Clara Schumann & Chopin

Clara Schumann did everything in her power to place Chopin permanently in the piano repertoire. The extent of her influence on his legacy is difficult to calculate.

She included his music on most of her thousands of concerts for 55 years. She played his waltzes, nocturnes, etudes, mazurkas, and more from Vienna to London, from Paris to St. Petersburg, between 1831 and the end of her touring career in 1888.

[For Clara’s full repertoire of Chopin, see the bottom of this post!]

In short, Clara never performed anywhere without Chopin. She started playing his work at age 11, and never stopped!

Clara Wieck, age 12

Chopin, age 25

In 1832, when Clara Wieck was 12 years old, she made her first concert tour to Paris. There, Clara heard the 22-year-old Frédéric Chopin play at multiple soirees, including a performance of his E-minor concerto. (She began performing the concerto two years later.)

The opus 2, Variations on Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano” was already a staple in Clara’s virtuoso repertoire. Her father boasted that in 1830 the Germans believed it unplayable, but Clara, at age 11, learned it in 8 days.

From then on, Clara pretty much learned Frédéric’s music as it was published. Many she wouldn’t perform for another 2 decades, but she played and studied all his works.

Chopin’s Visits to Leipzig

In 1835, Frédéric visited Leipzig, where Clara lived. He was only there for a day (and she wasn’t at home), but he waited to see her. On that occasion, she played him Robert’s F minor sonata, the last movement of his own E minor concerto, and two of his etudes.

He gave her “one of his latest works” (though Clara’s diary doesn’t say which one). Clara requested he play one of his nocturnes for her, but she writes, sadly, that he was “so ill and weak that he could play a forte only by a convulsive movement of his whole body.”

On his next visit in Leipzig, in 1836, Frédéric came only to see Clara and Robert. She played him her op. 5 4 Pièces caractéristiques , her op. 6 Soirees Musicales, and her Piano Concerto in A minor.

He left with a copy of her opus 5 “which he had declared himself especially enchanted and enthusiastic,” according to the Litzmann biography of Clara Schumann.

Frédéric also visited Robert, who described the visit in a letter. Apparently, Frédéric was quite ill at the time, and Robert’s words are coarse.

“It is pathetic to see him sitting at the piano. You would love him. But Clara is a greater performer and gives his compositions almost more meaning than he does himself. Think of a perfection, a mastery, entirely without self-consciousness.”

Robert Schumann in a letter to Kapellmeister Dorn in Riga, Sept. 14th, 1836

But it’s clear Chopin and his works meant a great deal to both Clara and Robert. On his death in 1849, they tried to have a memorial service for him, though their church refused.

Composer’s Influence

Many of Clara Wieck’s early compositions bear the unmistakable stamp of Chopin. She emulated and respected his work. Her opus 6, Soiree Musicales, included two mazurkas. Her Piano Concerto op. 7 and her Variations de Concert op. 8 reference Chopin in virtuosity and melody. The opening of Chopin’s third piano sonata and Clara’s piano sonata have similarities as well.

Their styles bore resemblances, and it seems fair to speculate that their technical abilities aligned.

The Chopin Repertoire of Clara Wieck

According to the archive of Clara Schumann’s programs at the Schumann Haus in Zwickau, Clara performed Chopin over a 160 times in concerts between 1831 – 1847. (This does not include performances at soirees, parties, ballrooms, or lost programs. Counting those, it may be nearly double.)

The first Chopin she studied and performed was his Mozart variations at age 12 in 1831. That same year, according to Robert, she also performed Chopin’s “great bravura fantasia.” (Which I assume means his op. 13, though it’s not officially listed on her repertoire list in the Litzmann biography.)

Chopin’s Concertos

The first concerto, she performed for the first time in 1834, at age 15, and a total of at least 11 times before 1840.

The second concerto joined her repertoire for the first time in Hamburg in 1840 when she was 20. In 1885, at age 66, she relearned the second concerto after a gap of 33 years, and she performed it for the first time since 1852 at the new Gewandhaus in Leipzig.

The Rebirth of Clara Schumann’s Career

After her marriage in 1840, Clara didn’t tour much while she had 8 children and supported Robert’s composing, but in 1854, when Robert was hospitalized, she returned to touring to support their children and his hospital care.

In the 1850s, she doubled the number of Chopin pieces in her performance repertoire, always swapping out different mazurkas, nocturnes, etudes, and waltzes. She played Chopin everywhere, all over Europe for another thirty years.

Her passion and determination to set Chopin permanently in the repertoire matched her commitment to the works of her husband, Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Chopin was in the elite group of composers Clara programmed on concerts.

She also passed his performance tradition on to her countless students, teaching lessons in most cities where she toured. This included her 16 tours to London and her decade of teaching at the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory.

The Repertoire

Here’s the list of Clara Schumann’s Chopin performance repertoire, compiled by year, copied from her original Litzmann biography of 1908. These dates mark her first performances of each work. We can assume that most were performed again in subsequent years. (Some opus numbers are missing.)

