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.

Clara Schumann: Brahms’s Mentor Not His Muse

To call Clara Schumann “the muse of Brahms” is a lazy, reductive stereotype. It’s like saying Wolfgang played piano, or Johannes wrote nice tunes, or Pauline Viardot sang pretty.

Those things are technically true, but as descriptors, they laughably miss the point. They are limiting and dismissive of the truth.

If you’ve read Clara and Johannes Brahms’s letters (like ACTUALLY READ THEM and not just selective quotes), there’s a tongue-in-cheek chuckle at the “muse” assertion. Like, “Right, sure, you tell yourself that.”

[The muse archetype itself is very gendered. It objectifies women for men’s creative use and erases their own powers to create. But here I’ll focus on how “muse” does not pertain to Clara.]

Definition of muse: a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist

Oxford dictionary

What Brahms Said

Did Johannes call Clara his muse? No. Never.

The first time Johannes says he’s in love with Clara in a letter to Josef Joachim, in the same sentence, he says he “admires her.” When Johannes sent Clara the dedication of his second sonata, he hoped she would “look on it as favorably as the first.”

He wanted her approval of his work. He was in awe of her as a musician.

Robert wrote to Josef that Johannes’s piano playing had improved surprisingly, and “I suspect my wife is behind it.” In other words, Clara was giving Johannes piano lessons. Johannes wrote to Clara that he had no hope of ever being as good of a performer as her.

The closest Johannes got to saying “Clara is my muse” is his description of his first concerto’s Adagio as “a portrait of Clara” But even that is beyond the traditional definition of muse as “inspiration for a creative artist.”

He was embodying her as a person in musical sound, not just inspired to create something by her. He was seeking to represent her.  

Clara’s Professional Influence

There are nearly a thousand letters published from their 43-year correspondence. (Beginning in 1854, after Robert was hospitalized.) Every letter speaks of their professional careers, her concerts, his compositions, their families, friends, and personal struggles.

It’s clear they loved each other as friends always, (perhaps as more sometimes), but even when they fought, they were true professional colleagues.

Clara liberally delved out advice and critiques of his work. Johannes sent her all his manuscripts in draft form, usually accompanied by notes of self-degradation, anticipating her criticism. He asked her opinion of his career choices and vented his professional problems.

She was the ultimate Influencer, the Priestess of Art who commanded everyone’s respect and wielded it with grace and power throughout the middle to late Romantic Era. And she focused a great deal of that influence on ushering Johannes to greatness.

He asked her to sell his work to his major publisher Simrock. Which she did. Her diary says, she would’ve done it “for no one else.” Clara began the relationship with the publisher who would publish all his symphonies and later works.

She gave Johannes her extra concert gigs, students, and court appointments. She coached him in his first concerto performances with orchestra. Clara taught him everything she knew about being a performer and composer, and all her considerable mastery about achieving success.

Which, let’s face it, she was the best in the biz at the time.  

Does any of this describe a “muse”? Honestly?

Clara Schumann, Compositional Coach

Johannes studied the Ninth Symphony with Clara, playing it four hands every day for weeks. Clara’s diary says she “studied theory with Johannes.” As in, she was part of his foundational obsession with counterpoint. He sent counterpoint exercises to her in letters, trying to impress her.

He spent thousands of hours discussing compositional form and musical philosophy with her. Not to mention their tens of thousands of hours at the piano, working on technique and repertoire and Clara critiquing his compositions. They played endless chamber music and transcriptions together.

He wasn’t inspired by her in the “I love you, you’re pretty” objectifying stereotype. He desired to please her musical sense, her unparalleled taste and genius.

He knew she loved things like pedal points and mono-thematic development. He knew she was easily bored with predictable tonalities and rhythms and always demanded “freshness.” She called him out when he wrote something generic, or if it was too repetitive, or if she thought it wasn’t “Brahmsian” enough.

