Clara Schumann (née Clara Josephine Wieck; 13 September 1819 – 20 May 1896) was a German pianist and composer, and one of the most distinguished figures of the Romantic Era.
One of the most soulful and famous pianists of the day.”
– Edvard Grieg
During her time, great female musicians were rare. Womens’ “careers” were defined as and expected to be wives and mothers, not musicians, composers, and performers. Over the course of Clara’s 61-year career, she changed the format and repertoire of the piano recital and the tastes of the listening public, while at the same time caring for her husband, children, grandchildren, organizing many of her concert tours, teaching and composing.
Clara’s parents divorced in 1824 and at age 5, her mother remarried and Clara remained with her father, Friederich Wieck. Clara began studying piano at a very early age. She was a child prodigy whose training was micromanaged by her father. Her practice at the time was based on the teaching methods that Wieck developed.
At the age of eight, Clara met Robert Schumann, who was 9 years older than her. They were both performing piano at a musical event in a prominent physician’s home. Schumann later rented a room in Friedrich Wieck’s home so that he could take lessons from Wieck.
Clara traveled to Paris and some other European cities in 1830, performing in a concert tour. When she was 18, she performed recitals in Vienna. Franz Grillparzer, Austria’s leading dramatic poet, wrote a poem entitled “Clara Wieck and Beethoven” after hearing Wieck perform the Appassionata sonata during one of these recitals.
The appearance of this artist can be regarded as epoch-making…. In her creative hands, the most ordinary passage, the most routine motive acquires a significant meaning, a colour, which only those with the most consummate artistry can give.”
– An anonymous music critic, writing of Clara Wieck’s 1837–1838 Vienna recitals
Over time, Robert Schumann and Clara became friends and fell in love. Ultimately, Schumann asked Friederich Wieck for permission to marry Clara. At the time, German law required the permission of the bride’s father in order to marry. Wieck felt that since Clara was such a successful and well-known prodigy and Robert Schumann still an unknown that he was “beneath” Clara. Schumann and Clara fought her father, ultimately going to the court system to gain permission to marry. Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck were married on September 12, 1840, one day before Clara turned 21. Four years later, Schumann had a serious breakdown – the first in what was a long-term fight with mental health issues.
Clara was key in changing the kinds of programs expected of concert pianists. Initially, she performed pieces that showcased the artist’s technique, including, as was customary, at least one of her works in each program. As her independence as an artist grew, her repertoire mainly contained music by leading composers.
Clara and Robert had eight children together. As her husband’s mental health state deteriorated, she increasingly became the main breadwinner of her family, and also largely ran her household and finances, as well as most of the organizing of her own concert tours. Four of her eight children and her husband Robert proceeded her in death with Robert and one of their sons ending their lives in insane asylums. When her daughter Julie died, she raised Julie’s two young children.
From our collection: Liebst du um Schönheit
Listen to Christiane Karg: https://youtu.be/2zFXdaTd5Lk
After Robert’s death in 1856, when she was 37 years old, Clara resumed her concert tours and focused on publishing and promoting her late husband’s works. Clara and Franz Liszt were the only notable figures playing Robert’s work until after Clara’s death. Clara’s composing was all but stopped after her husband’s death. Her compositions remained relatively unknown until interest in her creative output developed in the 1870s.
Clara’s influence teaching inspired students to carry her teaching elsewhere throughout Europe. Her student Carl Friedberg carried the tradition to the Juilliard School the USA.
Clara was the first to publicly perform any work by Johannes Brahms. She later premiered some other Brahms works, notably the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.
Clara was named a Königliche und Kaiserliche Kammervirtuosin (“Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso”), Austria’s highest musical honor. She was featured on the 100 Deutsche Marks banknote from January 2, 1989 until the adoption of the Euro on January 1, 2002.
Also from our collection:
op. 12. Zwölf Gedichte aus Friedrich Rückerts Liebesfrühling
Der Wanderer – Die Straßen, die ich gehe
Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort
View our complete collection of Clara Wieck Schumann texts: