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10 minutes reading time (1908 words)

Clara Schumann: Ambivalence and resilience

The lives of Clara and Robert Schumann make great movies.Two exist: Hollywood's "Song of Love" (1947), starring Katherine Hepburn as Clara Schumann and Paul Henreid as Robert, and the German film "Frühlingssinfonie (1983), starring Nastassja Kinski and Herbert Gronemeyer. Both films present what have become typical versions of Clara's and Robert's story. The star-crossed lovers lock in battle with Clara's over-bearing stage father, Friedrich Wieck, who opposes the marriage of their musical and physical passion for one another - he wants to keep Clara and her lucrative concert career for himself. Winning permission to marry after a year-long court fight, Clara gives up her thriving career as a concert pianist to devote herself to her struggling composer husband and bears seven children. After only sixteen years of this wedded bliss, Robert dies in an asylum, unable to deal with what he perceives is his failure as a conductor, composer, and teacher, leaving Clara a debt-ridden single mother forced to tour as a concert artist for the rest of her life. The strains of Schumann's "Traumerei" swell as the credits roll.

In truth, Clara and Robert Schumann led lives far more nuanced and complex than any novel or film could tell. Clara's story is particularly compelling. 

Childhood

The movies get part of Clara Schumann's story correct. As a child prodigy, her relationship with her father was filled with trauma and drama. Clara's life-long habit of keeping a diary began at her father's insistence when she was seven years old. Wieck himself wrote or supervised all of the entries until she was nineteen. To modern minds this intrusion into his daughter's inner life sounds controlling at best, damaging at worst.

This entry, written by Wieck and copied by the nine-year-old Clara in October of 1828, reveals the tenor of their relationship. 

 My father, who has long hoped for a change in my behavior, remarked again today that I am just as lazy, careless, disorderly, stubborn, disobedient, etc. as ever, and that I show all these traits in my piano playing and in my studies. . .. 1 

As a boarder in the Wieck house beginning in the same year as the above entry, Schumann knew first-hand the realities of Clara's days.

 Yesterday I saw a scene whose impression will be indelible. Meister Raro [Wieck} is surely a wicked man. Alwin [Clara's brother} had not played well: "You wretch, you wretch–is this the pleasure you give your father?" - - - how he threw him on the floor, pulled him by the hair, trembled and staggered, sat still to rest and gain strengtfor new feats, could barely stand on his legs anymore and had to throw his prey down . . . I can barely describe it - and to all this- Zilia [Clara} smiled and calmly sat herself down at the piano with a Weber sonata. Am I among humans?2 

While parents and teachers today would recoil at the use of such coercion and threats with a child, some of Wieck's techniques worked. The diary keeping, which often included the task of copying Wieck's correspondence related to the arrangement of Clara's concerts, gave the young prodigy a practical education. Throughout her long concert career, Clara kept up a prodigious correspondence with musicians and students, knew how to choose programs that would appeal to audiences without compromising her musical values, understood the monetary value of her talent, and knew how to invest and control her finances-all thanks to her father. While Wieck demanded and oversaw daily practice, he encouraged short sessions of focused work and also required Clara to walk for nearly an hour every day and to give herself adequate rest before concerts, life-long habits that physically sustained her through many difficult years. 

Friedrich Wieck was renowned as a piano teacher in his day. Both Clara and Robert benefited from his tutelage. Many of his pedagogical philosophies, newer at the time, remain in use today. Beginning at the age of six, Wieck taught his students three times a week. He introduced the first pieces by ear with careful attention to tone, rhythm, and song-like phrasing. He insisted on complete mastery of all scales and primary chords and the ability to improvise in all keys before he taugh this students how to read music. He also firmly believed that all virtuosos should know how to teach.3 

Wieck's openness to new music, such as young Robert's compositions, was informed by sound judgment. He disliked merely virtuosic pieces, although he wasn't above programming a work or two in that vein to appease an audience. Clara absorbed this excellent musical taste and, as a concert artist, transformed once eclectic concerts, typically filled with instrumental transcriptions and vocal selections, into the solo recitals of serious piano music still familiar today. She rarely performed the popular showpieces of the time such as Henselt's Etudes, Thalberg's Fantasies, or works by Liszt. Instead she not only introduced and championed many of Schumann's and Brahms's works, but also performed more serious compositions: Bach fugues, Beethoven sonatas, and works by Chopin and Mendelssohn. 