1831 Variations on “La ci darem la mano,” op. 2

1833 Mazurkas Vol 1 & 2; Nocturne in E-flat; Finale of concerto in E minor, op. 11; Etudes in F major and C major

1834 Concerto in E minor, op. 11

1835 Rondo op. 16; Marzukas in F # minor and B major; Nocturne in F-sharp major; “Arpeggio” Etude E-flat major (sic)

1836 Etude in C minor and Nocturne in B major

1838 Etude in A minor, op. 25, no. 11

1840 Concerto in F minor, op. 21

1843 Etudes in C major, E major, G flat major, C # minor, C minor from op. 10

1844 Polonaise in A-flat major, op. 53

1846 Barcarole, op. 60

1850 Nocturne in F-sharp minor, op. 48

1854 Nocturnes in C minor, op. 48, and F minor op. 55; Scherzo B minor op. 20; Impromptu A-flat major op. 29; Waltzes in D-flat major and C minor, op. 64

1856 Waltzes in A-flat Major and A minor op. 34; Waltz in A-flat major, op. 42; Etudes in A-flat major, F major, C-sharp minor, G-flat major, C minor from op. 25

1857 Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, op. 66

1859 Ballade G minor; Mazurkas in A minor, op. 7, and in C-sharp minor op. 40

1860 Ballade A-flat major (sic)

1865 Three New Etudes in F minor, no. 1, A-flat major no. 2; Nocturnes in F major and F# major, op. 15, no. 1 and 2; Nocturne in D major, Op. 27, No. 2; Nocturne in G major, op. 37, no. 2

1867 Andante Spianato from op. 22


Sources:

Berthold Litzmann biography of Clara Schumann translated by Grace E. Hadow, 1918. vol. 1&2

Concert program archive Schumann Haus in Zwickau

The Day Clara Schumann Met Johannes Brahms

This story is a good one. Classic. Historic. The details of the day Johannes Brahms walked into Clara Schumann’s parlor may be just lore—who knows. But wherever else I’ve read this tale, they don’t mention what was happening with Clara that day . . .

October 1st, 1853, the day Johannes walked through the front door, the Schumanns were frankly a mess. Both Clara and Robert’s lives were on a teetering brink of collapse—though if you’d asked them, they would’ve said, “Everything’s fine!”

Uhhh, no, it wasn’t.

Clara Schumann, 1854, age 35. Johannes Brahms, 1853, age 20.

Clara’s Career Crisis

Just before Johannes’s arrival, Clara realized she was pregnant again, for the 10th time with baby number 8. The concert tour she’d planned for England the next spring—one she’d been wanting since she began English lessons at the age of 19–had to be cancelled again. Her diary is full of despair:

“My last good years are passing away, and my powers too—there is certainly reason enough for me to distress myself. I am more discouraged than I can say.”

She was terrified her career would soon be over, and she was wasting her last years caged to motherhood. (It wasn’t true, but she didn’t know that.)

For Robert’s part, his position as director of the Dusseldorf Symphony was on tenterhooks. He’d missed the first two subscription concerts of the previous season for being debilitated with nervous attacks and melancholy. Though his health had improved over the summer, both he and Clara asserted that he was better, other people from outside observed differently. Robert’s first subscription concert of the season, at the end of October, would be his last chance to prove himself.  

And so, it’s no wonder that when Johannes knocked on their door, he was like a savior sent from heaven above.

Where’d Johannes come from?

At age 20, Johannes left Hamburg the previous spring to do a recital tour with a violinist friend. He met a host of people along the way—most importantly, Josef Joachim. The two were instant best buds. Josef, so enchanted by Johannes’s compositions, sent him off with a letter of introduction to the Schumanns.

Johannes literally walked there. He was on a walking tour along the Rhine, stopping at the homes of other people, turning hearts with his work and his handsome charm. Although—not without mishap. He had horrible stage freight which sometimes made him too nervous to play—which happened in Weimar in front of Liszt in Weimar.

Yes, young Brahms had performance anxiety.

But he skipped into Dusseldorf and knocked on the Schumanns’ door.

[From here, the tale might be just lore. I haven’t found it in any letters or diaries, but lots of biographers and lecturers have repeated it so I’ll share it too!]

Brahms has arrived.

Supposedly… The first day Johannes knocked on the door, the Schumanns’ eldest daughter, Marie answered. Her parents had gone out, she told him, he should call back tomorrow.

So the next day, he knocked again. This time Robert answered in his dressing gown and slippers. To say the least, it was awkward. Robert in his informal attire, his no doubt stressed expression, and his difficulty focusing on conversations, coupled with Johannes’s shyness, well… Not much was spoken. Except the exchange of the letter from Joachim, then Johannes sat at the parlor piano to play.

He began with his first C Major sonata, the one that references Beethoven’s Hammerklavier and the Waldstein on the first page. He barely finished the first page before Robert stopped him. “I must get Clara,” he said and left to get the only person whose opinion mattered to him.

As is so typical of these stories, Clara’s actions aren’t mentioned, but I imagine she was vexed, tired, and not interested in hearing the music of some stranger come to call. She had a house full of children and the prospect of a failing career before her. But join Robert she did, and listened to Johannes.

And listened. And listened some more.

At the end, Robert put his hand on Johannes’s shoulder and said, “You and I, we understand each other,” then invited Johannes to return for lunch the next day. But Robert had said so little—and apparently Clara as well—or perhaps something else happened that left Johannes reticent to come back.

Robert’s diary entry was simply, “Brahms from Hamburg—a genius.” Clara’s entry is effusive and detailed and obviously meant to show not just her reactions but her husband’s as well: 

“This month introduced us to a wonderful person. Brahms, a composer from Hamburg—20 years old. Here again is one who comes as if sent from God. –He played us sonatas, scherzos etc, of his own, all of them showing exuberant imagination, depth of feeling, and mastery of form. Robert says that there was nothing that he could tell him to take away or add.