Her standards were higher than anyone else’s. She’d been composing and orchestrating large scale works since her concerto as a teenager. Her expectations motivated Johannes to be the very best technically and artistically. She prodded him to compose at a higher level than any other composer alive.

Clara’s historical knowledge of the artform had a long-ranging, unmatched contextual perspective. She understood where his work needed to go and how he needed to get there. She motivated him to build on Beethoven, to be better than Mozart, to write fugues as good as Bach’s.

Clara was a musical genius – perhaps the greatest alive in Germany at the time of Johannes’s painstaking growth period. (Come at me about Liszt & Wagner some other time.) Pleasing Clara with his work took all Johannes’s considerable skill and every wit of his own genius. After Robert died, there was no other composer living whose work she valued and believed in as much as his.

Brahms Needed Clara’s Help

Her approval and support sustained him in incalculable ways.

When no one else cared, when publishers were rejecting his work, when his contemporaries were scorning him, and audiences were hissing him off the stage, Clara was there, encouraging him and whispering in his ear how she adored his genius.

Was Clara a “source” of inspiration?

No, it was the reverse. She wasn’t the internal source, she was the external motivator.

Clara was Johannes’s standard, his mentor and teacher, his colleague and intimate friend. He loved her and admired her but not as a muse, but for being the one person with enough genius to understand and appreciate his work when no one else did.  

She was the person he turned to for answers when he had none. 

What word should we use instead of muse?

Muse is far and away inadequate. Mentor or partnership comes closer.

[Footnote: Yes, Robert is traditionally called Johannes’s mentor. This is another blog post, but briefly, Robert was only in the same house as Johannes for one month before Robert was hospitalized. I’ve read zero evidence Robert taught him anything. It was Clara who studied Robert’s music, counterpoint, and orchestration with Johannes. Not Robert.]

In truth, Clara and Johannes’s relationship was outside the realm of normal descriptors. It had a depth, intimacy, and closeness more complex than what us mere mortals can comprehend.

Their relationship is undefinable.

The melding of the hearts and minds of two of the most brilliant artists in Romantic history—what one word can encapsulate that?

The “muse” shortcut is tempting because of the romantic connotations. We like it. We like thinking about Johannes’s music being imbued with his love for Clara. I’m not saying it’s not.

I’m saying it was so much MORE. It was more intimate and more romantic than mere musery. Not a word, I know, but you get what I’m saying – there are no adequate words!

Trying to describe their relationship is like trying to put their music into words – impossible. It would take an entire book…or a novel *ahem.* But all will inevitably fall short.

Let’s try something else, shall we?

Mentor, musical partner, and close professional friend are all accurate.

Take your pick!


Clara Schumann’s Admiration for Franz Liszt

Clara Schumann is very famous for “hating Liszt,” but that’s only part of their story. She also admired him, performed and studied his compositions, and looked up to him with awe.

Their relationship was long and varied. It won’t fit into one post. But let’s start in Vienna, in 1838, when Clara Wieck was 18 and Franz Liszt was 26.

Clara Wieck’s Anticipation

In 1837, 18-year-old, Clara began performing Liszt’s Divertissement on Paccini’s Cavatine (I tuoi frequenti palpiti) on her concert tours. Franz, 8 years older than Clara, was more established as a mature artist. Clara was still shedding the label of child prodigy.

That autumn, Clara made her first concert tour to Vienna. Christmas Day 1837, she wrote to her fiancée from Vienna, “Liszt isn’t here yet, but he is expected any day.” Robert had already written her that Franz said very nice things about Robert’s work in Paris, and she should “be kind” to him if he came to Vienna.

[No cuts were made to the following quotes in order to present them as objectively as possible.]

A few weeks later, Robert shared a letter with Clara that Franz wrote to a mutual friend. Franz wrote of Clara:

“I’m delighted by what you tell me about Miss C.W.’s talent. A young woman who can perform compositions of mine with energy, intelligence, and precision is an extremely rare thing in any country; someone like that certainly can’t be found in the country where I currently reside. Chopin and several other artists have already told me a lot about her. I’m very eager to make her acquaintance, and even though I am reluctant to travel I would almost make the trip to hear her.

