» Archive for April, 2011

Clara Schumann: pianist and woman extraordinary – Part III

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 by Martin Hester

In Part II we told how, after the internment of her beloved husband Robert in 1854, Clara Schumann took up again her career as a concert pianist, when she was 35. In the first years, she counted with the close friendship and support of Johannes Brahms, but it seems that after 1856, they resolved to live apart and pursue separate careers, though they always corresponded with one another.

The later years
Clara continued concert tours for the next 34 years! In 1857 she settled the family (seven children) in Berlin, and in those days when railway networks were still being built, a tour would typically last for two months. On tour, she gave detailed indications by letter on how the children were to be looked after and educated. When home, she would more directly run the household, but also had to make arrangements for the next tour.
In 1878, when she was 59, she celebrated 50 years as a concert artist, moved the family to Frankfurt, and began work as the editor of Robert Schumann´s collected works. Ten years later, she made her last concert tour – to England, where she was held in great esteem – and in 1891 she gave her last concert (at 72). Despite Clara Schumann´s modesty, simplicity and unpretentiousness, she was regarded by her children, friends and audiences as a person of stature – respected and admired wherever she went. As mother, teacher, and pianist she rarely lost her dignity and self-possession; she dressed in dark colours, and was of sober and earnest demeanour. The portrait in this text shows her at 59, her life writ in her face. She continued playing, teaching, improvising, editing, and revelling in music until she died from a stroke in 1896.

The children
Even bearing in mind the precarious treatments available at that time for both physical and mental illness, Clara still had a large share of troubles with her children. In the final tally: Marie – the eldest, devoted her life to mother and family and their artistic legacy; Elise – always more independent, looked after herself, married an American, and in the final years was a close support to her mother; Julie – fragile and loving, married an Italian Count (much to Brahms’ disappointment) but died at 27; Ludwig – unable to live a normal life, was confined to an asylum in Colditz Castle from age 22 to his death at 51; Ferdinand – war-wounded, became addicted to morphine. When he died at 42 Clara assumed responsibility for his six children; Eugenie – who was educated largely away from home, joined her mother’s household from age 20 to 40 (1891), acting as assistant hostess, companion and teacher. She later became a piano teacher in England. Felix – the most gifted, born after his father’s internment, was very similar to his father in talent and inclination – but was never encouraged by his mother. He struggled with tuberculosis from 15 until his death at 25.

Her legacy
Clara as a young girl and through her teens achieved fame as a great pianist, who not only played with strength and assurance, but also interpreted with wonderful artistry. Her playing was respected by Chopin – with whom she had little contact, but whose music always featured in her recitals. In the Leipzig years, Felix Mendelssohn was a friend and admirer, and she played often with him conducting. Liszt was also a charming admirer, and sometimes they played together – but in later years she came to dislike the pyrotechnics of his music and playing. In her middle years as devoted wife, Clara’s concerts were eagerly awaited, and she never disappointed. She moved away from the showy pieces then common and made concerts closer to the classical/romantic repertoire that we know today. Apart from premiering Schumann’s music, she did the same with Brahms’ – in both cases helping their fame.
In later years, there was no doubting the status and authority of her playing. She played from memory (then not common), with impeccable accuracy, and we can imagine the melody singing out through the wealth of surrounding harmonies (typical of Schumann’s music) and the nuances she found in Chopin’s and Brahms’. She never tried to conquer by coquetry or display (rather different from today’s pop singers!) but made the deepest interpretation of the music as she felt the composer wished it. She was often referred to as the “priestess” for the undeniable authority and nobility of her playing.
For both Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, she was the muse who inspired them, and for whom they wrote some of their best music. Brahms always asked her opinion as soon as he finished a work. In later years she worked hard as editor and reviser of Schumann’s music, contributing to the accuracy and completeness of published works.
As if this were not enough, she was a composer of works for the piano, for voice and for chamber groups, which were warmly appreciated by Schumann, and which are seen now as competent and innovative. However, after 1855 (at 36) she ceased composing in view of everything else that was going on in her life.
Clara was a devoted teacher, and being accepted to her classes was the highest ambition of aspiring pianists throughout Europe. There were usually two lessons a week with her, with other students listening in, and her daughters helped teach younger students. She was demanding and disciplined, paying scrupulous attention to details, placing emphasis on expression and tone. When her students started careers, she was equally supporting and devoted…… the legacy of her approach comes down to us today.

But if we can wonder at the seeming superhuman powers of Clara Schumann – such achievement in the face of such adversity – perhaps the answer is in her response to music. Listen to how she wrote to Brahms after he had advised her in 1861 to try out two Mozart piano concertos previously unknown to her –
“…..both of which I played with indescribable delight. My first reaction was to embrace you in thankfulness for providing me with this pleasure. What music is this – those adagios! I could not restrain tears as I played them both. The Adagio of the A major was particularly affecting – heavenly bliss streams through one in that work…….”

So the ability to experience music and to capture the intentions of the composer, allied with her pianistic prowess, was both metier and support to her. Taking this to the world merited the devotion of her life.

Here are some more of Clara´s own piano compositions:
Her Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann was composed for Robert’s birthday in June 1853  (the pianist is Konstanze Eickhorst):

The Romance in A minor Op21 (also from 1853) is tinged with a prophetic sadness:

In May 1855, for Brahms’  22nd birthday (while Robert was interned) Clara wrote her last composition, the Romance in B minor Op post

Good Listening!