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.

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.