German composer, pianist and piano teacher Clara Josephine Schumann was regarded as one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. However, all too often, she is only referred to in relation to her husband, famed composer Robert Schumann, and via speculation that her close friendship with composer Johannes Brahms was actually an affair.
A child prodigy who toured as a pianist from the age of 11, Clara Schumann enjoyed a 61-year concert career and is credited with helping to change piano recitals from virtuosic displays to programs of serious work. For instance, she was one of the first pianists to perform from memory, which later became standard for those giving concerts.
A mother to eight, Schumann’s creative output was hampered somewhat by family duties. But in spite of Schumann’s many responsibilities, fellow romantic pianist Edvard Grieg described her as “one of the most soulful and famous pianists of the day.”
Here’s Clara Schumann’s remarkable story.
Her parents were musicians
Clara Josephine Wieck was born on 13 September 1819 to musicians Friedrich and Mariane Tromlitz. Her father was a piano store owner, piano teacher and music essayist, while her mother was a famous singer who performed weekly soprano solos in Leipzig.
Her parents divorced in 1825. Mariane moved to Berlin, and Clara stayed with her father, which limited contact with her mother to letters and occasional visits only.
Clara’s father planned his daughter’s life very precisely. She started piano lessons with her mother aged four, then began taking daily hour-long lessons from her father after her parents separated. She studied the piano, violin, singing, theory, harmony, composition and counterpoint, and was required to practice for two hours every day. This intense study was largely at the expense of the rest of her education, which was limited to religion and languages.
She quickly became a star
Wieck made her official debut in Leipzig on 28 October 1828, aged nine. The same year, she met Robert Schumann, another gifted young pianist who was invited to the musical evenings that Wieck attended.
Schumann was so impressed by Clara that he asked his mother for permission to stop studying law so that he could begin tuition with her father. While he took the lessons, he rented a room in the Wieck household and stayed for around a year.
From September 1831 to April 1832, Clara, accompanied by her father, toured many European cities. While she gained some repute, her tour in Paris was particularly poorly attended because many had fled the city because of a cholera outbreak. However, the tour marked her transition from a child prodigy to a young woman performer.
In 1837 and 1838, an 18-year-old Clara performed a series of recitals in Vienna. She performed to packed audiences and received high praise. On 15 March 1838, she was awarded the ‘Royal and Imperial Austrian Chamber Virtuoso’, Austria’s highest musical honour.
Her father opposed her marriage to Robert Schumann
In 1837, 18-year-old Clara accepted a marriage proposal from Robert Schumann, who was 9 years her senior. Clara’s father Friedrich strongly opposed the marriage and refused to grant his permission. Robert and Clara went to court to sue him, which was successful, and the couple were married on 12 September 1840, the day before Clara’s 21st birthday.
From then on, the couple kept a joint diary that detailed their personal and musical life together. The diary demonstrates Clara’s loyal devotion to her husband and their desire to help each other flourish artistically.
Over the course of their marriage, the couple had 8 children, 4 of whom died before Clara. Clara hired a housekeeper and cook to keep the house in order while she was away on long tours, and took charge of general household affairs and finances. She continued to tour and give concerts, becoming the main breadwinner of the family. After her husband was institutionalised, Clara became the sole earner.
She collaborated with Brahms and Joachim
Clara toured extensively, and in her recitals, promoted contemporary composers such as her husband Robert and a young Johannes Brahms, with whom both she and her husband Robert developed a lifelong personal and professional attachment. Robert published an article that highly praised Brahms, while Clara wrote in the couple’s diary that Brahms “seemed as if sent straight from God.”
During Robert Schumann’s years confined to an asylum, Brahms and Clara’s friendship intensified. Brahms’ letters to Clara indicate that he felt very strongly towards her, and their relationship has been interpreted as somewhere between love and friendship. Brahms always maintained the upmost respect for Clara, both as a friend and musician.
The Schumanns first met violinist Joseph Joachim in 1844 when he was aged just 14. Clara and Joachim later became key collaborators, giving over 238 concerts in Germany and Britain, which was more than any other artist. The pair were particularly well known for their playing of Beethoven’s violin sonatas.
She composed little after her husband died
Robert had a mental breakdown in 1854 and attempted suicide. At his own request, he was placed in an asylum where he remained for two years. Though Clara was not allowed to visit him, Brahms visited him regularly. When it was apparent that Robert was close to death, she was finally allowed to see him. He appeared to recognise her, but could only speak a few words. He died on 29 July 1856, aged 46.
Though Clara was supported by her circle of friends, due to family and financial worries she composed little in the years after Robert’s death. She left behind some 23 published works in total which included works for orchestra, chamber music, songs and character pieces. She also edited the collected edition of her husband’s works.
She became a teacher in later life
In 1878, she was appointed the first piano teacher at the new Conservatoire in Frankfurt. She was the only female teacher in the faculty. Her fame attracted students from abroad. She mainly taught young women who were already playing at an advanced level, while her two daughters gave lessons to beginners. She held the teaching post until 1892 and was highly respected for her innovative teaching methods.
She died in 1896
Clara suffered a stroke in March 1896, and died two months later on 20 May, aged 76. She was buried next to her husband in Bonn at Alter Friedhof, in accordance with her own wishes.
Though Clara was enormously famous during her life, after she died, most of her music was forgotten. It was rarely played and was increasingly overshadowed by her husband’s body of work. It was only in the 1970s that there was a resurgence in interest in her compositions, and today they are increasingly performed and recorded.