(Originally published in The Schubertian, October 2021)
It’s easy to overlook how important Franz Schubert’s music was in the life and career of Clara Schumann.
She’s most famous for championing the works of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and for being the first to cement Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, and Chopin in the piano recital repertoire. But Schubert’s sonatas, chamber music, and lieder were essential parts of her repertoire, too, and his music held great personal significance to her.
Before getting into the dry repertoire lists, dates, and performances, let’s start with Clara’s love of Schubert from her earliest years. Her compositions both in piano and lieder bear the marks and influence of her Schubert studies. Clara’s diaries and letters show how the works enhanced her close relationships with Robert and Johannes, both intellectually and philosophically.
In short, Schubert was among the indispensable composers in Clara’s life.
Clara Wieck’s First Schubert
In 1837, the eighteen-year-old piano virtuosa, Clara Wieck, made a concert tour to Vienna, the first of many in her sixty-year career. She was an immediate sensation with the Viennese. They went mad for her, rioting for her concert tickets, and the proverbial “Clara War” began—“Who is better, Clara Wieck or Franz Liszt?” They even named a desert after her, torte á la Wieck. The empress dubbed her Honorary Court Virtuosa, and the music publisher Diabelli dedicated Schubert’s Grand Duo, (the Sonata in C-major for piano four-hands, D. 812) to Clara Wieck.
Clara Wieck’s name centered in a larger font than the composer shows how great Clara’s fame was – how her name sold music better than Schubert’s – and also how respect for Schubert among the public had not yet reached what we know today.
The dedication meant much to young Clara, even in her teenage years she understood the significance of such an honor. At age nine, she’d performed some of his polonaises and a piano arrangement of Die Forelle on her first concerts. The influence of his piano works shows in her earliest piano compositions, especially her waltzes of opus two, published at age thirteen.
From Vienna, after the dedication of the duo, she wrote to her then fiancée, Robert, somewhat disconcerted by her intense reaction:
“This dedication moved me very much, and I hardly know why. It’s really strange how sensitive I am now; sometimes I think that I am too sentimental.”
Robert wrote back, reassuringly, “You’re right about the dedication of Schubert’s duet…it seems gentle and poetic to me.” He then beseeched her to visit the graves of Schubert and Beethoven before leaving Vienna, and she picked violets from their graves and enclosed them in her letter to him. “I felt joy, awe, and melancholy…all the while thinking ardently of you.” She wrote out the inscription on Schubert’s grave for Robert:
“Something beautiful hath laid to rest here,
And even more beautiful hopes: Franz Schubert.”
Clara received one more gift in Vienna. A friend of the late composer bestowed on her an autograph copy of Schubert’s Erlkönig. She added it to her repertoire that year and made liberal reference to it in her lied composition, Die Lorelei, nearly ten years later.
A year later, when Clara left on her next tour, Robert’s farewell letter recalls Winterreise:
“My best wishes for your winter trip; I hope it will be very Schubertian. Adieu, dear Klara, darling fiancée. Don’t forget your, Robert.”
Schubert’s C major Symphony had special significance as well, since Robert discovered the manuscript with Ferdinand Schubert in the late composer’s old Vienna flat. While Clara gave concerts in Paris, Robert heard it for the first time in Leipzig with Mendelssohn conducting. Robert wrote her his first famous description of its “heavenly length:”
“Klara, I was blissfully happy today…If only you had been there! It’s impossible to describe [the symphony] to you… the length, the heavenly length… I was very happy and didn’t wish for anything more than for you to be my wife and for me to be able to write such symphonies too.”
Clara lamented from Paris, “The Symphony by Schubert must be unique! And I couldn’t hear it!” But she would get her wish. Two months after they were married in November of 1840, they heard it together for the first time once more in Leipzig.
Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s lieder were among Clara’s favorite works by the virtuoso. They became staples of her repertoire in 1839, and she performed his solo piano arrangement of Erlkönig, Ave Maria, and Lob der Tränen on nearly every concert for over a year. She gave them over a dozen performances at soirees and concerts in Berlin and Paris and other cities in between.
The Parisians particularly liked a program where she played Lob der Tränen so well that they called her “the second Liszt.”
In September of 1840, on her last concert as Clara Wieck, two weeks before her wedding, she played Erlkönig and Ave Maria in Weimar.
During those last years of solo tours before marriage, Clara also began including Schubert’s chamber music on her private soirées—his trios in B-flat major and E-flat major—a genre of his work she would indulge in privately her whole life.
Clara Schumann’s Artistic Growth with Schubert
During her marriage, Clara’s concert tours decreased significantly, so she added little Schubert to her performance repertoire. She did compose most of her songs though, between 1841-1853, and Schubert’s influence on her lieder is vividly apparent.
Her high standards and artistic opinions show in a diary reaction to her friend, French composer and mezzo-soprano, Pauline Viardot’s performance of Gretchen am Spinnrade.
“She lacks deeper emotion, an intimate understanding of the text… She performed more for its effect on the audience than with that inner glow expressed so magnificently by the words as well as Schubert’s music… with this German lied she left me unsatisfied.”
