Clara Schumann ( Clara Josephine Wieck; 13 September 1819 – 20 May 1896) was a German musician and composer, considered one of the most distinguished composers and pianists of the Romantic era. She exerted her influence over a 61-year concert career, changing the format and repertoire of the piano recital, while also having composed a body of work including various piano concertos, chamber works, and choral pieces. She was married to composer Robert Schumann, and together they encouraged and maintained a close relationship with Johannes Brahms. She was the first to perform publicly any work by Brahms, notably the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. She was also an influential piano educator at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt.
Clara Josephine Wieck was born in Leipzig on 13 September 1819 to Friedrich Wieck and Marianne Wieck (née Tromlitz). Marianne Tromlitz was a famous singer in Leipzig at the time and was singing solos on a weekly basis at the well-known Gewandhaus in Leipzig. The differences between her parents were irreconcilable, in large part due to her father’s unyielding nature. After an affair between Clara’s mother and Adolph Bargiel, her father’s friend, the Wiecks divorced in 1824 and Marianne married Bargiel. Five-year-old Clara remained with her father while Marianne and Bargiel eventually moved to Berlin, limiting contact between Clara and her mother to written letters and an occasional visit.
From an early age, Clara’s career and life were planned down to the smallest detail by her father. She received daily one-hour lessons (in piano, violin, singing, theory, harmony, composition, and counterpoint) and had to practice for two hours, using the teaching methods her father had developed, largely at the expense of her broader general education, although she still studied religion and languages under her father’s control. In 1828, at the age of nine, Clara Wieck performed at the Leipzig home of Dr. Ernst Carus, director of the mental hospital at Colditz Castle. There, she met another gifted young pianist who had been invited to the musical evening, Robert Schumann, who was nine years older. Schumann admired Clara’s playing so much that he asked permission from his mother to stop studying law, which had never interested him much, and take music lessons with Clara’s father. While taking lessons, he rented a room in the Wieck household, staying about a year. He would sometimes dress up as a ghost and scare Clara, and this created a bond.
In 1830, at the age of eleven, Clara left on a concert tour to Paris via other European cities, accompanied by her father. She gave her first solo concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. In Weimar, she performed a bravura piece by Henri Herz for Goethe, who presented her with a medal with his portrait and a written note saying: “For the gifted artist Clara Wieck”. During that tour, Niccolò Paganini was in Paris, and he offered to appear with her. However, her Paris recital was poorly attended, as many people had fled the city due to an outbreak of cholera.
An anonymous music critic, describing Clara Wieck’s 1837–1838 Vienna recitals, said: “The appearance of this artist can be regarded as epoch-making… In her creative hands, the most ordinary passage, the most routine motive acquires a significant meaning, a colour, which only those with the most consummate artistry can give.”
From December 1837 to April 1838, Clara Wieck performed a series of recitals in Vienna when she was 18. Franz Grillparzer, Austria’s leading dramatic poet, wrote a poem entitled “Clara Wieck and Beethoven” after hearing Wieck perform the Appassionata sonata during one of these recitals. Wieck performed to sell-out crowds and laudatory critical reviews; Benedict Randhartinger, a friend of Franz Schubert, gave Wieck an autographed copy of Schubert’s Erlkönig, inscribing it “To the celebrated artist, Clara Wieck.” Frédéric Chopin described her playing to Franz Liszt, who came to hear one of Wieck’s concerts and subsequently “praised her extravagantly in a letter that was published in the Parisian Revue et Gazette Musicale and later, in translation, in the Leipzig journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.” On 15 March, Wieck was named a Königliche und Kaiserliche Kammervirtuosin (“Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso”), Austria’s highest musical honor.
Marriage to Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann was a little more than nine years older than Clara. He moved into the Wieck household as a piano student of Friedrich’s by the end of 1830 when she was only 11 and he was 20. In 1837 when she was 18, he proposed to her and she accepted. Then Robert Wieck was strongly opposed to the marriage, as he did not much approve of Robert, and refused his permission. Robert and Clara had to go to court and sue Friedrich. The judge’s decision was to allow the marriage, which notably took place on September 12, 1840, the day before Clara’s 21st birthday, when she would have attained what would come to be known as majority status. They maintained a joint musical diary.
