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Learn About the German Composer-Pianist, Clara Schumann's Works and Life

Clara Schumann: Overview 

  • Born: 1819 - Leipzig, Germany
  • Died: 1896 - Bonn, Germany
  • Historical Period: The Romantic era 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, opera, songs, choral 

Young composer Clara Schumann at a piano

Clara Josephine Wieck Schumann (pronounced as “KLAH-rah VEEK”) was a leading pianist and music composer of the Romantic era. She was born in Germany in 1819 and is also the wife of renowned composer Robert Schumann. Clara passed away in 1896 from a stroke, five years after performing her last public concert in 1891. 

Clara Schumann is accredited as being a part of history’s most eminent and romantic musical partnership with Robert Schumann. Their remarkable musical journey can be explored via various exchanges of compositions, ideas, and love letters. However, this union was equally tinged with tragedy. Robert battled through mental illness, while eventually succumbing to an asylum.

Clara Schumann: The Ingenious Prodigy

The Prodigy

She started training at the age of five under the tutelage of her father, an eminent piano pedagogue named Friedrich Wieck. However, young Clara was already suffering from a condition and only uttered her first words after age four, and had difficulty understanding her surroundings. She portrayed similar disinterest in everything around her, which wasn’t entirely cured until she was eight years old. This condition of delayed speech and virtuosity is prominent in pianist Arthur Rubenstein and other illustrious personalities, like mathematician Julia Robinson, physicist Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. 

Clara had almost spent her entire childhood studying piano. She proved to be a brilliant student and debuted with her first concert at the age of nine. By the time she completed puberty, all of Europe’s musical heads were aware of her scintillating performances. She was also turning heads close to home. On November 8, 1830, she performed “Musikalische Akademie" in her first public concert, collaborating with “Gewandhausorchester Leipzig”. The gig was conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. 

Meeting Robert

In 1830, her life took a turn when a boarding student named Robert Schumann enrolled himself at the Wieck household to study music. A talented and innovative composer, he soon fell in love with Clara. However, his teacher who also would-be-father-in-law was aggressively against their relationship, as he felt it would hamper his daughter’s career prospects. As Clara could not legally get married without her father’s consent, the couple resorted to the court of law, filing a lawsuit. They finally got married in 1840. She continued performing and composing simultaneously while raising seven children. Unfortunately, the eighth child passed away in infancy. Her popularity soared in Europe as she accompanied her husband to various concerts. 

In 1853, Johannes Brahms, aged 20, met the couple and developed a close friendship with Clara Schumann which was prominent until her death. He helped Clara cope with Robert’s illness, and their relationship was often borderline with love and affection. Clara also met violinist Joseph Joachim in 1853, who went on to become her frequent performance partner. Clara is highly credited for her sophisticated presentation of works by stalwart composers including Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, as well as her contemporaries J. Brahms and Robert Schumann. 

Clara also had to take care of the financial situation of her family, as Robert was inclined to regular bounds of depression and mental instability. She continued performing to aid their finances as well as from a mental desire to get recognition for her work. Though her husband admired her talent, he was often reluctant to adhere to her whims of traveling and touring. He wanted a traditional wife, which was in direct conflict to the life of a performer. He also preferred sitting and composing at home to touring. 

After Robert passed away, Clara devoted herself principally to interpreting her husband’s works, though in 1856, her renditions were critically disapproved in England. However, she returned to perform in London in 1865 and continued her annual performance until 1882. She also performed there from 1885 to 1888. In 1878, she was appointed as a piano teacher at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main. She performed the role until 1892, contributing significantly to improving and revolutionizing modern piano playing techniques. 

The Music

After the age of 36, Clara stopped composing as she started considering herself predominantly as a performing artist. This was an act of defiance against the prevalent negativity surrounding a woman’s ability to compose. She believed in her talents but was also aware of the negative vibes that society portrayed on women who composed. She gave in to it and was borderline sarcastic about it. She was also influenced by the intimidating flair of her husband as well her close friend J. Brahms, in addition to the added stress of her own fame. She composed the “Three Romances” in 1853, on the eve of her husband’s birthday. She dedicated the critically acclaimed piece to Joseph Joachim, who performed it for George V of Hanover. 

Her Best Works                                   

Liebesfrühling (Love’s Spring), 1841

She collaborated with her husband to create Liebesfrühling (Love’s Spring) in 1841. Robert contributed nine songs in the piece to Clara’s three. The latter received more public accreditation for their expressive simplicity.  

Piano Concerto, 1836

She finished constructing this piece at a tender age of 16. It’s famous for its bold first movement that explored the virtuosic range of a piano. The piece becomes more mature as it advances, flourishing the aesthetics of her romanticism, finishing with the optimism of youth. 

Piano Trio in G Minor, 1846

This is an expansion of Piano Concerto, constructed 10 years after the original. The work exudes an outflow of character, covering both the dancing motif in the 2nd movement to the stately waltz of Andante. The finale combines a dynamic journey between light and darkness. 

Drei Romanzen, 1853

This is considered as one of Clara’s best compositions. All the movements are demonstrated in her original voice. The Andante molto has a charming languidness with an underlying sense of urgency. Her piece reaches its equilibrium in the final movement, with its contrasting and graceful lyrical charm.  

A Romantic Composer

Clara Wieck Schumann was part of the Romantic era, which spanned from 1820-1900. The artists of this era often accredited music as a more powerful communicator of emotion compared to lyrics or words. Clara’s work resembles that romanticism, exploring avenues and emotions that were strictly personalized. She composed solo piano pieces and string instruments for her own concert and orchestra. She also worked exponentially on domestic music, pieces that common people can perform at their homes.  

Besides her eminence as a distinguished performer of almost all versions of pianoforte music, Clara was an equally competent composer. She was the Chief Editor of Robert Schumann’s works for Breitkopf & Hartel. Her remains are preserved at Bonn's Alter Friedhof old cemetery.


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