It is really moving to see him sitting at the piano with his interesting young face which becomes transfigured when he plays, his beautiful hands which overcome the greatest difficulties with ease (his things are very difficult), and in addition to these remarkable compositions. …What he played to us is so masterly that one cannot but think that the good God sent him into the world ready-made.

“He has a great future before him, for he will first find the true field for his genius when he begins to write for the orchestra. Robert says there is nothing to wish except that heaven may preserve his health.”

Or perhaps she should’ve simply wished for him to come back, because the next day, Johannes didn’t show to lunch.

Clara had to go out and find him. She had to search all the inns in town and bring him back with her.

I can’t help envisioning what that was like—Clara going out to search for the nervous young Johannes. She was likely anxious to make sure he didn’t leave town—to make sure he came back. She and Robert wanted more of his music!

Brahms Moved In

They eventually convinced Johannes to stay with them for the month, at least until Joachim came and played on Robert’s fateful, final subscription concert.

Clara started giving him piano lessons, immediately, seemingly behind Robert’s back. When Johannes played for them one evening and his playing was markedly better, Robert wrote to Joachim, “I suspect my wife is behind it.”

Even so, Johannes was reluctant to stay. They had to coax and convince him not to leave. Was his reluctance simply out of modesty? Not wanting to be a burden in their already full household? Or was it something else?

Robert’s failing health must have been hard to watch. Clara’s denial, insisting that Robert’s health was improving and he was getting well, could not have been easy to witness.

Or were there other reasons? Was Johannes experiencing awkward feelings for Clara from the start that made it uncomfortable living in the same house with her and her husband? Those countless hours sitting together at the piano, working on not just his technique but his compositions, put them immediately in daily close contact for hours at a time.

Whatever the reasons for his hesitancy, Johannes relented and stayed.

Clara’s diary entries for the month mention him almost every day.

Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor

Clara Schumann was younger than all the white dudes—yes, younger than Mozart—when she composed, published, and premiered her Piano Concerto in A minor—at age sixteen.

Felix Mendelssohn conducted the premiere with the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, November 9th, 1835. It was Clara’s only full orchestral work. But “only” does not signify that the concerto was amateur any more than her youthfulness does. Quite the opposite.

Here’s my favorite recording with Isata Kanneh-Mason playing.

Listen while you read!

The concerto is uniquely through-composed with unusual tonal shifts that were very advanced at the time. Its full spectrum of technical virtuoso feats still challenge the most skilled professional pianists. With its unified three movement structure—each with seamless transitions—the work is less than twenty minutes.

The themes are all linked by Clara’s trademark improvisatory style, every new phrase built clearly on the motives that come before it. The melodies are tuneful and pleasing, particularly the slow, middle movement with its bel canto Bellini influence. Its minor tonality possesses all the angsty flavors of early romanticism that we love.

In short—it’s a crowd pleaser as well as an innovative work.

Historical Context

At the time of its premiere, Beethoven concertos were rarely being played, and many of Mozart’s concertos were still completely unknown. The audience preferences of the day were for flashier virtuoso works by composers we’ve mostly forgotten: Thalberg, Pixis, Mocheles, Field, etc.

Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms’s concertos were still decades away. The only concertos Clara had for reference or inspiration were Chopin’s two concertos and Mendelssohn’s first concerto.

Which means—Clara’s concerto was a reference for Robert, Franz, and Johannes. Yes, it really was. Clara couldn’t build on their work, because it hadn’t been written yet. But they built on hers.

Lots of scholarship has been written on how she influenced them.

New research by Alexander Stefaniak in his book Schumann’s Virtuosity goes in depth as to how Robert used Clara’s concerto—it’s structure, tonalities, and thematic content—as a model for his. Claudia Macdonald wrote comparisons between Clara and Robert’s concertos. Stephen Lindeman in Structural Novelty and Tradition in the Early Romantic Concerto discusses Clara’s concerto’s influence on Liszt’s.

(I could go into much more detail, but I’m already giving away too much of my research for free.)

And then there’s Brahms with his big Andante cello solo in his 2nd piano concerto. A direct reference to the cello solo in the slow movement of Clara’s concerto composed almost 50 years later in 1881.

Talk about long lasting influence and impact.

How young was Clara when she wrote her concerto?

Since the work is so often discussed with variations on “good for a teenager” or “especially for a girl,” I’ve saved this for last. Because, regardless of her age or that she was a woman, the work impacted the repertoire as much as Chopin’s concertos and Mendelssohn’s first concerto.

For Mendelssohn’s first and both of Chopin’s concertos to be included in the standard canon but not Clara Wieck’s… Well, I won’t get started on WHY.

(Hint: The phrase starts with an M-word and ends with an -archy.)

But yes, Clara was exceedingly young—a mark of her genius as a composer and pianist.

She began orchestration lessons at age twelve, composed an orchestral overture (since lost), then began work on the concerto at age thirteen. Most of the first movement was composed that year. She finished it over the coming two seasons while still giving concert tours and performing all over Germany. (It’s unclear as to how or whether Robert assisted Clara with editing the orchestrations. I’ve read different accounts in different places, and the letters and diaries are vague.)

Clara wrote out the final orchestral parts the summer of her 15th year. That fall, a month after her 16th birthday, she premiered it on the same program as she played the premiere of Mendelssohn’s Capriccio in B minor, a set of Herz variations, and Bach’s concerto for three pianos with Mendelssohn also playing.