Meeting Joseph Joachim
She and Robert first met violinist Joseph Joachim in November 1844, when he was just 14 years old. A year later she wrote in her diary that in a concert on November 11, 1845 “little Joachim was very much liked. He played a new violin concerto of Mendelssohn’s, which is said to be wonderful”. In May 1853 they heard Joachim play the solo part in Beethoven’s violin concerto. Clara wrote that he played “with a finish, a depth of poetic feeling, his whole soul in every note, so ideally, that I have never heard violin-playing like it, and I can truly say that I have never received so indelible an impression from any virtuoso.” From that time there was a friendship between Clara and Joachim, which “for more than forty years never failed Clara in things great or small, never wavered in its loyalty.”
Over her career, Clara gave “over 238” concerts with Joachim in Germany and Britain, “more than with any other artist.” “The two were particularly noted for their playing of Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano.”
Brahms coming on the scene
Also in the spring of 1853, the then unknown 20-year-old Brahms met Joachim (only a few years older, but by then an acknowledged virtuoso) in Hanover, made a very favorable impression on him, and got from him a letter of introduction to Robert Schumann. Brahms went and presented himself at the Schumanns’ home in Düsseldorf. He played some of his own piano solo compositions. Both Schumanns were deeply impressed. Robert published an article highly lauding Brahms. Clara wrote in the diary that Brahms “seemed as if sent straight from God.” During Robert’s last years of life confined to an asylum , Brahms was a strong presence in Clara’s life, and a series of letters were shared between the two, known to contain Brahms’ strong feelings for Clara. Their relationship has been interpreted as bordering between friendship and love.
Robert’s confinement and death
Robert attempted suicide in February 1854 and then was committed to an asylum for the last two years of his life. In March 1854, Brahms, Joachim, Albert Dietrich, and Julius Otto Grimm spent time with Clara, playing music for or with her to divert her mind from the tragedy. Robert died July 29, 1856.
Tours, often to Britain, often with Joachim
Clara first went to England in April 1856, while Robert was still living (but unable to travel). She was invited to play in a London Philharmonic Society concert by conductor William Sterndale Bennett, a good friend of Robert’s. Clara was displeased with the little time spent on rehearsals: “They call it a rehearsal here, if a piece is played through once.” She wrote that musical “artists” in England “allow themselves to be treated as inferiors.” She was happy, though, to hear the cellist Alfredo Piatti play with “a tone, a bravura, a certainty, such as I never heard before.” In May 1856 she played Robert’s Piano Concerto in A minor with the New Philharmonic Society conducted by a Dr. Wylde, who Clara said had “led a dreadful rehearsal” and “could not grasp the rhythm of the last movement.” Still, she returned to London the following year and performed in Britain in over 15 years of her career.
In October–November 1857 Clara and Joachim took a recital tour together to Dresden and Leipzig. St. James’s Hall, London, which opened in 1858, hosted a series of “Popular Concerts” of chamber music, of which programs from 1867 through 1904 are preserved. Joachim visited London annually beginning in 1866. Clara also spent a few months of many years in London and participated in Popular Concerts with Joachim and Piatti. Most often on the same concert programmes would be second violinist Joseph Ries and violist J. B. Zerbini. George Bernard Shaw, the leading playwright and also a music critic, wrote that the Popular Concerts helped greatly to spread and enlighten musical taste in England. Playing chamber music bypassed the issues Clara had with English orchestra conductors.
In January 1867 Clara and Joachim took a tour to Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland, along with Piatti, Ries, and Zerbini, two English sisters named Pyne, one a singer, and a Mr. Saunders who managed all the arrangements. Clara was accompanied by her oldest daughter Marie, who wrote from Manchester to her friend Rosalie Leser that in Edinburgh Clara “was received with tempestuous applause and had to give an encore, so had Joachim. Piatti, too, is always tremendously liked.” Marie also wrote that “For the longer journeys we had a saloon car, comfortably furnished with arm-chairs and sofas… the journey … was very comfortable.” On this occasion, the musicians were not “treated as inferiors”!
During her lifetime, Clara Schumann was an internationally renowned concert pianist. Over 1,300 concert programs from Schumann’s performances throughout Europe between 1831 through 1889 have been preserved. She championed the works of her husband, Robert Schumann, and other contemporaries Johannes Brahms, Frédéric Chopin, and Felix Mendelssohn.
In her early years, her repertoire, selected by her father, was showy and popular and in the style common to the time, with works by Kalkbrenner, Henselt, Thalberg, Herz, Pixis, Czerny, and her own compositions. In 1835, she performed her Piano Concerto in A minor with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, led by Felix Mendelssohn. Her only other piano concerto, a Konzersatz in F minor (1847), was left unfinished. In 1841, she premiered Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in Dresden.
