Clara Schumann’s Love of Schubert

(Originally published in The Schubertian, October 2021)

It’s easy to overlook how important Franz Schubert’s music was in the life and career of Clara Schumann.

She’s most famous for championing the works of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and for being the first to cement Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, and Chopin in the piano recital repertoire. But Schubert’s sonatas, chamber music, and lieder were essential parts of her repertoire, too, and his music held great personal significance to her.

Before getting into the dry repertoire lists, dates, and performances, let’s start with Clara’s love of Schubert from her earliest years. Her compositions both in piano and lieder bear the marks and influence of her Schubert studies. Clara’s diaries and letters show how the works enhanced her close relationships with Robert and Johannes, both intellectually and philosophically.

In short, Schubert was among the indispensable composers in Clara’s life.

Clara Wieck’s First Schubert

In 1837, the eighteen-year-old piano virtuosa, Clara Wieck, made a concert tour to Vienna, the first of many in her sixty-year career. She was an immediate sensation with the Viennese. They went mad for her, rioting for her concert tickets, and the proverbial “Clara War” began—“Who is better, Clara Wieck or Franz Liszt?” They even named a desert after her, torte á la Wieck. The empress dubbed her Honorary Court Virtuosa, and the music publisher Diabelli dedicated Schubert’s Grand Duo, (the Sonata in C-major for piano four-hands, D. 812) to Clara Wieck.

Clara Wieck’s name centered in a larger font than the composer shows how great Clara’s fame was – how her name sold music better than Schubert’s – and also how respect for Schubert among the public had not yet reached what we know today.

The dedication meant much to young Clara, even in her teenage years she understood the significance of such an honor. At age nine, she’d performed some of his polonaises and a piano arrangement of Die Forelle on her first concerts. The influence of his piano works shows in her earliest piano compositions, especially her waltzes of opus two, published at age thirteen.

From Vienna, after the dedication of the duo, she wrote to her then fiancée, Robert, somewhat disconcerted by her intense reaction:

“This dedication moved me very much, and I hardly know why. It’s really strange how sensitive I am now; sometimes I think that I am too sentimental.”

Robert wrote back, reassuringly, “You’re right about the dedication of Schubert’s duet…it seems gentle and poetic to me.” He then beseeched her to visit the graves of Schubert and Beethoven before leaving Vienna, and she picked violets from their graves and enclosed them in her letter to him. “I felt joy, awe, and melancholy…all the while thinking ardently of you.” She wrote out the inscription on Schubert’s grave for Robert:

“Something beautiful hath laid to rest here,

And even more beautiful hopes: Franz Schubert.”

Clara received one more gift in Vienna. A friend of the late composer bestowed on her an autograph copy of Schubert’s Erlkönig. She added it to her repertoire that year and made liberal reference to it in her lied composition, Die Lorelei, nearly ten years later.

A year later, when Clara left on her next tour, Robert’s farewell letter recalls Winterreise:

“My best wishes for your winter trip; I hope it will be very Schubertian. Adieu, dear Klara, darling fiancée. Don’t forget your, Robert.”

Schubert’s C major Symphony had special significance as well, since Robert discovered the manuscript with Ferdinand Schubert in the late composer’s old Vienna flat. While Clara gave concerts in Paris, Robert heard it for the first time in Leipzig with Mendelssohn conducting. Robert wrote her his first famous description of its “heavenly length:”

“Klara, I was blissfully happy today…If only you had been there! It’s impossible to describe [the symphony] to you… the length, the heavenly length… I was very happy and didn’t wish for anything more than for you to be my wife and for me to be able to write such symphonies too.”

Clara lamented from Paris, “The Symphony by Schubert must be unique! And I couldn’t hear it!” But she would get her wish. Two months after they were married in November of 1840, they heard it together for the first time once more in Leipzig.

Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s lieder were among Clara’s favorite works by the virtuoso. They became staples of her repertoire in 1839, and she performed his solo piano arrangement of Erlkönig, Ave Maria, and Lob der Tränen on nearly every concert for over a year. She gave them over a dozen performances at soirees and concerts in Berlin and Paris and other cities in between.

