How Clara Schumann Changed History

Clara Schumann defined classical music as we know it. For those who squirm – how could that possibly be true? A woman with power? In the 19th century?

It’s true.

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 started by her. Her judgement decided which composers deserved to be in the canon.

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.

The establishment of serious respect to the artform with religious sincerity in the concert, along with commitment to the composers intentions began with Clara. She was the first. She founded the piano repertoire and piano concert as we know it.

Some of the greatest composers in history who we all take for granted as unforgettable greats would’ve been forgotten without her tireless 60-year promotion. Mainly Schumann, Brahms, & Chopin, and Mendelssohn and the piano works of Beethoven and Bach would’ve never made it into the concert hall, let alone permanent repertoire status. [See her 1,200 plus catalogue of programs, 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 period in the Austro-Germanic tradition. Both the ones 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 promoted them both to become revered household names. Their writing some of the greatest symphonies in history would never have happened without her compositional teaching, coaching, and genius in their lives. [See their decades of correspondence and diaries.]

[Clara Schumann, badass tastemaker virtuoso composer, 1858]

Her artistry shaped a movement.

Her choice of repertoire from Beethoven to Bach, Mendelssohn to Chopin, from Mozart to Schubert cemented those composers in history. Without her, abstract music solely for music’s sake without story or title, the sonata, the concerto, the prelude & fugue, etc. would’ve floundered and faded from fashion and been forgotten under the programmatic waves of “the music of the future.”

She kept a movement alive which after the early deaths of Mendelssohn and Robert would’ve died. She was an undeniable force, even to those who reacted against her.

Though Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner would deny it and rarely mention her name, her influence on artistic culture was inescapable—not just in the concert hall but also in every palace, parlor, and elite soirée across the continent. The weight she carried among the public with her heavy conviction and unshakeable respectability affected their choices—even the ones made in clear opposition.

Her compositions left an indelible mark.

They ALL knew her works. And though they all would deny it to the grave, her music influenced them all. Hints they knew and 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 and relevant 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. She’d still be making revolutionary moves for composers and traditions that need advocacy today. Composers whose music is threatened to be forgotten, whose great works are in danger of fading into obscurity.

And so should we.