Franz Liszt as copied by Robert in a letter to Clara, Jan. 5, 1838

On January 21st, 1838, Clara wrote to Robert that she played her 4th concert in Vienna, including Liszt’s music (presumably the Paccini Divertissement).

Clara created a sensation in Vienna. She was named Imperial Court Virtuosa to the Austrian Empress, the first young person, protestant, or woman to get the title. They named a dessert after her: Torte a la Wieck. The Viennese tried to start a rivalry between Liszt and Wieck, crying, “Clara-war.”

But neither Clara nor Franz were interested in a rivalry.

Liszt’s Arrival in Vienna

Clara stayed longer in Vienna than planned, by almost a month, in the hopes of meeting Franz. When he came in April, Clara wrote to Robert of her reactions:

“He is an artist whom one must hear and see for oneself. I am very sorry that you have not made his acquaintance, for you would get on very well together, as he likes you very much. He rates your compositions extraordinarily highly, far above Henselt, above everything that he has come across recently. I played your Carnaval to him, and he was delighted with it. “What a mind!” he said, “that is one of the greatest works I know.” You can imagine my joy.”

Clara Wieck to Robert Schumann, April 1838

She writes Robert in the same letter of her insecurity, of feeling inferior to Franz.

“Ever since I heard and saw Liszt’s bravura, I feel like a beginner. Maybe my courage will return again – I hope it’s just a passing melancholy which I often have. I know it’s not right to be so dissatisfied, but I can’t help it. The only thought that can cheer me is to live as an amateur pianist later, to give a few lessons, and not play in public anymore.”

Clara Wieck to Robert Schumann, April 1838

Robert responds to her insecurity with some encouragement:

“Your modesty about Liszt touched me, you angelic artist, you. But remember, too, that’s he’s a man, twelve years older than you, and has lived among the greatest artists in Paris.”

Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck, May 1838

[Note: Robert was incorrect about Franz’s age. Franz was a year younger than him, born in 1811, and actually closer to Clara in age than he was.]

Wieck’s Diary Reactions to Liszt

Clara’s diary gives details about hearing Franz play. She attended his concerts. He visited her multiple times, and they played together. She writes of him four days that week.

Of their first meeting, April 12th 1838 in Vienna:

“He cannot be compared to any other player – he stands alone. He arouses terror and amazement, and is a very attractive person. His appearance at the piano, is indescribable – he is an original – he is absorbed by the piano… [ellipses in the translation]… His passion knows no bounds, not infrequently he jars on one’s sense of beauty by tearing melodies to pieces, he uses the pedal too much, thus making his works incomprehensible if not to professionals at least to amateurs. He has a great intellect, one can say of him that ‘his art is his life.'”

Clara Wieck’s diary, April 12, 1838,

Franz’s masculine style, his aggression and large gestures, were never an option to Clara as a woman.

She’d been drilled by her father about playing with grace and beauty. Her playing style aligned with Robert’s musical taste, so she couldn’t help being wowed but also jarred by Franz’s playing, as it went against everything she’d been so diligently taught.

Liszt played Weber’s Konzertstühck, (he broke 3 brass strings in the Conrad Graf, at the outset). Who can describe it? The want of tone in the bass did not hamper him in the least—he must be used to it. His movements are part of his playing, and suit him well. He draws one into him—one is absorbed in him.

Clara Wieck’s diary, May 13, 1838

The next day:

I played a gallop as a duet with him—he plays Clara’s Soirées from note, and how he plays them! If he knew how to control his strength and his fire—who could play after him? Thalberg has written the same. And where are pianos to be had which will respond to half what he can do, and wishes to do?

Clara Wieck’s diary, May 14, 1838

And here, her diary declares Liszt “full of genius.”