That whole program was basically devoted to Clara.

After the premiere…

She took the concerto on tour for the next few years, performing it across the continent, including Vienna and Prague where audiences loved it. Alas, the critics’ reactions were less so. But that’s for another post. To say she suffered from the stigma of “lady’s work” (even from her own fiancée) is an understatement.

But all that aside—Clara Wieck’s Piano Concerto in A minor is an influential work in the repertoire whether it’s been admitted to the current canon or not. No amount of exclusion from modern orchestral programs and piano competitions can diminish the truth of what Clara contributed to the genre: a unique cornerstone in the development of the early-romantic piano concerto.


*If you use this article, please credit Sarah Fritz. I’m available for writing program notes, album liners, and articles, and I would love to be of assistance. Contact sarahfritzwritr at gmail dot com

Robert Schumann’s Jump Into the Rhine – According to Clara’s Diaries

[CW: Suicide, depression, grief.]


Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide was a tragedy on many levels.

When he jumped in the Rhine, it was an inconsolable loss, not only for the musical world but for his family. Clara was six months pregnant, at the time, with their eighth child—a boy named after Felix Mendelssohn who would never meet his father.

Robert and Clara Schumann

The depths of Clara’s sorrow and pain cannot be overstated. Her diary entries are utterly devastating.

“No words can describe my feelings, only I know that I felt as if my heart had ceased to beat.”

~Clara’s diary, when she learned Robert had run away from home.

The truth about Robert’s attempt was kept from Clara for two and a half years. Until he died in the hospital at Endenich without his wedding ring. Though she’d feared he may have jumped, since he’d left her a note in his study:

“Dear Clara, I am going to throw my wedding ring into the Rhine; do the same with yours, and then the two rings will be united.”

What lead such an artist with a devoted wife and family of seven children to attempt to take his own life?

Clara’s diaries offer immense detail into the days leading up to his dramatic leap. And given her details, it clarifies the reasons for his actions. From the outside, his choice seems like an act of pure insanity, but when we learn what he suffered—given the lack of adequate medical care available at the time—his choice has logic.

Why did Robert jump in the Rhine?

Beginning Friday, February 10th, 1854, sixteen days before his attempt, Robert started having unceasing auditory and visual hallucinations. It drove him to desperation and despair. He experienced extreme depression—what at the time, they called “melancholy.”

“Robert suffered from so violent an affection of the hearing that he did not close his eyes all night. He kept hearing the same note over and over.”

~Clara’s diary, February 10th, 1854

Many have mocked this–hearing the same note over and over– but it was horrifying for Robert to experience and for Clara to witness. It lasted for days.

Robert couldn’t sleep night after night. Clara stayed up with him (even in her third trimester). She wrote that Robert experienced auditory hallucinations—one day he heard the music of Schubert. Another day full orchestral works tormented him from beginning to end. Some days he was able to write the music he heard—as in the Theme and variations in E# Major (No. 9 in the supplementary edition, says the Litzmann bio). Other days, he was in utter agony.  

Then came the visual hallucinations—angels singing to him and demons calling him a sinner that they would send to hell. Clara referred to his voices and hallucinations as “evil spirits speaking to him.” She felt terrified and helpless, “Ah! And one can do nothing to ease him!” The doctors could offer no relief from his psychiatric torture. With no treatment available, all of them, especially Robert, began to fear his hallucinations would never end.

After over two weeks of this torment, by Feb. 26th, 1854, Clara writes,

“Robert stood up and said he must have his clothes, he must go into the asylum as he no longer had his mind under control and did not know what he might end up doing in the night.”

He proceeded to pack what things he would take with him, then Clara said to him, “Robert, will you leave your wife and children?” He answered, “It will not be for long. I shall soon come back, cured.”

Robert had accepted what Clara had not—that he needed to go away. He couldn’t remain with his family. That night, he wouldn’t allow Clara to stay with him, and they called a male nurse to sit with him. But Clara writes of the next morning,

“Ah! How dreadful! Robert got up, but he was more profoundly melancholy [depressed] than words can say. If I so much as touched him, he said: ‘Ah! Clara, I am not worthy of your love.’ He said this, he whom I always look up to with the greatest, the most profound reverence… Ah! And all that I could say was of no use.”

Though he’d expressed optimism of a cure to Clara, Robert must have known his syphilis was incurable and fatal. He’d spoken of premonitions of his own death many times to Clara and to Johannes. Robert realized his choices were to either go away to a place that would likely be a “living grave” (as Clara would call it) or…

Well, we know what he did next.

The Day It Happened

Clara was meeting privately with the doctors, while their eldest daughter Marie watched over Robert with a nurse. But then, Clara writes,

“Robert ran out into the most dreadful rain, in nothing but his coat, with no boots and no waistcoat.”

Robert jumped from a bridge into the freezing river Rhine. He was recovered by a boat, but it happened very publicly when the Dusseldorf streets were full of revelers from a Mardi Gras festival. It made the newspapers. That’s how Johannes Brahms arrived so quickly after it happened—he learned of it in the Hannover papers.

How hard everyone must have worked to conceal the truth from Clara: “Where and how they found him, I could not learn,” Clara writes. She didn’t understand why she received so many notes of sympathy from people.

Perhaps she also willfully closed her ears from the unbearable truth. Clara’s denial of Robert’s declining health has been criticized as delusional by many. But consider how horrible it was for her to lose her husband and father of her children so tragically. Such an outcome would’ve been unthinkable for her to even contemplate.

