Archive for November, 2010

Clara Schumann: pianist and woman extraordinary – Part I

Robert Schumann: Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 54
Stephen Bishop, piano
BBC Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Sir Colin Davis

At a time when Brazil elects the first woman Head of State, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on the ascent of the woman as professional – and in the realm of music, the outstanding figure from the 19th century was Clara Schumann (née Wieck). Early on recognized as an outstanding concert pianist, she was also a composer in her own right – but little recognized for it; she married a very gifted composer at 21, and was a widow with seven children at 37. Nevertheless, she managed the manifold problems of career, household, children and grandchildren, was a devoted teacher, a lifelong friend to Brahms, and the main promoter and editor of Robert Schumann’s works – over an influential career which spanned some 60 years.

Upbringing: becoming an artist
Clara Josephine Wieck was born in Leipzig in 1819. Her father Friedrich Wieck had started a new career there in 1815 (the year of Waterloo!) as a piano teacher, and as owner of a piano store and music shop. He chose well the time and place, for Leipzig was a metropolis with a strong commercial tradition, but one in which musicians had a favoured status. In 1816, Wieck married his 19-year-old student, Marianne Tromlitz, who was a fine pianist and excellent soprano. Clara was the second of five children, but shortly after the birth of the last in 1824, Marianne separated from Wieck. As from age 5, Clara was brought up in her father’s house, where he used all his skills and contacts to train her to be a great artist. Curiously, Clara did not speak, even single words, until she was over 4 years old, though she had no difficulty in memorizing and playing music. Her training at first did not include reading music, but concentrated on playing by ear, learning chords and progressions, composing and improvising. She developed her posture at the keyboard (with all the arm and wrist relaxed, strength coming from the back muscles), and her father emphasized musical phrasing, and producing a singing tone (he even required his students to take singing lessons). By the time she was seven she was at the piano three hours a day – one hour for a lesson, and two for practice. Then there was the daily walk (of several hours – a practice she kept until the end of her life), while schooling with special tutors was squeezed into the remaining hours.

The Wieck’s became the favourite gathering-place for musicians and visitors in Leipzig, and by the time she was 9 she was taking a full part in the musical gatherings.

The battle for Clara
Robert Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau, some 40 miles south of Leipzig, a latecomer into a well-to-do family of booksellers, writers, publishers. His father died when he was 16, and his mother decided to prepare him for the law, studying in Leipzig – but there he spent all his time with music, listening, studying, and playing the piano. Handsome, charming, gifted, finally at 20 he appealed to his mother to let him devote himself to music; his mother in turn appealed to Friedrich Wieck, who said that if Robert could discipline himself and follow his teaching, in 3 years he could turn him into one of the greatest pianists alive. So in 1830 (he 20, Clara 11) he came to live in the Wieck household, where after studying during the day, at night he would lead Clara and her younger brothers in fun and games, bringing sunshine to the disciplined household.

When Clara was 12, her father took her on her first tour, travelling by stage coach, initially in Germany but ending up in Paris. She received glowing reviews everywhere she went – “under her fingers the piano takes on colour and life” – and her diary (in which her father also wrote) provides details of all this. They stayed away for nine months! But then the paths ran parallel – Clara continued her preparation for a concert career with her father; Schumann lived in rooms with friends and founded a musical journal. But shortly after Clara’s 16th birthday, Robert and Clara admitted their passion for one another, had their first kiss, and met whenever they could.

Here are some of Clara’s compositions from that period – Soirées Musicales Op6. From the names, you would think they were Chopin – and the style is highly reminiscent.  But Clara´s understanding and command of the piano is evident… here the pianist is Konstanze Eickhorst:


Although they hoped that Wieck would bless their relationship, they were taken aback when he irrupted in fury – and in 1836 began the long battle for Clara. Wieck forbade Clara to see Robert, took here away on concert tours – and for nearly a year and a half they did not see each other or communicate in any way. She did concert tours with her father, where she achieved extraordinary success – while he threw himself into composing (and an active social life). Some of Schumann’s most impassioned piano works date from this period.

A stay in Vienna in the winter of 1837-38 was a triumph for Clara – her playing created a sensation, box offices were stormed for tickets to her concerts, restaurants served “torte à la Wieck” and the money rolled in. Clara received the highest honour possible from the Empress.

Here is the Scherzo in D minor Op.10 from that time:

Finally in late 1838 Schumann and Clara abandoned hope of getting Wieck’s permission to marry, and started a lawsuit  – they both had to appear in person in Leipzig – but Clara found that her father’s house was no longer open to her – she was locked out, together with all her possessions, including her clothing, music, piano, and even her childhood diary.

Now began a difficult year – Clara went to live with her mother in Berlin, while Robert and Wieck battled in the courts. As their separation continued into 1840; Robert’s longing was expressed in some wonderful songs (nearly 150 all told!). But in August 1840 the Leipzig court ruled entirely in their favour, and they married in September.

Married life and music
Finally Robert and Clara began a happily married life – in which there was not only physical attraction and mutual emotional dependence: their musical and creative needs complemented each other. Clara kept a marriage diary, Robert kept the accounts, and their first child Marie was born in 1841. Robert’s fame as a composer grew, and encouraged by Clara, he began to enlarge the scope of his composing, from piano and chamber pieces to large orchestral works.

The first movement of his Piano Concerto in A minor was written at that time, but was not premiered by Clara in concert until 1845, after he had added another two movements. Nevertheless, we can regard it as a reflection of the happiness and progress of the Schumanns at that time, after such difficulties – and we can imagine we are hearing her play it!

But that is only the end of the beginning as far as Clara’s life is concerned…..

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