I'm a retiree from academe (University of California-Berkeley, UCLA) and the non-profit world who has come to writing late in life. My previous...read more experience as an executive and my educational degrees were in unrelated areas. I've also been an occasional columnist for various newspapers and journals.
She was a child prodigy whose European piano debut before she had even reached her teen years was greeted with critical acclaim. As she matured, she continued to receive laudatory reviews and her performances were frequently sold out. She learned to compose as well, but some of her works did not come to light until the twentieth century. She lived in an era when women, other than singers, almost never performed publicly or composed. She did both.
Her circle included many of the musical giants of the nineteenth century and she was the confidante and muse to two of them in particular: Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. She was an influential leader of the Leipzig conservatives during the musical war of the romantics that occurred in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
She was the mother of eight children, four of whom perished before her. Throughout her life she demonstrated extraordinary fortitude and strength of character in meeting the adversities that befell her. She was honored by having her image depicted on the 100 Deutschmark note as well as on the German Famous Women postal series.
Clara did not start to speak until after she was four years old, joining other such worthies as Albert Einstein and fellow pianist Arthur Rubinstein with that condition. Friedrich Wieck, her father, started teaching five-year-old Clara to play piano pieces by ear to see if deafness was causing her to be mute. Later, she said she was not “entirely cured” until she was eight years old.
Clara’s parents divorced when she was five years old and, under Saxon law, her father took custody of Clara and her four brothers. Clara’s mother, a famous singer at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, could not reconcile with Wieck because of his rigid personality and ultimately embarked on an affair with Wieck’s best friend. Clara and her mother, who remarried, only had limited contacts through letters and occasional visits after the divorce.
Friedrich Wieck had studied theology but made his career in music, and he soon developed a reputation as a stellar music teacher. From age five forward, Clara became his prize pupil and received daily lessons in piano, violin, singing, music theory, harmony, composition and counterpoint. She practiced an additional two hours a day, employing her father’s instructional techniques and methodology. Little time was left for Clara’s general education, which suffered as a result. She did not experience a normal childhood, either.
Clara’s demanding regimen paid off and by the time she was nine she had already given her first public performance. In 1830, when she was eleven, Clara made her formal debut at the prestigious Gewandhaus in Leipzig, where her mother had sung, with the orchestra under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn. She followed this with a highly praised concert tour to Paris and other European destinations.
She later played a bravura piece for Goethe, who was so taken with her and her playing that he presented her with a laudatory note and a medal engraved with his portrait. The renowned violinist, Niccolo Paganini, offered to accompany her during the Paris concert.
This was pretty heady stuff for a young girl and by now it had become clear that Clara was a phenomenally talented child prodigy. As she entered her teen years, her father made sure that Clara’s talents were front and center in the classical music world. He sometimes was quite harsh with her, but Clara accepted the harshness because she felt it improved her musicianship.
Her teen years were filled with numerous concert tours, including ones to Dresden, Paris, Berlin and Vienna. She also composed several pieces for piano during that time, the first one at age eleven, and was introduced to Chopin, Liszt and other musical luminaries. Following the highly successful recital series in Vienna, Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I named Clara “Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa,” Austria’s most esteemed musical honor.
Eight-year-old Clara and Robert Schumann had originally first met during a private performance she gave at the home of the medical director of Colditz Castle. Schumann, a law student in Heidelberg at the time, was quite taken with her playing and determined that he, too, would like to receive lessons from Friedrich Wieck. Schumann decided to give up his law studies, and he returned to Leipzig in 1830 to take up quarters in the Wieck household and become one of Wieck’s pupils. Though there was a nine-year age differential, Clara and he formed a bond that developed from their shared youthful diversions in the Wieck home.
Meanwhile, Clara’s musicianship continued to astound the music world. She was one of the first pianists to play concert pieces on the stage from memory, doing so initially when she was just thirteen years old. In addition to her growing brilliance as a concert pianist, Clara also produced several new music compositions in her early teen years. Especially notable was her Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.7, which she wrote at age fourteen and performed at age sixteen at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Felix Mendelssohn again conducting.
In 1834, Robert Schumann became secretly engaged to Ernestine von Fricken and, likely as an engagement gift, composed a set of piano pieces for her titled Carnaval. However, upon discovering she was the illegitimate daughter of a baron, he broke the engagement and transferred his amorous intentions to Clara, by now a lovely young woman with dark hair and delicate features. The fifteen-year-old Clara, too, was taken with Robert, and so began the romance that was to lead to one of the most remarkable marriages in the history of classical music.