The Tragedies of Treatment

The doctors decided to separate Robert and Clara. They forced Clara to leave the house and stay with a neighbor. Robert continued to request he be taken somewhere for treatment, and so a few days after his attempt, Clara watched from a window as he was ushered into a carriage.

She wasn’t allowed to say goodbye. But from somewhere, Robert found a carnation flower which he asked the doctors to give to her.

She pressed the flower in a book and kept it for decades.

The doctor’s at Endenich continued this course of treatment—separating Robert from his family—believing all references to the past might agitate him and make him worse. He was never allowed to see his children again, and he would not see Clara for 2.5 years, not until the day he died.

For the first six months, Clara wasn’t even permitted to write to him, not even to tell him about the birth of their son. He didn’t learn of Felix’s birth until four months after the fact. Johannes Brahms and Josef Joachim were allowed to visit Robert after 6 months, but Clara was forbidden.

The Myths

The doctors’ not allowing Clara to see Robert has perpetuated many harmful myths. Even though Robert’s diagnosis of syphilis was incurable at the time, falsehoods abound that somehow Clara was to blame rather than his fatal infection.

Their separation has been misinterpreted to mean that Clara caused Robert’s insanity. That after fourteen years of marriage his wife had driven him mad. That, since a wife’s duty was to care for her husband, she had been a failure as a wife.

She’s also derided for not visiting Robert in the hospital, as though it were her choice. As though she didn’t love him. As though she willfully abandoned him at the hospital and refused to bring him home. As though it was from her neglect that he died in the hospital.  

None of these things are true.

How did Robert Schumann die?

Robert had syphilis. Plain and simple. It was fatal at the time. It killed him. Two and a half years after he arrived at Endenich, he died. His official cause of death was starvation, but that was a side effect of the syphilis, which inhibits the ability to swallow food. He didn’t starve himself to death by choice, as some have suggested.

There was no cure for syphilis in the 1850s. Period.

“And so, with his departure, all my happiness is over. A new life is beginning for me… God, give me the strength to live without him.”

~Clara’s diary, the day of Robert’s funeral

Clara mourned her husband deeply. And while yes, she leaned on Johannes Brahms’s emotional support, what she valued most in the young man was how much she could talk to him of Robert, how much Johannes respected and understood her husband more than anyone else.

“I can talk to no one of Robert as I can Johannes.”

~Clara’s diary

Clara returned to concert tours four months after the birth of her last child.

For this, she is also criticized. Many people, Johannes included, wanted her to stay home and accept charity rather than support her family herself. Without Robert composing any new works or conducting, their primary household income was gone. And the cost of Robert’s medical care was exorbitant—equal to over half their household budget. She had to pay those bills.

To any suggestions of benefit concerts, she was mortified and said, “I’ll give the concerts myself.” She determined to support her children and her husband’s care. She would earn money the best, most profitable way she could—concert tours.

But it wasn’t just about the money.

A Mission For Robert’s Legacy

Every concert and performance Clara gave in countless cities across Europe, she played Schumann music. Her programs of Beethoven and Bach, only the great masters were also a continuation of her husband’s musical philosophy and legacy. As he lay dying in a hospital and she feared he would never come home, her life’s work became ensuring her husband’s name would never be forgotten. That the music of Schumann would never die.

She dedicated the rest of her life– forty years of concert tours— to cementing her husband’s place of immortality in the classical music canon.


If you or someone you know suffers from mental health struggles, please reach out for professional medical care. Unlike in Robert’s time, we now have many adequate treatments that offer help and relief.

All diary quotes are from the Grace E. Hadow translation of the Berthold Litzmann biography of Clara Schumann from 1908.

How Sick Was Robert Schumann?

[CW: Depression, SI]

Clara Wieck first learned about Robert’s ill health in a letter he wrote to her, a few months after their engagement, while she was on her first tour of Vienna. (His timing was far from ideal, poor Clara, but whatever.) He described to her experiences of suicidal ideation.

She was terrified. At age eighteen, she’d never yet experienced suicidal thoughts. She was very frightened and had difficulty understanding.

Robert insisted, explicitly, that Clara had cured him. That since he’d fallen in love with her and she’d agreed to marry him, he would never have those problems ever again.

We know today that…yeah… Suicidal thoughts don’t work like that. No amount of love can cure depression. No matter how much we might wish it so.

But this was the 1830s. Freud wouldn’t be born for another 20 years. Robert had sought medical care for his “melancholy,” and the doctor’s only prescription had been—get a wife. To say that Clara was under intense pressure to “be his cure” was an understatement.

Around the same time of his suicidal thoughts, he also writes in his diary about symptoms that we assume were from the first stage of syphilis. He sought treatment for it (along with the woman he’d been sleeping with at the time. Yes, this was after he met Clara but when she was still quite young.) I’m not sure if Robert knew it was syphilis or not, if he believed the medical treatment he received cured him or not. But it’s possible that he knew and part of his suicidal thoughts may have been despair from his diagnosis.

[Some more backstory—it’s a mere footnote in the Nancy B. Reich bio of Clara, but Robert had a sister who committed suicide as a teenager. And Robert writes of having suicidal urges as a teenager, before contracting syphilis. By his diaries and letters and his rate of compositional output, it’s possible to see mood cycles, which could be cyclical episodes of depression and mania. Possibly he had a form of bipolar disorder, in addition to the syphilis. But that’s just a theory.]

