What are Clara Schumann’s greatest works?

One of the most searched questions about Clara is…

What are Clara Schumann’s best works?

Because Clara was an epically self-critical composer, (famously so) she didn’t publish anything unless she knew it was good—damn good. Her standards were impossibly high, so it’s no exaggeration to say there’s greatness in all of Clara Schumann’s works.

But I’ll tell you which are her greatest, which are most famous, and which are my favorites.

[This post is also a YouTube video, if you’d prefer to watch me talk. And here’s a playlist, if you wanna listen to the works in this post while reading it.]

Overview of Clara Schumann’s Compositions

Since most people think Clara composed little music, I’ll start with a catalogue overview. (For a full list of her compositions along with public domain scores, I always use IMSLP.)

Her early works (1829-1840) were written by the young virtuoso pianist, Clara Wieck, BEFORE she married that other composer you may have heard of. Hehe.

From her first opus at age 10 to opus 11 at age 20 – all were published under Clara Wieck. And with the exception of her opus 7, Piano Concerto, they’re all solo piano works.

Her middle period (1841-1848) – published as Clara Schumann, opuses 12-17 along with others without opus – was marked by her deep dives into Beethoven sonatas, Bach fugues, and advanced counterpoint. She composed more solo piano works, two dozen lieder, preludes & fugues, a sonata, and a piano trio.

Her late period (1853-1855), her final opuses 20-23, were all written during the summer of 1853. Plus, my FAVORITES, her last two romanzes without opus.

In total Clara Schumann composed over 30 works in 4 categories:

Solo Piano (15 opuses total) op. 1-6 & op. 8-11 (Clara Wieck), Sonata WoO, op. 14-16, op. 21, & two romanzes without opus

Chamber Music – Op. 17 Trio for piano, violin, and cello; Op. 22 Romanzes for violin and piano; March for piano four hands

Lieder – op. 12 – 13; a dozen WoO; op. 23; Part songs without opus

Orchestral Works: Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 7 (She began a second concerto in F minor, but only completed the exposition and two piano manuscript.)

There are lots of arrangements of her work—including some for choir and many orchestrated editions. (But that’s another post!) She was a great virtuoso pianist so all her works are with piano. And none of them are easy. (Sorry beginners!)

Some are enjoyable for the practiced amateur to play, but most require advanced technique to master.

Early Works (1829-1840) – Clara Wieck’s Compositions

There are lots of highlights in opuses 1-5, but Clara Wieck performed the Impromptu: Le Sabbat from opus 5, Quatre Pièces Caractéristiques for years, including in Paris in 1839. A humorous, crowd pleaser with lots of virtuoso flash that was also published as Hexentanz or Witch’s Dance.

Her opus 6 Notturno, written in the style of Chopin, has a hauntingly beautiful melody and some of Clara Wieck’s signature advanced harmonization. (Like a French Augmented 6th resolving to tonic. *GASP* Theory nerds will love it.)

The Mazurka in that opus 6 is one her husband and Johannes Brahms were kind of obsessed with quoting in their music.

Her opus 7 PIANO CONCERTO in A minor – a work that influenced all the concertos that came after it, packed with such beauty and virtuosity, I’ve written many blog posts on it.

And a NY Times article. Yup.

Badass virtuosa, Clara Wieck, wrote more epic technical feats in her opus 8 Variations de Concert on a Bellini theme and the opus 9 Souvenir de Vienne, lovely yet masterful variations on Haydn’s hymn tune, “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser.” (A tune which got new words a few years after Clara wrote this – which in the 20th cent. became what we know as “Deutschlandlied” or the German national anthem.) Then Clara’s opus 10 Scherzo is a flashy encore (along with the Op. 14 Scherzo).

Her first set of lyrical romanzes is opus 11 Trois Romances sans paroles, the transitional opus from the virtuoso to the maturing works of her…

Middle Period (1841-1848)

Clara Schumann stepped away from flashy virtuoso works and did intensive study into Bach and Beethoven, sonata form and advanced counterpoint. She wrote works like her Piano Sonata in G minor that went unpublished & unperformed until the 1990s!

She took up song writing and wrote some of the best Lieder in the repertoire like Liebst du um Schönheit. (If you like her husband’s Widmung, you’ll LOVE this one.) And my personal favorite, Die Lorelei, packed with references to Schubert’s Erlkonig. Plus her opus 13 Sechs Lieder is a seamless song cycle.

She mastered writing Bach-style fugues and advanced counterpoint to write her op. 16 Preludes and Fugues. Then Clara wrote her pinnacle 4-movement work, her Piano Trio in G minor that’s been recorded by the Beaux Art Trio AND a new recording with Anne Sophie Mutter. (Definitely listen to those!)

But then, for 7 years, Clara Schumann published nothing, and she feared her composing days were over. Until…

The Late Works of Clara Schumann (1853-1855)

In 1853, Clara and Robert were finally able to afford an apartment large enough that Clara could have her own study on the second floor. Where she could play all day without disturbing Robert’s composing, for the first time in her 14-year marriage… YIKES!

[I wrote about why and how messed up that was here.]

BUT thanks to that little study—a room of her own—in one summer, Clara Schumann wrote her final opuses 20-23.

Her opus 20 variations on her husband’s theme, Johannes Brahms loved so much, he made his own version. Her opus 21 Romanzes for solo piano, the first is her most dissonant work, full of heart wrenching chromaticism. Her opus 22 Romanzes for violin and piano were inspired by and dedicated to her favorite chamber music partner, the great violinist and composer, Josef Joachim. Her last song cycle, her op. 23 Jucunde Songs, were written on poems from a novel by the political poet, Rollett.

The Last Romanzes Without Opus

Her last two compositions—Romanze in A minor and Romanze in B minor Without Opus—are two of my favorite pieces in all of music. IMO some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking music ever written. The second, the B minor Romanze, was composed as a gift for Johannes Brahms.

They’re mournful, sad, heartbreaking pieces. You can hear how her husband was sick and dying. They inspired some of Johannes’s intermezzos 50 yrs later.

(If I had my way, these two romanzes would be as famous and well-known as Johannes’s most popular intermezzos. That’s where they sit in my heart.)

When Robert died in 1856, Clara stopped composing. Why? Partly because she was heartbroken but also because…

Why did Clara Schumann stop composing?

She had 7 kids to support as a single parent at age 36. She gave concert tours for 40 more years to support her family. And changed the repertoire and concert tradition to what we have today!

So now you know some of the greatest works by Clara Wieck-Schumann.

And this is only scratching the surface…

You can listen to all these works in this playlist. And you can find the music scores in public domain on IMSLP.