A concert of Liszt’s—Konzertstück by Weber on Thalberg’s English piano—Puritaner-Fantasia on the Conrad Graf—Teufelswalzer and Étude (twice) on a 2nd Graf—all three beaten to pieces. But it was all full of genius—the applause tremendous— the artist quite at his ease and very affable—everything was new, astounding—in fact—Liszt.—In the evening, Clara played him Schumann’s Carnaval, and also his own Pacini-Fantasia. He behaved as if he were playing with her, writhing his whole body about.”

Clara Wieck’s diary, May 18, 1838

The changes to the third person are NOT typos, and this reaction contrasts with a future letter to Robert (below from March 20, 1840) where she writes how Franz’s playing brought her to tears.

Clara’s father oversaw her diary and read it. The third person implies that the above entries were either written by her father, or she wrote what he dictated her to say.

Clara and Franz became mutual colleagues with a peaceful, cordial relationship.

Clara performed more Liszt in the years following their Vienna introduction. She performed his Schubert transcriptions on most of her concerts in 1839-1840. On her tour to Paris in 1839, she wrote to Robert that someone called her “the 2nd Liszt,” though she expressed no reaction.

She studied some of his other works. She hints at learning his etudes in a letter to Robert. Most likely she learned even more of Liszt.

Robert Schumann Meets Franz Liszt

On their first meeting, Franz visited Robert in Leipzig in March of 1840. Robert writes to Clara:

“I am with Liszt almost all day long. He said to me yesterday, ‘I feel as if I had known you for 20 years’—and I feel the same. We are already quite rude to each other, and I have often cause enough, for Vienna has really made him too whimsical and spoiled. I cannot put into this letter all that I have to tell you about Dresden, our first meeting there, the concert, yesterday’s railway journey here, last night’s concert, and this morning’s rehearsal for the second.

How extraordinarily he plays—boldly and wildly, and then again tenderly and ethereally! I have heard all this. But, Clärchen, this world—his world I mean—is no longer mine. Art, as you practise it, and as I do when I compose at the piano, this tender intimacy I would not give for all his splendour—and indeed there is too much tinsel about it. I will say no more today; you know what I mean.”

Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck, March 18, 1840

Clara’s reply agrees with him but also scolds him as well.

“Liszt is fortunate, for he plays at sight what we toil over and make nothing of in the end. But I quite agree with your opinion of him! Have you heard him play his Études yet? I am now studying the ninth, and think it fine, magnificent, but too dreadfully difficult. . .”

Clara Wieck to Robert Schumann, March 30, 1840

She writes of Robert’s counterpoint studies then adds at the end:

“I laughed heartily to hear that you are rude to Liszt; you think he is spoiled, but are not you also a little spoiled? I know that I spoil you.”

Clara Wieck to Robert Schumann, March 30, 1840

Robert’s next few letters about Franz’s visit are lengthy, but to show the nuances of their relationship, I’m including all of the text. Clara and Robert’s regard for Franz was never as simple as like or dislike, hatred or friendship. It was much more complex.

The seeds of Robert and Franz’s conflict were apparent during this week, even as they admired each other exceedingly. Robert wrote to Clara:

“This morning I wished that you could have heard Liszt. He really is too extraordinary. He played some of the Novelletten, a bit from the Phantasie, and the sonata, in a way that quite took hold of me. Quite different from what I imagined it, but always inspired, and with a tenderness and boldness of feeling such as he very likely does not show every day. Only Becker was present, and I believe tears stood in his eyes. I specially enjoyed the 2nd Novellette in D major; you would hardly believe what an effect it has; he is going to play it at his third concert here.