Anyway—Robert’s health seems to have been fairly stable until 1843. While the Schumanns were on their tour of Russia, Robert started to experience his “melancholy” again. When they arrived home, within the year, they left Leipzig and moved to Dresden under the doctor’s orders. Supposedly, being nearer the mountains in Dresden would cure Robert.

It’s often unclear what was actually happening to him. Clara’s diary says things like nervous attacks, attacks of the hearing, and melancholy. Or just simply “unwell.” What is clear—Clara was very stressed by his condition, it weighed on her heavily. He was often bed bound or unable to leave the house or work. And it got worse.

In 1849, she writes, “Robert cannot get over the fact that from his window he always sees Sonnenstein (an asylum)”. And then, “Robert formed a nervous terror of high places” such that they were forced to move their bedroom down to the first floor, “since Robert cannot conquer the nervous excitement into which he is thrown by any height.” That he was suffering again from suicidal thoughts seems likely.

In 1850, the Schumanns moved to Dusseldorf when Robert was appointed director of the symphony. They seem to have hoped this would heal his health. It didn’t, of course. For two years in a row, Clara writes he was “unwell” on his birthday. This word “unwell” could’ve described many things. I suspect, it meant something severe, even debilitating.

The fall of 1852, Robert was “melancholy” and missed the first two subscription concerts of the season. They were conducted by the chorus master, (who would be promoted to replace him the next year when Robert was let go from his post.) Robert’s health improved surprisingly over the summer of 1853, and Clara clung to optimism that Robert’s health was improving.   

I can’t imagine how terrifying these years were for Clara– watching her husband get worse and worse with no real diagnosis or medical care. How nerve wracking it must have been giving birth to a new baby every other year while worrying for her husband’s uncertain health.

If she feared the worst, though, she didn’t write it down.

In fact, she seems to have been in denial of how sick he really was. But how could she not be in denial? To even consider what was to happen—that the father of her eight children would soon attempt suicide and be committed to an asylum….

It would’ve been too horrible to even think—her worst nightmare come true.


Robert’s death anniversary is July 29th, so I’ll have more posts about Clara’s experiences with his health and crisis coming up. Stay tuned!


*If you or someone you know is experience depression, suicidal ideation, or other mental health struggles, unlike in the 1830s, today, we have lots of effective medical treatment available in the form of therapy and psychiatry. Please reach out to trained professionals for help.

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

Were There Queer People in Clara Schumann’s Life?

It’s pride month! So I can’t help digging into this question. And the answer is one giant YES! There was so much queer in Clara Schumann’s life– starting with her own husband!


1) Robert Schumann was probably bisexual.

We’ll never know for sure, but the Peter Ostwald bio has a quote from a letter Mendelssohn wrote to Robert, warning him for spending too much time with his friend Bennet. People were beginning to talk.

Also, the Judith Cherniak bio notes a quote from Robert’s diary. While travelling to Italy, he had an encounter with a “pederast.”

There are more cases where Robert writes effusively about close male friends in his diaries and letters. And then, there are the notes about Johannes Brahms in Clara’s diary.

In 1853, after Johannes’s arrival, Clara’s diary (as quoted in the Litzmann bio) reads:

“Oct. 10th: Brahms was with us this evening (I always call him Robert’s Johannes).”

“Oct. 30th: Brahms will soon leave us, which gives us real pain, Robert loves him and takes great pleasure in him, both as man and artist.”

Fast forward a bit to Feb. 24th 1855. Johannes wrote Clara a detailed description of his visit to Robert in the hospital. The last page describes the farewell with Robert.

“I left him on the Endenich Road. He hugged and kissed me tenderly, and on parting sent greetings to you alone…”

We’ll never know for sure, but in the mission to combat bi-erasure in history, it’s important to at least mention the possibility that Robert was attracted to more than just women.

2. Was the love triangle a polycule?

As in, was it really a love triangle? Or were Clara-Johannes-Robert all one big love fest in a poly group?

All three of them write of being in love with each other at various times. Johannes writes in letters to Robert, while he’s in the hospital, how he loved both him and his wife. Clara was definitely in love with Johannes on some level—hard to say just how intimately, but it’s possible.

And with that possibility comes the big fat truth. If all three of them really were in love with each other—that’s polyamory. Yes, Clara Schumann may in fact have been polyamorous.

3. Clara’s best friends in Dusseldorf, Rosalie Leser and “her Elise” were lifelong companions.

Clara took sea bathing cures with the couple for many summers. She visited them on Christmases. They were her closest women friends during her difficult years in Dusseldorf, and she maintained the friendship all her life.

4. Eugenie Schumann, Clara’s youngest daughter, may have found an example in Rosalie and Elise.

Eugenie fell in love with soprano, Marie “Fillu” Fillunger, who lived with her in her mother’s house for over a decade. Fillu moved to London amidst discord with Eugenie’s eldest sister, Marie. A few years later, Eugenie followed her and spent the rest of her life with Fillu. Eugenie and Fillu were buried side-by-side in Switzerland, alongside Marie after they re-united after the first world war.

If you want to know more, here’s a really lovely YouTube video about the love letters that survived between Fillu and Eugenie.


So that’s the short version to say YES, there was lots of queer in Clara’s life. She may have lived very traditionally as a conservative Lutheran, but her lived experience was far from straight.