Clara admired Viardot highly as composer, musician, and singer throughout their long lives, despite her opinions of her Schubert interpretation.
In 1854, her husband’s health declined rapidly. He wrote down a hallucinated melody from the spirit of Schubert, and shortly after, he was committed to a hospital.
In his absence, she sought comfort in music, including Schubert’s piano sonatas. Her diary notes that the Schumanns’ new friend, twenty-one-year-old Johannes Brahms played her Schubert’s A-minor sonata from memory one day in May. It made her appreciate Johannes’s young talent.
“I am filled more and more with admiration for the great spirit which inhabits so small a body.”
The following week she writes an amusing comment on Johannes’s tempos in Schubert:
“He played Schubert’s wonderful B-flat major sonata whose first and second movements are particularly delightful… Brahms plays Schubert wonderfully especially those movements in which he cannot exaggerate the tempo which he is fond of doing.”
Clara took up major concert tours once more that same year, since her seven children were now solely dependent on her for financial support in her husband’s absence. She also played Robert’s work on all her concerts to ensure his musical legacy lived on.
Fortuitously, her travels introduced her to yet little-known lieder singer (who would dominate the performance of the genre in the later nineteenth century), Julius Stockhausen, and brought him into the Schumann musical circle. Together, they gave among the first complete performances of Die Schöne Müllerin in 1854 and of Winterreise in 1862. She introduced him to Johannes so the two men gave more concerts of Schubert’s complete song cycles while Clara toured elsewhere.
In Vienna again in 1856, Clara spoke in her diary of a mournful visit to the graves of Schubert and Beethoven, thinking of her husband, now dying in the hospital. But she also thought of Johannes who had yet to visit Vienna, and she wrote:
“How I wished he were at my side. I sent him some leaves from the graves.”
Robert’s death did not diminish Clara’s love of Schubert. In fact, it increased, as she added more of his repertoire in her three more decades of concert tours.
She and Johannes also took great joy together in his works, playing them for sheer pleasure. In Hamburg in 1860, she visited him and wrote:
“Johannes made my stay very pleasant by his kindness and his often beautiful playing. He played a great deal of Schubert.”
Then again in 1862, she wrote to her dear friend and collaborative partner, the violinist, Josef Joachim, about a deep study into Schubert’s chamber music. It likely aided Johannes’s composing, since at the time he was writing more chamber music.
“It was a great joy to me that Johannes came and played all these many [new compositions] to me, as well as playing [four-hands] Schubert’s D-minor quartet, C-major quintet, and octet, with me several times.”
The following year, Clara wrote in a letter to Johannes, gratitude for his sending her some Schubert that was yet unknown to her:
“My warm thanks for everything. I rejoiced over the Schubert waltzes, and quite delighted me. It must sound wonderful. You can imagine which passages especially pleased me.”
Clara also left behind a great pedagogical legacy, including Schubert in the works she taught to her many piano students. His works are included in some archived editions of her teaching music.
What pieces by Schubert did Clara Schumann play?
The following is the complete list of Schubert music copied from the repertoire list of Berthold Litzmann’s original biography of 1908, Clara Schumann: An Artist’s Life based on material found in letters and diaries. The list is compiled from the collection of over 1,200 programs saved by Clara from her sixty-year performing career.
It is by no means exhaustive as she didn’t save programs from every concert. It does not include works performed at soirees or parties, or any works studied at home, which accounts for the lack of chamber music on the list, even though she played much of it. But it is a wonderful glimpse into how Clara gradually increased the amount of Schubert over the decades.
The list only shows the date of first performances. We can infer that most works were likely performed many more times in the succeeding decades. (The two sonatas are unfortunately lacking opus numbers on the list.)
1828 Die Forelle arr. for pianoforte
1838 Schubert-Liszt Erlkönig – Ave Maria – Lob der Tränen
1846 Schubert-Liszt Ständchen
1856 Moments musicaux, Op. 94 and Op. 96
1856 Rondo brilliant, Op. 70
1865 Allegretto, G-major, Op. 78
1866 Sonata in B-flat major
1867 Scherzo from octet, arr. for piano
1868 Impromptu in F minor, Op. 142
1868 Impromptu in C minor Op. 90
1868 Sonata in A minor
1868 Ländler, Op. 171
1873 Phantasie in G-major, Op. 78
Litzmann, Berthold, Clara Schumann: An Artist’s Life Based on Material Found in Diaries and Letters, vol. 1-2. tr. abridged Hadow, Grace E.
Reich, Nancy B., Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman: Revised Edition.
Schumann, Robert, Schumann, Clara, The Marriage Diaries of Robert and Clara Schumann: From Their Wedding Day through the Russia Trip. ed. Nauhaus, Gerd. tr. Ostwald, Peter.
Schumann, Clara, Schumann, Robert, The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann: Critical Editions, vol. 1-2. ed. Weissweiler, Eva. tr. Fritsch, Hildegard, Crawford, Ronald L.