The amazing legacy of Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann.

Clara Wieck was born into a middle class family in Leipzig, Germany in 1819. Fairly quickly her talent as a piano prodigy was recognized by her teacher and father and she was soon performing publicly to much acclaim.

In 1830 she would meet the love of her life Robert Schumann when he started taking piano lessons from her father Friedrich. Clara’s father tried very hard to prevent Clara’s marriage to Schumann, even going to court. But he failed and the couple married in 1840.

Clara would go on to have eight children with Schumann who died in 1856. She returned to her career as a performer because she had children to provide for. She would die in 1896.

She was also a composer of note and although she produced only a small number of works, comparatively speaking, she was definitely a talent.

These days, in an era when there is a strong push for the fair representation of music composed by women in the seasons of music ensembles, she is an inspiration and a lesson.

Julie Pedneault-Deslaurier is a professor of music at uOttawa.

For University of Ottawa associate professor of music theory Julie Pedneault-Deslauriers, Clara Schumann is a major figure.

She has made a study of Clara’s music and is in the process of writing a book about about her compositions. This week Pedneault-Deslauriers will discuss the careers of Schumann and Emilie Mayer in a pair of pre-concert talks at the National Arts Centre. That will be followed by a performance by the NAC Orchestra and the Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero of Clara’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7. The concert will also feature Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97, ‘Rhenish’. At the same time the orchestra is recording this music with Montero this week. 

“In her day, Clara was first and foremost a piano virtuoso. That is how people knew her. They knew her before they knew Robert Schumann because she was famous as a girl.

“She was a child prodigy and she performed across Europe. She thought of herself as a pianist. As a pianist she premiered a lot of Robert Schumann’s work. She was really instrumental in making his music known.”

She was also important in changing concert culture back in the day, Pedneault-Deslauriers said. She was one of the first to play without a score, having memorized the piece. She also was one of the first to introduce composers such as Beethoven and Bach into her programs.

She also composed. This was typical of the time. She was trained in composition by her father.

As a child prodigy she was the kind of performer who would attract the curious, much as Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn would.

Even though she was a young girl in a time of patriarchy, she was accorded respect because of her amazing skill, Pedneault-Deslauriers said.

Still, “in the reviews of her concerts, her gender almost always comes up. People will say they are surprised by the virile energy of her compositions. If they don’t like the music, they’d say it was a bit sentimental, but what could one expect from a woman, that sort of thing. That was always part of the reception her work received.

“It was very rare to hear music by a woman composer. There were other female virtuosos, but it was still exceptional to have a young girl and woman stepping out of the private sphere and giving concerts.”

As her career progressed, she gained more acclaim and respect. She played with all the big names of the day. The only pianist considered her equal was Liszt, Pedneault-Deslauriers said.

“She didn’t like playing with Liszt because they had very different styles. Liszt was flamboyant. He would break pianos on stage. She thought he was all show.” Clara, on the other hand, was more restrained, Pedneault-Deslauriers said.

After her marriage to Schumann, Clara’s career was more and more connected to her husband’s music. And after his death she continued to build his legacy. She edited his works with her close friend Johannes Brahms.

Pedneault-Deslauriers said that Clara wasn’t overtaken by Robert’s career, but the fact that the couple had eight children did have an impact. Even so she did play concerts, even while pregnant. But managing a household of that size was a large task.

He focussed on his music. In a diary, Clara did complain about the fact that she had less time to practice piano and to compose. “I think she did feel that she couldn’t feed her art the way she would have liked.”

After Robert Schumann died, Pedneault-Deslauriers said, Clara essentially stopped composing. There were only a very few works published after his death. But she did resume her performing career.

“It was her salvation really. Robert had died and they had lost a child when he was one years old and several of her children pre-deceased her and one was placed in an asylum. So she had her fair share of tragedy.”

One of the great mysteries of her life is the nature of her relationship with Brahms.

In 1853, the young Brahms showed up at the Schumanns’ door seeking to meet Robert, who saw Brahms’ music and said “I have to go get my wife,” which Pedneault-Deslauriers said, showed how important her opinion was to Robert.

A year later Robert tried to kill himself and was committed to an asylum.

Were Brahms and Clara lovers? Pedneault-Deslauriers said that “we know they had strong feelings for one another” especially just after Robert’s death. But then they went their separate ways. They did maintain a strong friendship and they helped each other’s career, but whether it was ever more than that, Pedneault-Deslauriers said, no one really knows.

Pedneault-Deslauriers’s interest in Clara flows in part from her interest in musical form and Clara’s music was interesting. She also wanted to inject more about female composers in her teaching. Her research is focussed on delving deeply into Clara’s music and what makes is unique.

She said that contrary to some opinion, she believes Clara’s songs and some of her piano music is very complex.

Was she stifled by the men around her?

“She was and she wasn’t. She had lots of self doubt as a composer. She wasn’t sure women should compose at all but she wanted to do it. As a performer she knew she was good.

“She was supported by the men around her. For example, Robert tried to get her to publish.”

For female composers of today, who often struggle for recognition and respect, Pedneault-Deslauriers believes that Clara Schumann is a role model.

“She was a mother of eight. She was a performer, a composer, an editor, a pedagogue. In a way she was a very modern woman.”

Today the culture is changing but still there is a wealth of unsung work by women composers, Pedneault-Deslauriers said.

In the 19th century and earlier, women’s works were not published and talented women were performing and composing in private.

Pedneault-Deslauriers said that an example of someone of Clara’s ability in the 19th century would be Fanny Mendelssohn who was part of a rich family. Women of that class were discouraged from working. Clara was from a middle class background where the pressure to remain in private was not as pervasive, Pedneault-Deslauriers said.

“Fanny was, by all accounts, just as gifted as Felix (Mendelssohn her brother).” She did eventually publish her work but she also died very young.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.