Marriage

While the movies portray Clara as eager to marry Robert and furious with her father for his opposition to the union, a letter she wrote to Robert during the year 1839-1840 reveals a struggle she also waged with herself as an artist: 

 I have also considered the future very seriously and I must tell you one thing. cannot be yours before circumstances have entirely altered I don't want horses, I don't want diamonds, I am happy to be yours, but I want to lead life free of worry and I can see that I would be unhappy ifI could not always be working with my art. ... Must I bury my art now? Love is all very beautiful, but, but - 4 

Clara's and Robert's marriage in 1840 brought some of the bliss they anticipated. Together they"... analyzed Bach fugues. . . read Shakespeare and Goethe . . .and composed." Many of Robert's musical themes were related to Clara and hers to him; both of them enjoyed the creative energy they unleashed in one another. Robert was a doting father in an era when many men saw their children only at holidays and birthdays, and Clara and Robert enjoyed a domestic peace Clara had never known as the daughter of the peripatetic Wieck.5 

Yet Robert, during his periods of depression, depended on his wife for emotional, artistic, and financial support. During one of Clara's concert tours in 1845, Robert wrote to her: 

 I had a bad night. I always feel so strained but this always gets better when you are with me again....I cannot tolerate anything. All the pains and joys of life disconcert me ... I cannot work at all; all peace has left me and I search for it everywhere.6 

Because their house had room for only one piano, Clara could not practice or compose during Robert's creative, perhaps manic, periods. In January 1841, she wrote in their marriage diary: 

 Robert has been very cold toward me the last few days. It is true that there may well be a happy basis for it, and no one can appreciate all he undertakes as much as I do, yet at times this coldness, which I have not deserved in the least, hurts me.7 

In February, Robert responded:

 I could never say enough about all the love shown to me with such a willing heart by Clara, during this time [while he was composing the First Symphony]. I could have sought among millions [without finding one] who, like her, treats me with so much forbearance and consideration. 8

Despite Robert's seeming understanding, the following June Clara wrote: 

My piano playing is falling behind. This always happens when Robert is composing. There is not even one little hour to be found in the whole day for my self! If only I don't fall too far behind....9 

Concert career

 

The movies have it all wrong; Clara Schumann did not give up her concert career. In fact, she lived life at a breathtaking pace in her attempt to balance her career with her life as a wife and mother. She gave her first concert as Clara Schumann five months before the birth of their first child, and she continued to tour the continent with Robert during additional births, miscarriages, and the death of their son, Emil. Even accounting for the fact that wet nurses, nannies, cooks, and relatives helped with the raising of the Schumann children, few women- or men- today would be able to keep such a schedule.

By 1853 Robert's deteriorating mental and physical condition left him unable to maintain his position as music director of the Dusseldorf orchestra; he attempted suicide in February of 1854 and was hospitalized at Endenich. The following June, the Schumann's last child, Felix was born. W ith Robert in the hospital, faced with the need to pay his hospital bills and support her seven children, Clara toured almost non-stop from October 1854 up until Robert's death on July 29, 1856. 10

In the 40 years following Robert's death, Clara did as the movies show; she toured incessantly as a concert pianist. In her lifetime, for example, she performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus 74 times- 28 more appearances than the next most featured artist, Carl Reineke.11 Yet she performed for reasons larger than her need for an income. When Brahms urged her to give up her strenuous concertizing, Clara responded: 

You regard it only as a way to earn money. I do not. I feel a calling to reproduce great works, above all, those of Robert, as long as I have the strength to do so.12 

Clara Schumann survived and thrived as a woman and an artist despite the many challenges and sorrows her father and her husband brought to her life. Both men augmented her talents with their gifts and enervated her spirit with their demons. Unlike the Clara in the movies, the real-life woman neither only hated her father nor only loved her husband. Her relationships with both men were filled with ambivalence and her life with them required her to find resilience within herself again and again. In the end, her art sustained her. 

 Art is a beautiful gift. What is more beautiful than to clothe one's feeling in sound, what a comfort in sad hours, what a pleasure, what a wonderful feeling, to provide an hour of happiness to others. And what a sublime feeling to pursue art so that one gives one's life for it.13 

Notes:

1 Nancy B. Reich, Clara Schumann, The Artist and the Woman (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press Revised Edition 2001), p. 33.

2 Ibid., p.34. 

3 Ibid., pp.281-2.

4 Ibid., p. 59.

5 Ibid., p. 85.

6 Ibid., p.106.

7 Ibid., p.85. 

8 Ibid., p.86.

9 Ibid.,p. 88.

10 Ibid., pp. xxi-xxiii.

11 Ibid., p. 277.

12 Ibid.,p.278.

13 Ibid.,p.58.

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