The Parisians particularly liked a program where she played Lob der Tränen so well that they called her “the second Liszt.”

In September of 1840, on her last concert as Clara Wieck, two weeks before her wedding, she played Erlkönig and Ave Maria in Weimar.

During those last years of solo tours before marriage, Clara also began including Schubert’s chamber music on her private soirées—his trios in B-flat major and E-flat major—a genre of his work she would indulge in privately her whole life.

Clara Schumann’s Artistic Growth with Schubert

During her marriage, Clara’s concert tours decreased significantly, so she added little Schubert to her performance repertoire. She did compose most of her songs though, between 1841-1853, and Schubert’s influence on her lieder is vividly apparent.

Her high standards and artistic opinions show in a diary reaction to her friend, French composer and mezzo-soprano, Pauline Viardot’s performance of Gretchen am Spinnrade.

“She lacks deeper emotion, an intimate understanding of the text… She performed more for its effect on the audience than with that inner glow expressed so magnificently by the words as well as Schubert’s music… with this German lied she left me unsatisfied.”

Clara admired Viardot highly as composer, musician, and singer throughout their long lives, despite her opinions of her Schubert interpretation.

In 1854, her husband’s health declined rapidly. He wrote down a hallucinated melody from the spirit of Schubert, and shortly after, he was committed to a hospital.

In his absence, she sought comfort in music, including Schubert’s piano sonatas. Her diary notes that the Schumanns’ new friend, twenty-one-year-old Johannes Brahms played her Schubert’s A-minor sonata from memory one day in May. It made her appreciate Johannes’s young talent.

“I am filled more and more with admiration for the great spirit which inhabits so small a body.” 

The following week she writes an amusing comment on Johannes’s tempos in Schubert:

“He played Schubert’s wonderful B-flat major sonata whose first and second movements are particularly delightful… Brahms plays Schubert wonderfully especially those movements in which he cannot exaggerate the tempo which he is fond of doing.”

Clara took up major concert tours once more that same year, since her seven children were now solely dependent on her for financial support in her husband’s absence. She also played Robert’s work on all her concerts to ensure his musical legacy lived on.

Fortuitously, her travels introduced her to yet little-known lieder singer (who would dominate the performance of the genre in the later nineteenth century), Julius Stockhausen, and brought him into the Schumann musical circle. Together, they gave among the first complete performances of Die Schöne Müllerin in 1854 and of Winterreise in 1862. She introduced him to Johannes so the two men gave more concerts of Schubert’s complete song cycles while Clara toured elsewhere.

In Vienna again in 1856, Clara spoke in her diary of a mournful visit to the graves of Schubert and Beethoven, thinking of her husband, now dying in the hospital. But she also thought of Johannes who had yet to visit Vienna, and she wrote:

“How I wished he were at my side. I sent him some leaves from the graves.”

Robert’s death did not diminish Clara’s love of Schubert. In fact, it increased, as she added more of his repertoire in her three more decades of concert tours.

She and Johannes also took great joy together in his works, playing them for sheer pleasure. In Hamburg in 1860, she visited him and wrote:

“Johannes made my stay very pleasant by his kindness and his often beautiful playing. He played a great deal of Schubert.”

Then again in 1862, she wrote to her dear friend and collaborative partner, the violinist, Josef Joachim, about a deep study into Schubert’s chamber music. It likely aided Johannes’s composing, since at the time he was writing more chamber music.

“It was a great joy to me that Johannes came and played all these many [new compositions] to me, as well as playing [four-hands] Schubert’s D-minor quartet, C-major quintet, and octet, with me several times.”

The following year, Clara wrote in a letter to Johannes, gratitude for his sending her some Schubert that was yet unknown to her:

“My warm thanks for everything. I rejoiced over the Schubert waltzes, and quite delighted me. It must sound wonderful. You can imagine which passages especially pleased me.”

Clara also left behind a great pedagogical legacy, including Schubert in the works she taught to her many piano students. His works are included in some archived editions of her teaching music.

What pieces by Schubert did Clara Schumann play?