How Clara Schumann Became Queen of the Piano by Age 18

Clara Wieck was intended from the cradle to be the Paganini of the piano. Before she was old enough to sit at the piano, she listened to piano lessons and her mother practicing arias and piano concertos for performances every day. As a late speaker, she took lessons for almost two years before she could utter a complete sentence at age 6.

Clara learned simple five finger exercises and melodies at age four, all the scales and key signatures and the beginnings of improvisation by age 6. Learning to read music came before she could read the alphabet or numbers, and she studied piano for 2 years before she started school.

Music became her primary language and method of expression.

Each day she had a piano lesson for an hour but wasn’t allowed to practice for more then 2-3 hours. An integral part of her daily routine was walking for an equal number of hours she practiced.

Her debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus happened at age 9, a four-hand piano piece with another pianist. The papers reviewed her as a “young talent to watch.” That same year, she played her first Mozart concerto with a chamber orchestra.

Clara Wieck age 9

Paganini visited Leipzig. He heard Clara play her small piano compositions and was so impressed, he invited her to sit on stage with him at his concert. Seeing Paganini was Clara’s first glimpse of the dream to become a superstar. And she wanted it.

By age ten, she was performing in nearby towns and in the palace at Dresden. She played for the aging Goethe who gave her a medal and declared, “She plays with the strength of six boys.”

At age twelve, the winter of 1830, she travelled to Paris. She played for Chopin, both his compositions and her own. He was impressed and they planned a concert together, but Chopin grew sick and had to cancel the performance.

Clara Wieck age 12

When she returned home, she began studies in counterpoint and orchestration with master teachers in Leipzig and Dresden. By the next year, she wrote the first movement of her first concerto. She also wrote an orchestral overture that’s since been lost.

Between her studies, she gave extensive concerts throughout Germany with performances in Berlin and Hamburg etc. In every town, she played for royal palaces and at soirees for the rich and artistically influential.

Mendelssohn arrived in Leipzig, and Clara became a favorite pianist of his. She regularly appeared in concerts with his orchestra at the Gewandhaus—including premiering some of his works and performing Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy.

During her fifteenth year, she finished her concerto and its orchestrations, and a month after her 16th birthday, premiered it with Mendelssohn conducting at the Gewandhaus.

Clara Wieck, age 16

A month after Clara turned 18, she set off for Prague where she gave concerts to rave reviews. In Vienna, she was an immediate smashing success from her first soiree. Competition for tickets to her concerts caused riots in the streets. The Viennese declared a “Clara War,” and the debate on everyone’s lips: “Who is better? Wieck, Thalberg, or Liszt?”

There was even a dessert named after her: Torte a la Wieck. Franz Grillparzer wrote his famous poem about her, “Clara Wieck and Beethoven,” that made international papers.

Clara Wieck, unfinished portrait painted in Vienna, 1838, age 18

Clara played repeatedly at the Hapsburg Palace for the Emperor and Empress. She became such a favorite of the Empress that rumors abounded Clara would be made Honorary Court Virtuoso. Though it was presumed impossible since Clara was a North German protestant and the Austrian court was Catholic.

But it happened—the first protestant, youngest person ever, and the first woman to be named Honorary Court Virtuoso to the Austrian Imperial Court. It made her honorary Viennese.

The critics across the land dubbed her the reigning Queen of the Piano.

For Further Reading on Clara Schumann

What are my research sources?

Here’s a compilation of the sources I use for most of my tweets, posts, videos, novel, etc. It’s not exhaustive as I’ve read more articles than I can remember. Everything is in English, or English translations from the original German, since I unfortunately don’t know German well enough yet to read the primary sources. *Cry!* Work in progress.

They’re not listed in alphabetic order (sorry librarians!), but in order of how frequently I use them or how relevant they are to most of my research. The first being the most used!

Nancy B. Reich biography

Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman

by Nancy B. Reich

My number one recommended read for anyone wanting to know more about Clara is Nancy B Riech. This biography is the first book I read about Clara back in undergrad in 2004. It’s the book that founded my love and fascination for this extraordinary woman. When it was published in the 1980s, its groundbreaking scholarship inspired the resurgence of knowledge, respect, and popularity of Clara Schumann after decades of neglecting her as but an afterthought in the lives of Robert and Johannes.

Originally published in English, there was a revised edition published in 2001.

Litzmann biography

Clara Schumann: An Artist’s Life Based on Material Found in Diaries and Letters – Vol I & II (1908)

By Berthold Litzmann, translated into English by Grace E. Hadow (1913)

This one is for the advanced, and it’s my FAVORITE! For everyone so obsessed you just can’t get enough of Clara and want to take it to the next level. It’s the ORIGINAL Clara bio whose publication was overseen by Marie Schumann (Clara’s eldest daughter in charge of her legacy), released in German a decade after Clara’s death by Breitkopf & Hartel (Clara and Robert’s lifelong music publisher in Leipzig). It’s three volumes of over 1500 pages filled to the brim with original quotes from Clara’s diaries and correspondence.

This is the closest we’ll get to reading those diaries, since Clara’s 20-some volumes of diaries were lost (presumably destroyed by Marie). This biography itself was overseen so closely by Marie that it’s decidedly biased toward an agenda of portraying Clara in the best possible light. But there are too many extensive diary and letter quotes to ever fit in a modern biography. It is as close to an insight into the mind of Clara and her intimate day to day life as we’ll ever get.

There’s also so much information on Robert and Johannes, it reads almost like a triple bio, and also like a who’s who for every famous artist in 19th century Europe. Clara knew and had stories about EVERYONE. As you can tell, I love this one.

