Why is Clara Schumann important?
Clara Schumann helped define classical music as we know it. For those who squirm – how could that possibly be true? A woman with power? In the 19th century?
Clara Schumann curated an era.
She shaped the tastes of the public that live on today. The traditions which have been in place for hundreds of years and many still hold as gospel were made popular by her. Her judgement curated which composers deserved to be in the canon. Without her, it’s doubtful we’d know the names of some of the most famous canon composers we take for granted.
Why don’t history classes and textbooks talk about this?
Because the credit for her decisions has been appropriated by people who deny she ever existed as anything but a wife, muse, and an obstacle in men’s lives.
Commitment to the composers intentions was made popular by Clara. She was the first to play full concerts from memory and founded the traditions of the piano concert as we know it.
Some of the greatest composers in history, who we assume have always been unforgettable, would likely be forgotten if not for her tireless 60-year promotion – mainly Schumann, Brahms, and Chopin. The piano works of Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn probably never would’ve made it into the concert hall, let alone permanent repertoire status. [See her 1,200 plus catalogue of programs at the Schumann Haus Zwickau, the reviews of Eduard Hanslick, and the Guardian’s 1896 obituary.]
Her taste, influence, and musical genius affected every composer of the 19th century Romantic Era. Both the composers we remember and those we don’t, those who loved her and those who hated her – no matter how they tried to deny it, cover it up, or speak ill of her.
She was the reason Robert Schumann became a composer at all. She was Johannes Brahms’s secret weapon, the teacher who held his compositions to the highest standards, the advisor who made his career. She made them both into revered household names through tireless promotion over decades. Their writing some of the greatest symphonies in history probably never would’ve happened without her compositional teaching, coaching, and influence in their lives. [See their decades of correspondence and diaries.]
Clara Wieck, badass tastemaker composer and virtuoso, 1840, age 20
Her artistry shaped a movement.
During the height of Clara Schumann’s career, abstract music solely for music’s sake without story or title – the sonata, the concerto, the symphony, the prelude & fugue – was in mortal danger. It was floundering in popularity and fading from fashion under the programmatic waves toward “the music of the future” in the 1850s-60s. She kept a movement alive which after the early deaths of Mendelssohn and Robert was threatened with extinction. She was an undeniable force of cultural change.
Though Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner would deny it and rarely mention her name, her powerful opposition to their movement was inescapable in the so-called “War of the Romantics.” She swayed public taste not just in concert halls but in palaces, parlors, and elite soirée across the continent. The weight she carried with her fame and the respect she commanded with her unparalleled artistry affected the course of a culture war.
Her compositions left an indelible mark.
ALL her contemporaries knew her works. And though they denied it to the grave, her music influenced them all. Hints they secretly respected her compositional genius are hidden in even their greatest works and are slowly being acknowledged by scholars. And we will only continue to discover more.
Though the choices Clara Schumann made over 150 years ago were revolutionary for the historical time period, they’re not anymore.
While I advocate for her legendary legacy, to give her credit where it’s due, if Clara lived now, she’d make very different choices. Her raison d’etre was working for composers and works NOT yet popularized. Today she’d still be making revolutionary moves for composers in danger of being forgotten. She advocated for both living and historic composers whose music was threatened with obscurity.
And so should we.