Her busiest years as a performer were between 1856 and 1873, after Robert Schumann’s death. During this period, she experienced success as a performer in Great Britain, where her 1865 performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 was met “with enormous applause.” As a chamber musician, she often concertized with violinist Joseph Joachim and played songs frequently on recitals in the later years of her career.
Later career; views of some other composers
She was initially interested in the works of Liszt, but later developed an outright hostility to him. She ceased to play any of his works; she suppressed her husband’s dedication to Liszt of his Fantasie in C major when she published Schumann’s complete works, and she refused to attend a Beethoven centenary festival in Vienna in 1870 when she heard that Liszt and Richard Wagner would be participating.
She was particularly scathing of Wagner. Of Tannhäuser, she said that he “wears himself out in atrocities”, described Lohengrin as “horrible”, and she wrote that Tristan und Isolde was “the most repugnant thing she had ever seen or heard in all my life”. She also wrote that Wagner had spoken of Robert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms in a “scornful” way.
She held Anton Bruckner, whose 7th Symphony she h, in very low esteem. She wrote to Brahms, describing it as “a horrible piece”. She was more impressed with Richard Strauss’s early Symphony in F minor in 1887.
Brahms played his Symphony No.1 for her before its premiere. She gave some advice about the Adagio and he took it. She wrote to him and expressed her appreciation, but mentioned her dissatisfaction with the ending of the third and fourth movements.
In July 1875 she consulted a doctor about an arm injury. Having massaged the arm, the doctor advised her to practice only for one hour a day. She rested for eighteen months before returning to the concert stage in March 1875. She was not fully recovered, however, and experienced more neuralgia in her arm again in May, reporting that she “could not write on account of her arm” in 1876. Despite her injury, she still performed actively in the 1870s and gave a concert tour in the United States in 1874. She performed Beethoven’s concerto with conductor Woldemar Bargiel, her half-brother by her mother’s second marriage, and had tremendous success in Berlin in 1877. She also had concert engagements in England and Holland.
In 1878 she was appointed teacher of the piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, a post she held until 1892 and in which she contributed greatly to the improvement of modern piano playing technique.
Clara Schumann played her last public concert in Frankfurt on 12 March 1891. The last work she played was Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, in the piano-duet version. Her partner was James Kwast.
She suffered a stroke on 26 March 1896, dying on 20 May at age 76. She is buried at Bonn’s Alter Friedhof with her husband.
Robert Schumann gave Clara Schumann a diary book on the day of their marriage. Robert Schumann wrote the first diary entry to indicate that this diary should act as an autobiography of the Schumann family’s personal lives, especially for the Schumann couple, and their desires and accomplishments in the arts. It also functioned as a record of Robert and Clara’s artistic endeavors and growth; she fully accepted the diary in her many written entries.This diary resembled Clara Schumann’s love for Robert with absolute loyalty, as a desire to combine two lives into one artistically, although this life-long goal may have contained risks.
During their lives, Clara and Robert remained as joint partners in both family life and their careers, with periodic vague divisions between family life and career. Clara premiered many works by Robert, from solo piano works to the piano versions of the introductions of Robert’s orchestral works.
Clara Schumann often took charge of finances and general household affairs. Part of her responsibility included making money, which she did by giving concerts, although she continued to play throughout her life not only for the income, but because she was a concert artist by training and by nature. However, the huge burden of duties in family lives continued to increase over time and had narrowed her ability as an artist. As Robert Schumann’s wife, she was limited in her explorations and displays of her artistic abilities, while her husband flourished in his artistic development.
She was the main breadwinner for her family, and the sole one after Robert was hospitalized and then died, through giving concerts and teaching, and she did most of the work of organizing her own concert tours. She hired a housekeeper and a cook to keep house while she was away on her long tours. She refused to accept charity when a group of musicians offered to put on a benefit concert for her.
Clara and Robert had eight children:
During the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849, she famously walked into the city through the front lines, defying a pack of armed men who confronted her, rescued her children, then walked back out of the city through the dangerous areas again. On the evening of May 3, Robert and Clara heard that the revolution against the Saxon king Friedrich Augustus II for not accepting the “constitution for a German Confederation” had arrived in Dresden. Most of the family left and hid in a “neighbourhood security brigade”, and on May 7 Clara bravely went back to Dresden on foot to rescue her 3 children who had been left with a maid (she was also pregnant at this time).
Clara’s life was punctuated by tragedy. In 1854, her husband Robert had a mental collapse, attempted suicide, and was committed, at his request, to an insane asylum for the last two years of his life. Her eldest son Ludwig suffered from mental illness like his father and, in her words, had eventually to be “buried alive” in an institution. She herself became deaf in later life and she often needed a wheelchair.