Whole books could not contain all that I have to tell you concerning the confusion here. He never gave the 2nd concert, but preferred to go to bed, and two hours before gave out that he was ill. That he is not, and was not, well I am quite ready to believe; but it was a diplomatic illness; I cannot explain it all to you. It was pleasant for me, for now I have him in bed all day, and besides myself only Mendelssohn, Hiller, and Reuss, come to see him. If only you had been there this morning, I wager it would have been with you as it was with Becker. . . . . [ellipses is in the translation]

Can you believe that at his concert he played on a Härtel piano, which he had never seen before. A thing like that pleases me more than a little, this confidence in his ten good fingers. But do not take it as a model, my Clara Wieck; keep just as you are; no-one equals you after all, and I often see your good heart in your playing. Do you hear, old girl! . . . .

Robert to Clara from Leipsic March 20, 1840.

Franz adds Robert’s letter a very generous post-script for Clara in French:

“Allow me also, my great artist, to recall fondly to your gracious remembrance.  How I regret not finding you in Leipzig!  if there was still time for me to go and shake your hand in Berlin!  but unfortunately that will hardly be possible for me.  Please, therefore, receive from a distance my most earnest wishes for your happiness and your glory — and dispose of me entirely if by happy chance I can be of any use to you at all. You know that I have followed you entirely devoted, F. Liszt”

Franz Liszt to Clara Wieck in a letter from Robert Schumann, March 20th 1840

Clara reacted to Liszt’s note and writes her emotional reaction to his playing in Vienna:

The lines from Liszt were a great surprise to me—I will write to him to-day. He must come here . . . . it is dreadful to think that I shall not hear him . . . . I can fancy how he played the 2nd Novellette—it must sound splendid. . . . —When I heard Liszt for the first time in Vienna, I hardly knew how to bear it, I sobbed aloud (it was at Graff’s), it overcame me so. Does it not seem to you too, as if he would merge himself in the music while he plays, and then again when he plays tenderly, it is divine. Ah! yes; my heart has still a lively recollection of his playing. What you say about the piano is fine, but that is how it must always be with a true genius. Beside Liszt, all virtuosos seem to me so small, even Thalberg, and as for me—I can no longer see myself. Well, I am happy all the same for I can understand music—and I value that more than all my playing, and I am blessed in you and in your music, no-one is as tender as you.

Clara to Robert, March 22, 1840

Robert tells a hilarious joke to Clara at Liszt’s expense – demonstrating the major contrast between their lifestyles and philosophies.

My dear Child, How I wished you were with me. It is a mad life here and I think you would often be frightened. Liszt came here with his head quite turned by the aristocracy, and did nothing but complain of the absence of fine dresses and of countesses and princesses, till at last I got annoyed and told him that ‘we too had our own aristocracy, i. e. 150 bookseller’s shops, 50 printing establishments, and 30 newspapers, so he had better behave himself carefully’. But he only laughed, and has not troubled himself in the least about the customs of the place, consequently all the newspapers etc. fell foul of him. Possibly that made him think of what I said about our aristocracy, for he has never been so nice as during the last two days, since he has been criticised.”

Robert to Clara, March 22, 1840

Clara at the time, 6 months before their marriage, was giving concerts in Berlin, living with her mother. She writes of wanting to visit with Robert and Franz in Leipzig:

Indeed I long intended to come with Mother, but I thought I should disturb your life with Liszt, and should not be so welcome to you as I wished to be. I think we did better to stay here.

Clara to Robert, March 24, 1840

But Robert invited her anyway:

For Liszt and I herewith invite you to Liszt’s next concert, which is next Monday (for the poor). Liszt is going to play the Hexameron, Mendelssohn’s 2nd concerto (which he has never looked at yet), 2 studies by Hiller, and the Carnaval (or at all events two thirds of it). What you have to do is to book your seat at once for Saturday, so that you may be here on Sunday (not later), then to see about your passport, then to get together all that you want for a fortnight (for I will not let you leave me sooner and will go back to Berlin with you on Palm Sunday), and above all to write to me at once, ‘Dear husband, she who comes is your obedient Clara and wife’—will you? do you wish to? You must.

