Archive for January, 2011

Clara Schumann: pianist and woman extraordinary – Part II

In Part I we related how Clara, taught by her father Friedrich Wieck, became a renowned concert pianist, and eventually married Robert Schumann one day before her 21st birthday.

Married life
The marriage (in September 1840) of Robert and Clara Schumann started off as bliss, after the travails and separation imposed by the opposition of Clara’s father.  They lived music together, and Robert began composing orchestral works, considered essential if a composer were to be taken seriously. When he composed, he was absorbed and distant, and Clara could not play the piano when he was in the house, because it disturbed him. Moreover, Robert had his vision of her as housewife and mother, and deeply appreciated her support and care. A year after they wed, their first child Marie was born.

But Clara was concerned she would be forgotten as an artist, and she discovered she could arrange domestic affairs with servants (who were not expensive) and a babá to look after the baby; moreover, they needed the money. So in 1841 she was giving concerts now as Clara Schumann, and performing her husband’s music, usually giving the first public performance. When the concerts involved extended travel, though, a new problem arose: the custom of the time indicated Robert should go with her, but he was unhappy and could not work away from his home. Also, since his music was still not known, Clara was treated as the star and he often ignored. But when they tried Clara going by herself (which from her previous experience she was quite able to do) and Robert staying in Leipzig – then he became miserable, missed her terribly, and couldn’t do productive work.

In 1843 a second daughter was born. When Clara was home, Robert worked well and intensely – this was his year for writing chamber music. In 1844 they made a tour of Russia, where Clara had triumph after triumph – but Robert suffered being in the role of husband to a famous concert artist much in demand. He fell into depression, which became a full-blown crisis after they returned to Germany.

Another 10 years together
They moved to Dresden at end 1844, and stayed there until 1850. The years were highly productive for Robert – he wrote many of his major works – but the exalted creative periods were interspersed with times of depression, when he had no hang-ups about letting everyone know about his troubles. Clara never wavered in her support for him: her concert career slowed, she ran the household, and gave birth to Julie, Emil (who survived only 16 months), Ludwig and Ferdinand. But whenever she played, her concerts were events. She played her husband’s works, and worked on arrangements of them; she gave piano lessons, and composed her own music. There was even an uprising in Dresden in 1849, when the city was surrounded by armed rebels: first she took her husband and eldest daughter to a refuge outside the city, then came back through the lines and patrols and took all her other children and servants out too. Clara’s father offered reconciliation, and Clara took up again an uneasy relationship with him. Throughout these years, Clara devoted herself to her husband, making his music known, looking after the children and the household, assuming the management of most of their affairs.

Here is the Scherzo in C minor Op.14 which Clara wrote in 1844:

And perhaps appropriately, a collection of pieces written 1841-45 and published in 1845 is called Pièces Fugitives Op.15  (the pianist is Konstanze Eickhorst):
Un poco agitato
Andante expressivo

In 1850 they moved to Dusseldorf, where Robert took up the position of musical director of the Municipal Orchestra and Chorus – but it didn’t take long to become apparent that he was completely unsuited to such a role; Clara accompanied the Chorus rehearsals, often showing on the piano the interpretation he found difficult to express, but gradually his responsibilities were given to others, although they continued to pay his salary. But he continued to compose – and this is how Clara reacted to his Trio op.110 in 1851:

“How wonderful is such an incessantly creative, powerful spirit; how I glory in the fortune that heaven has granted me sufficient intellect and feeling to comprehend this heart and soul so completely….”.

But in September 1853 the “happiest wife on earth” found she was pregnant again and that a long-awaited concert trip to England would have to be postponed once more.

About that time the Schumanns received a visit from a young man from Hamburg (recommended to them by violinist Joseph Joachim) who had brought some of his own piano compositions. After hearing him a little, Robert rushed out and called in Clara, and by the time Johannes Brahms took his leave that day, they were both ecstatic about his talent, and the fresh new paths opened by his powerful music. He stayed a month, during which they gave him access to their musical scores, their library, and their friends. When he left for Leipzig, he went armed with their recommendations to the musical circles there.

But by February 1854, Robert’s auditory hallucinations, headaches and severe depressions had intensified to where he could no longer trust his own behaviour, and he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. Rescued, his family was shielded from further contact with him, and he was interned in an asylum, where he died in 1856.

Carrying on alone
Despite the terrible loss of the presence of her adored husband, who Clara had always defended and supported, she had to carry on as the family breadwinner, as shortly her seventh child was born. She received many offers of support – most of which she refused – but her solace and support was in making music, with Brahms, Joachim, and Dusseldorf musicians Dietrich and Grimm. By end 1854, she was making intensive concert tours in Germany, and in subsequent years she made tours throughout Europe and to England. During this time, Brahms was living in the Schumann home, keeping the books, helping with the children, supporting Clara in every way – and on her part, she turned to him always for solace and advice.

In our time, it is perhaps hard to imagine, but there is no evidence that their intense personal and artistic relationship ever was manifest in physical intimacy. A letter from Brahms to Joachim in June 1854:

“I often have to restrain myself forcibly from just quietly putting my arm around her and even – I don’t know, it seems to me so natural that she could not misunderstand. I think I can no longer love an unmarried girl – at least I have quite forgotten about them. They but promise heaven while Clara shows it revealed to us.”

But after Schumann’s death in 1856, it seems they reached the decision to part – Brahms’s letters slowly changed from impatient passion to a warm, resigned love – and they became reconciled to living apart and pursuing separate careers.

And Clara carried on….

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