Sadly, the English translation, which I’ve read at least three times, has been abridged into only two volumes. It’s still over 1000 pages, but there is still a whole volume of untranslated info which I’ve never read. *Sob!* But this translation was overseen by Eugenie Schumann, Clara’s youngest daughter in London, and published in 1913 by Macmillan.

It’s available in ebook for less than $8! If you’d prefer to jump straight to volume 2, which starts in 1853 when Brahms arrives, uh-huh, here’s that link. (Psst! I literally have these in ebook on my Kindle app on my phone, and I use the search function whenever I need fast reference for my daily tweet digests. Now you know my secret!)

Now onto the letters and diaries!

The letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms

The Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms Vol. 1 & 2 (1927)

Edited by Berthold Litzmann, translated into English 1973

This is the one everyone wants and sadly the hardest to get. It is with deepest regret that I must inform you these two volumes are out of print, and there is no digital book available, that I’ve found. I do not own one (though I’ve copied a PDF, hehe). But there are many academic libraries with copies. Mine has two in English and one in the original German.

The publication was again directly overseen by Marie Schumann in the 1920s who severely edited and abridged the letters. Clara and Johannes themselves destroyed over half of their correspondence before they died. So it is by no means complete, but still two volumes worth survived, hundreds of letters from over 43 years. It is a fascinating read, if you can get your hands on a copy… An absolute delight.

(Predictably, I’ve used countless quotes from these volumes in my novel manuscript—as chapter epithets, hopefully. If copyright will allow!)

Clara and Robert Schumann’s letters

The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann Vol 1 & 2

Edited by Eva Weissweiler, translated by Hildegard Fritsch & Ronald L. Crawford

These are complete. This English publication boasts of being unabridged, and there’s no mention anywhere of Marie nor Clara nor Robert destroying any of the letters between Robert & Clara. That said, they’re difficult for me to read. Some of it is lovely and sweet and all of it is fascinating and enlightening, but it’s also a detailed transformation of young Clara from successful independent virtuosa into acceptance of sacrificing her career to be a wife.(Disclaimer: At this time, I’ve still only read volume one. I have it on purchase order from my library. Fingers crossed it comes in soon!) The letters are still full of beautiful love declarations and the passionate hearts of these two great romantics falling in love. Parts of it are heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Marriage Diary of Robert & Clara Schumann

The Marriage Diaries of Robert & Clara Schumann

If the above letters are difficult to read, this one outright makes me sick to my stomach. I have no desire to read it again, and I hope I never have to. It was published and kept as a testament to the love of the young iconic couple in their first three years of marriage. At Robert’s directive, he and Clara passed the diary back and forth each week for three years, alternating entries. I suppose parts of it can be seen as romantic, but most of what I read is a woman living a life of subservience, displacing her own needs and desires to care for her family in a way that’s “lovingly” enforced by her husband.

Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters

Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters by Styra Avins

If you can’t get your hands on the full Clara & Johannes letter volumes, this is the next best thing. My local public library even has one. It includes the highlights of Clara and Johannes’s letters in a more modern translation than the Litzmann. It also reads like a bio with lots of annotations and has lots of other letters that Johannes wrote to other people. Including, most particularly, the very first time he declared his love for Clara in a letter to Josef Joachim. 😉

The Memoirs of Eugenie Schumann

The Schumanns and Johannes Brahms: The Memoirs of Eugenie Schumann

by Eugenie Schumann

Eugenie, the Schumann’s youngest daughter, wrote a memoir late in life. It’s in the public domain and you can read it here. She led a very successful career as a piano teacher in London with her life partner, soprano, Marie Filunger. Her memoir reminisces extensively on her mother and devotes a whole chapter to her recollections of living with Johannes in the Schumann house, her piano lessons with him, and his last visits to Clara before her death. I enjoyed this one very much. Eugenie is so great, and she honestly deserves her own novel!  

Other biographies:

Johannes Brahms by Jan Swafford

Johannes Brahms: A Biography by Jan Swafford

This bio of Brahms has so much information about Clara it almost reads like a dual bio. While I don’t always agree with how he interprets Clara’s actions (generally from the point-of-view of Johannes, understandably), it presents a much more pragmatic and detailed view of their relationship than any other publication I’ve read. It’s well researched and written in an entertainingly narrative form. It’s a door stopper but so engaging it reads like a novel. (I have high aspirations of writing a bio for Clara of this narrative length and quality…maybe someday!)

Robert Schumann: The Faces and the Masks

Robert Schuman: The Faces and the Masks by Judith Chernaik

This is the most recently published English language bio of Robert. It’s fascinating and well written, though I do have some objections to it. The biographer isn’t a professional musician, so it’s nothing like the comprehensive Swafford bio above with the composer’s analysis. It also tends to just deliver the information rather than writing it in the storytelling readable narrative of Swafford. The treatment of Clara isn’t my favorite, again very biased to Robert’s point of view of her and often paints her as being the obstacle/burden in his life which……obviously, I don’t agree with. But, nevertheless, it has a lot of details about Robert you won’t find in the other above books.

* * *

That’s my list of major sources. By no means complete. I’ve also read countless articles on JSTOR and other academic sources. If you’ve never been to JSTOR, head over there and search for Clara Schumann. Lots of interesting, priceless details.

I’ll probably add to this later, but these are the primary books I recommend for further reading. And if you’re wondering about something that I tweet or blog which seems wild, most likely it’s from one of these. Or a combination!