The following is the complete list of Schubert music copied from the repertoire list of Berthold Litzmann’s original biography of 1908, Clara Schumann: An Artist’s Life based on material found in letters and diaries. The list is compiled from the collection of over 1,200 programs saved by Clara from her sixty-year performing career.

It is by no means exhaustive as she didn’t save programs from every concert. It does not include works performed at soirees or parties, or any works studied at home, which accounts for the lack of chamber music on the list, even though she played much of it. But it is a wonderful glimpse into how Clara gradually increased the amount of Schubert over the decades.

The list only shows the date of first performances. We can infer that most works were likely performed many more times in the succeeding decades. (The two sonatas are unfortunately lacking opus numbers on the list.)

Schubert Repertoire

1828 Die Forelle arr. for pianoforte

1838 Schubert-Liszt Erlkönig – Ave Maria – Lob der Tränen

1846 Schubert-Liszt Ständchen

1856 Moments musicaux, Op. 94 and Op. 96

1856 Rondo brilliant, Op. 70

1865 Allegretto, G-major, Op. 78

1866 Sonata in B-flat major

1867 Scherzo from octet, arr. for piano

1868 Impromptu in F minor, Op. 142

1868 Impromptu in C minor Op. 90

1868 Sonata in A minor

1868 Ländler, Op. 171

1873 Phantasie in G-major, Op. 78


Litzmann, Berthold, Clara Schumann: An Artist’s Life Based on Material Found in Diaries and Letters, vol. 1-2. tr. abridged Hadow, Grace E.

Reich, Nancy B., Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman: Revised Edition.

Schumann, Robert, Schumann, Clara, The Marriage Diaries of Robert and Clara Schumann: From Their Wedding Day through the Russia Trip. ed. Nauhaus, Gerd. tr. Ostwald, Peter.

Schumann, Clara, Schumann, Robert, The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann: Critical Editions, vol. 1-2. ed. Weissweiler, Eva. tr. Fritsch, Hildegard, Crawford, Ronald L.

How Clara Schumann Changed History

Why is Clara Schumann important?

Clara Schumann helped define 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 made popular by her. Her judgement curated which composers deserved to be in the canon. Without her, it’s doubtful we’d know the names of some of the most famous canon composers we take for granted.

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.

Commitment to the composers intentions was made popular by Clara. She was the first to play full concerts from memory and founded the traditions of the piano concert as we know it.

Some of the greatest composers in history, who we assume have always been unforgettable, would likely be forgotten if not for her tireless 60-year promotion – mainly Schumann, Brahms, and Chopin. The piano works of Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn probably never would’ve made it into the concert hall, let alone permanent repertoire status. [See her 1,200 plus catalogue of programs at the Schumann Haus Zwickau, 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 Era. Both the composers 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 made them both into revered household names through tireless promotion over decades. Their writing some of the greatest symphonies in history probably never would’ve happened without her compositional teaching, coaching, and influence in their lives. [See their decades of correspondence and diaries.]

Clara Wieck, badass tastemaker composer and virtuoso, 1840, age 20

Her artistry shaped a movement.

During the height of Clara Schumann’s career, abstract music solely for music’s sake without story or title – the sonata, the concerto, the symphony, the prelude & fugue – was in mortal danger. It was floundering in popularity and fading from fashion under the programmatic waves toward “the music of the future” in the 1850s-60s. She kept a movement alive which after the early deaths of Mendelssohn and Robert was threatened with extinction. She was an undeniable force of cultural change.

Though Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner would deny it and rarely mention her name, her powerful opposition to their movement was inescapable in the so-called “War of the Romantics.” She swayed public taste not just in concert halls but in palaces, parlors, and elite soirée across the continent. The weight she carried with her fame and the respect she commanded with her unparalleled artistry affected the course of a culture war.

Her compositions left an indelible mark.

ALL her contemporaries knew her works. And though they denied it to the grave, her music influenced them all. Hints they 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 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. Her raison d’etre was working for composers and works NOT yet popularized. Today she’d still be making revolutionary moves for composers in danger of being forgotten. She advocated for both living and historic composers whose music was threatened with obscurity.

And so should we.

Read the detailed history of Clara Wieck-Schumann’s life.

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.