Not only did her husband predecease her, but also four of her children. Clara’s first son Emil died in infancy in 1847, aged only one. Her daughter Julie died in 1872, leaving two small children aged only 2 and 7; Clara took on the responsibility of raising her grandchildren. In 1879, her son Felix died, aged 25. Clara was also required to raise Felix’s children as he was no longer married. In 1891, her son Ferdinand died, at the age of 42.
Clara and Robert’s oldest child, their daughter, Marie, was of great support and help to Clara. When she was of age, she took over the position of household cook. It was Marie who dissuaded Clara from continuing to burn letters she had written to Brahms and he had returned, requesting that she destroy them. Another daughter, Eugenie, who had been too young when he died to remember her father, wrote a book on the Schumanns and Brahms.
As part of the broad musical education given to her by her father, Clara Wieck learned to compose, and from childhood to middle age she produced a good body of work. Clara wrote that “composing gives me great pleasure… there is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound”. At age fourteen she wrote her piano concerto, with some help from Robert Schumann, and performed it at age sixteen at the Leipzig Gewandhaus with Mendelssohn conducting.
As she grew older, however, she became more preoccupied with other responsibilities in life and found it hard to compose regularly, writing, “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” Robert also expressed concern about the effect on Clara’s composing output:
Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.
In fact, Clara’s compositional output decreased notably after she reached the age of thirty-six. The only completed compositions that exist from later in her life do not have opus numbers and are: Vorspiele (Improvisations), 1895, and cadenzas written to two concertos, one by Mozart and the other by Beethoven. Today her compositions are increasingly performed and recorded. Her works include songs, piano pieces, a piano concerto, a piano trio, choral pieces, and three Romances for violin and piano. Inspired by her husband’s birthday, the three Romances were composed in 1853 and dedicated to Joseph Joachim, who performed them for George V of Hanover. He declared them a “marvellous, heavenly pleasure”.
Clara was the authoritative editor, aided by Brahms, of her husband’s works for the publishing firm of Breitkopf & Härtel.
Impact during her lifetime
Although for many years after her death Clara Schumann was not widely recognized as a composer, as a pianist she made an impression which lasts until today. She was one of the first pianists to perform from memory, making that the standard for concertizing. Trained by her father to play by ear and to memorize, she gave public performances from memory as early as age thirteen, a fact noted as something exceptional by her reviewers.
She was also instrumental in changing the kind of programs expected of concert pianists. In her early career, before her marriage to Robert, she played what was then customary, mainly bravura pieces designed to showcase the artist’s technique, often in the form of arrangements or variations on popular themes from operas, written by virtuosos such as Thalberg, Herz, or Henselt. And, as it was also customary to play one’s own compositions, she included at least one of her own works in every program, works such as her Variations on a Theme by Bellini (Op. 8) and her popular Scherzo (Op. 10). However, as she became a more independent artist, her repertoire contained mainly music by leading composers.
Clara Schumann’s influence also spread through her teaching, which emphasized a singing tone and expression, with technique entirely subordinated to the intentions of the composer. One of her students, Mathilde Verne, carried her teaching to England where she taught, among others, Solomon; while another of her students, Carl Friedberg, carried the tradition to the Juilliard School in America, where his students included Malcolm Frager and Bruce Hungerford.
Clara was also instrumental in getting the works of Robert Schumann recognized, appreciated and added to the repertoire. She promoted him tirelessly, beginning when his music was unknown or disliked, when the only other important figure in music to play Schumann occasionally was Liszt, and continuing until the end of her long career
Clara Schumann has been depicted on screen numerous times. Possibly the best known is by Katharine Hepburn in the 1947 film Song of Love, in which Paul Henreid played Robert Schumann and Robert Walker starred as a young Johannes Brahms.
In 1954 Loretta Young portrayed her on The Loretta Young Show: The Clara Schumann Story in Season 1, Episode 26 (first aired 21 March 1954) in which she supports the composing career of her husband Robert, played by George Nader, alongside Loretta Young, Shelley Fabares and Carleton G. Young.
She was also portrayed by Martina Gedeck in the 2008 Franco-German-Hungarian film Geliebte Clara.
Banknote and concert hall
An image of Clara Schumann, from an 1835 lithograph by Andreas Staub, was featured on the 100 Deutsche Mark banknote from 2 January 1989 until the adoption of the euro, on 1 January 2002. The back of the banknote shows a grand piano she played, and the exterior of the Hoch Conservatory, where she taught. The great hall of the conservatory’s new building is named after her.