Friedrich Wieck, however, was not at all receptive to the idea of his talented daughter marrying Schumann, whom he regarded as a mediocre composer who drank too much. In fact, Wieck had legitimate reason to be concerned, for Schumann did have a history of drinking and depression and had no visible means of supporting Clara financially. Even Clara expressed some mild reservations about Schumann’s ability to take care of her.
Wieck loathed the idea of his Clara, already a famous and accomplished pianist, marrying an impecunious composer with limited talent. For six years he waged an acrimonious battle against the union. He made outrageous allegations against Schumann’s character and threatened to shoot him. Clara and Robert were not permitted to see each other or communicate.
Wieck sent the seventeen-year-old Clara to Dresden to separate her from Schumann and would have her tour for as many as seven months at a time to keep her away from him. The couple had to write to each other, using secret code, through a friendly intermediary.
Saxon law, which required a father’s consent for a minor to marry, was on Wieck’s side. The couple applied to the Saxon Court of Appeals to marry without his consent. Wieck in turn threatened to disinherit Clara, deprive her of all her past earnings and tie the couple up in litigation.
During subsequent court matters, Wieck made several egregious financial demands as his settlement requirements to allow the marriage. After the court rejected those demands, Wieck then filed a declaration accusing Schumann of habitual drunkenness, inability to speak or write coherently, laziness, conceit, incompetence, unmanliness, musical mediocrity and much more.
While the court deliberated, Wieck embarked on a smear campaign against the couple, even including letters claiming Clara’s playing had declined. But the court ruled against Wieck and approved the marriage. Schumann then won a suit against Wieck for slander. The court awarded the couple a substantial financial judgment from Wieck and ordered him to spend 18 days in prison for unruly courtroom behavior.
Clara and Robert were finally married in 1840, one day before her twenty-first birthday.
A Remarkable Musical Partnership
Marriage proved to be a stimulus to the musical artistry of Clara and Robert. Though he was not universally acclaimed by the critics of his day, Robert Schumann’s reputation as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era is now solidly established. Meanwhile, Clara continued to receive accolades for her virtuoso concert performances throughout her lifetime. At the time, her compositions did not receive as much attention, but many of her works started to surface in the twentieth century – sometimes several decades after they were originally written.
Though the marriage created an extraordinary musical partnership, it was not without its stresses. As much as Robert admired Clara’s artistic gifts, he wanted a wife who could afford him a quiet domestic home life. She wanted to give him that life, but she did not want to give up her concert career because of the money and because she did not want to be forgotten as a performer. A concert career meant touring – something he hated.
There was also some competition between the two. During the marriage, Clara performed, composed and taught piano.Robert encouraged her composing but insisted his work took priority over hers. He resented her success, which overshadowed his reputation at the time.
Still, their support for each other mostly outweighed their differences. Clara stimulated Robert’s creativity and served as his muse, critic and confidante. She arranged many of his instrumental works for piano and performed them during her concerts. Robert encouraged Clara to compose and, as a gift, secretly published her songs for her during the first year of marriage. He also contracted with publishers on her behalf. They jointly studied symphonic scores, reviewed performances together and often shared reading of the musical literature.
But danger clouds began to appear. As time went by, Clara had to take the responsibility for financial affairs and general household matters. These became more demanding as Robert began to experience episodes of depression and instability. Such responsibilities got in the way of her practicing, performing and composing. In addition, the proximity of their pianos frequently made it impossible for them to work at home at the same time without disrupting each other’s work.
As will be seen, Clara’s family life was filled with tragedy. However, her delicate appearance concealed a steely inner reserve that enabled her to cope well with her adversities. To illustrate, during the May 1849 uprising in Dresden – while seven months pregnant – she walked into the city through a pack of armed and hostile men, rescued her children and returned through the danger zone again. She sought no help.
Four years into the marriage, Robert had a major breakdown and, upon the advice of his doctors, he and Clara moved from Leipzig to Dresden. But more and greater adversity awaited Clara. She bore eight children and had two miscarriages. Four of the children predeceased her. Her son, Ludwig, became mentally deranged and had to spend the last twenty-one years of his life in the insane asylum at Colditz.
But the greatest tragedy was the loss of Robert. Clara had become the main breadwinner in the family through her concerts and teaching and was able to command higher earnings than Robert. He had been disillusioned by his failure to find employment until he was appointed musical director in Dusseldorf. But his time there was marked by failing health and emotional instability, which compromised his abilities as a conductor. He was dismissed after three years.