Hiller gave a dinner at Aeckerlein’s; it was a great affair, and some eminent people were present. Just think how Liszt distinguished me! After he had toasted Mendelssohn, he referred to me in such kindly French words that I turned blood-red, but I was very merry afterwards, for it was a very pleasant recognition. I will tell you all about it, and about Mendelssohn’s soirée, which was also an unheard of and magnificent success, on Sunday.”

Robert to Clara, March 25, 1840

What is notable is that Franz does praise Felix Mendelssohn (though his opinion of him would change later), but shows his clear preference for Robert.

Clara went for the concert and writes extensively of her impressions:

On the 30th Liszt came to see me, having just returned from Dresden. He is so genial that no-one can help liking him. In the evening he gave his concert. He felt most at his ease in the Hexameron, one could hear and see that. He did not play the things by Mendelssohn and Hiller so freely, and it was distracting to see him look at the notes all the time. He did not play the Carnaval as I like it, and altogether he did not make the same impression on me this time that he did in Vienna. I believe it was my own fault, I had pitched my expectations too high, for he is indeed a prodigious performer, and there is no-one like him—here in Leipsic people did not realise how high Liszt really stands, the audience was far too cold for such an artist. He played his galop, by urgent request, with extraordinary brilliancy and inspiration.

The 31st. Liszt spent some hours with us this morning, and endeared himself to us still more by his refined, truly artistic disposition. His conversation is full of spirit and life; he is inclined to philander, but one forgets that entirely. . . . He played the Erlkönig, Ave Maria, an Étude of his own etc. I too, had to play something to him, but I suffered tortures while I did it. Otherwise I did not feel at all embarassed in his presence, as I had feared I should be, he behave so naturally himself that everyone must feel at ease in his company. But I could not bear to be with him for long; his restlessness, his lack of repose, his extreme vivacity, are a great strain.

Clara Wieck’s diary, March 1840

Clara betrays her complex reactions to Franz, both respect and critique. But she also betrays her youth, her insecurity, her shyness, and her introverted qualities compared to his extroverted vivacity.

The following week, after Franz’s departure, Clara got to spend days with Robert and her diary notes about her fiancée:

He showed me a number of his songs, to-day—I had not expected anything like them! My admiration for him increases with my love. Amongst those now living there is not one so musically gifted as he.

Clara Wieck’s diary, April 4, 1840

And the next month, in a letter to Robert, she writes about learning to play Bach fugues from Felix Mendelssohn:

He played in masterly fashion, and with such fire that for a few moments I really could not restrain my tears. He is the pianist whom I love best of all. . . . Apart from the pleasure, I consider that it is very instructive for me to hear him; and I believe that yesterday evening was a help to me.”

Clara to Robert, May 1840

No matter how impressed and moved and overwhelmed she was by Franz Liszt, her musical tastes always aligned more with Robert and Felix.

Clara and Franz would not see each other again until after she married Robert – when Franz once more visited them in Leipzig.

To be continued…

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 Wieck was younger than all the white dudes – yes, even younger than Mozart – when she composed, published, and premiered her Piano Concerto in A minor. She was 16 years old.

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 Wieck concerto is 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 mono-thematic and 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, a testament to the genius of brevity.

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.

[Read my newsletter review of seeing my first live performance and how the full brilliance of the work can only be appreciated with an audience.]

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

Historical Context

In 1835, at the time of its premiere, Beethoven concertos were rarely being performed, and many of Mozart’s concertos were still completely unknown. The audience preferences of the day were for flashier virtuoso works by composers most have never heard of: 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 the first concerto of Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn.

Which means—the Wieck 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 – the 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 the Wieck concerto’s influence on Liszt’s.

And then there’s the big Brahms cello solo in the 2nd piano concerto’s Andante, a direct reference to the cello solo in the Wieck concerto’s slow movement Romanze, 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 and Mendelssohn’s.

(For those to be included in the standard canon but not Clara Wieck’s… Well, I won’t get started on WHY…)

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. (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 7 times total across the continent, including in Vienna where audiences demanded 3 performances. 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 for research, please credit Sarah Fritz.

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