the harsh delivery of his criticism is evident in her diaries.

Robert valued her, certainly. He loved her, absolutely. But within their relationship, she constantly lived in a place of inferiority.

Sources:

  • The Complete Correspondence of Robert and Clara Schumann, edited by Eva Weissweiler, translated by Hildegard Fritsch and Ronald L. Crawford.
  • Berthold Litzmann biography of Clara Schumann published in 1906, translated into English and abridged version.
  • The Marriage Diary of Robert and Clara Schumann