In 1854, Robert had a mental collapse and attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine River. Fishermen pulled him out of the frigid waters before it was too late. He was committed to an insane asylum near Bonn, where he remained until his death at the age of forty-six in 1856. The ultimate cause of death was end-stage syphilis, which had apparently remained latent since his young manhood.
Doctors considered Robert to be dangerous, so Clara was not permitted to see him until two days before his death. She was turned away twice from the asylum, and even many of her letters did not get through because the doctors feared overexciting Robert. During the more than two years Robert was in the asylum, Clara relied on the support of violinist Joseph Joachim, singer Jenny Lind (the Swedish nightingale), Felix Mendelssohn and, above all, Johannes Brahms. She was a widow at age thirty-six.
A group of musicians tried to organize a benefit concert for Clara but she stubbornly refused, saying she could organize her own concert if it came to that. She would not accept charity. Later, she refused 10,000 marks from Brahms to help support her children. He was able to get the money to her anyway by disguising it as a contribution from a foundation.
The twenty-year-old Brahms, drop-dead handsome and a far cry from the portly, bearded composer of later years, was introduced to Robert and Clara in 1853. Brahms amazed them with his talent, so much so that Robert published a highly laudatory article about his talent in an important music journal. Fewer than six months later, Robert was to be placed in the mental institution following his failed suicide attempt.
Clara was in despair. Not only was she not permitted to visit Robert, but she was also pregnant with her eighth child. Brahms rushed to Dusseldorf to help, effectively putting his music career on hold temporarily. He was able to visit Robert several times and report back to Clara as a go-between. He moved into quarters above the Schumann apartment, took over many of the household duties, helped manage the family finances and assumed responsibility for care of the Schumann children when Clara was away. He also taught some of Clara’s students.
A very close relationship developed between Clara and Brahms, persisting for some forty years until her death in 1896. And the relationship was two-way. He relied on Clara to review and critique many of his scores. In turn, she relied on Brahms for true friendship and inspiration.
The question that is continually asked, even today, is whether their close relationship turned into an intimate sexual affair. We know from their letters that Brahms loved Clara and, though many of her letters were destroyed, there is evidence that she had deep feelings for him. However, beyond some unfounded assertions, there is nothing to show that the relationship was physically consummated.
We likely will never know why Clara and Brahms remained so close without becoming lovers. It might have been that she was fourteen years older than him, or perhaps it was to honor the treasured memory of Robert. We know, too, that Brahms, who never married, was not inclined to sex with “respectable” women, preferring prostitutes instead. Clara is known to have had a short, discreet affair after Robert’s death with a former student of Robert’s, Theodore Kirchner, but Brahms remained the most important man in her life for the next forty years.
Brahms moved away from Dusseldorf a year after Robert’s death and went on to become the third “B” of the great composer troika, following in the path of Bach and Beethoven. He is now generally regarded as one of the greatest composers ever.
Clara and her family moved to Berlin in 1857 and, as time went by, she became increasingly revered for her concertizing. She had made the transition from talented young prodigy to Madame Schumann, la grande dame. Her concert schedule was intense for more than three decades following Robert’s death and included virtually all of Europe and its major arts capitals as well as London.
Clara was especially influential in changing the kind of programs expected of concert pianists. Rather than bravura pieces that showcased the performer’s talents, she focused on serious works by such composers as Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Chopin. She was also instrumental in getting Robert Schumann’s work added to the repertoire. She promoted his music tirelessly in the face of negative criticism during a period when the only other important artist who would play his works was Franz Liszt.
Clara did almost no composing after age thirty-six though, as already noted, many of her previous compositions have shown up years after her death. She regarded herself as a performing artist, not a composer. She was quoted as saying “I once believed I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose.” It should be noted that Clara did edit Robert Schumann’s completed works.
The year 1878 was an important one for Clara. She moved to Frankfurt, where she became principal teacher of the piano at the Hoch Conservatory while still continuing with her concert career. Truly magnificent concerts were held in Leipzig and Frankfurt to commemorate the 50th jubilee of Clara’s performing career. The Gewandhaus was sumptuously decorated with green and gold wreaths and oak-leaf garlands. As Clara came onto the stage, she was literally inundated with flowers. The program consisted only of Robert Schumann’s music.
Clara’s last years were difficult. She had developed rheumatism, which often caused acute physical pain when she performed and for which opium was prescribed. She tried various cures including spas, massage and water treatments. She also developed deafness and had to use a wheelchair as well. She gave her last public concert in 1891 and died of a stroke in 1896. At Clara’s funeral, Brahms said to friends,”today I have buried the only person I have ever truly loved.” He died eleven months later.