Clara Schumann

(13 September 1819 - 20 May 1896)

Clara Schumann, born Clara Wieck, was a 19th century German composer, pianist, and teacher. She was the wife of Robert Schumann and tirelessly promoted his music. She was one of the leading European pianists and an accomplished composer and teacher.

Clara was born into a musical family in Leipzig. Her father was a piano teacher and was also in the sheet music business; in addition, he repaired pianos. Clara’s mother was both a solo pianist and soprano in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. She also taught piano and helped her husband with his music dealings. Clara’s maternal grandparents were also associated with music; their occupations included cantor, flautist, flute builder, and composer.

Clara was one of five children. At a young age her parents divorced and she was forced to stay with her father, as the children were considered property. Though her general education was minimal, Clara received an excellent education in music. She studied piano with her father, in addition to religion and languages. She later studied violin, theory, harmony, orchestration, counterpoint, fugue, and composition with various teachers throughout Germany. She also had the opportunity to attend many concerts in Leipzig and learned the business aspects of a music career from her father.

Clara’s father directed her musical career until she reached the age of 19. He acted as both a mentor and a manager for her. His character and her appreciation of his work can be observed in her writings about him; “My father had to put up with being called a tyrant; however, I still thank him for it every day; I have him to thank for the freshness that has remained with me in my old age (at least in my art). It was also a blessing for me that he was exceedingly strict, that he reprimanded me when I deserved it and in so doing, prevented me from becoming arrogant from the praise the world showered on me. At times the rebuke was bitter, but it was still good for me!” With his guidance, she performed in the Gewandhaus at the age of 9, where she also performed her solo debut at 11. Her concerts also took her to Paris and Vienna.

It was also a blessing for me that he was exceedingly strict, that he reprimanded me when I deserved it and in so doing, prevented me from becoming arrogant from the praise the world showered on me.

Clara Schumann was later named Europe’s ‘Queen of the Piano’ and would influence generations of pianists. She was one of the first pianists to perform from memory and without an assistant. In addition, her influence caused concerts to become shorter, with more attention to the works. She was also dedicated to performing according to the composers wishes, thus putting the audience’s attention on the composer and music, and not on the performer.

Clara had known Robert Schumann since childhood, and they fell in love in their teens; however Clara’s father refused to consent to their marriage. This prompted a legal struggle between them, and finally Clara and Robert were able to marry in 1840. At this time, Robert was not yet a well-known composer, yet she already had an international reputation as a pianist. The couple lived in Leipzig, Dresden, and Düsseldorf throughout their lives and had eight children. To support her children, Clara continued performing and teaching.

During their marriage, Clara helped Robert with his music and acted as a rehearsal pianist for groups he conducted. She also premiered every work he wrote for piano. Robert encouraged Clara to compose, but his work always took priority; her work had to be completed at times that he wouldn’t be bothered.

Their happiness did not last long, as Robert faced severe mental illness and he attempted suicide in 1854. He was hospitalized in Endenich, where he died in 1856. Clara was extremely distressed as the doctors forbade her from seeing Robert while he was at the hospital. She was only able to see him the final two days of his life.

A dedicated mother, Clara continued her concert tours to support her children, however, her demeanor and character had changed. She was “no longer a glamorous young woman but a solemn ‘priestess of the art’" (Grove Online Dictionary).  In place of gala dresses, Clara dressed in all black and performed only serious music; she never smiled. Her dedication to Robert was also unfailing. After his death she began performing more and more of his work. She also edited his Gesamtausgabe with the help of Brahms and prepared instructions for his piano works. In addition, she arranged and transcribed many of his piano and vocal works.

My father had to put up with being called a tyrant; however, I still thank him for it every day... the freshness that has remained with me in my old age (at least in my art).

In 1878, Clara became the piano teacher at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where she attracted students from all over the world. Though her last performance was in 1891, she taught until her death in 1896, at the age of 76.

I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?

As a composer, Clara’s works were favourably received. Many of her earlier works are showpieces. Her first published work is her Four Polonaises (1931), which feature bold harmonies and modulations with a sense of rhythmic freedom. Her compositions fit the style of the new Romantic School, which constituted composers such as Robert Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Chopin. Her Romance variée (1831-33) and Souvenir de Vienne (1838) are characteristic of her more virtuosic, younger character works. In 1835 she performed her Piano Concerto (1835-6, dedicated to Louis Spohr) under Mendelssohn’s direction. She began composing this captivating and innovative work at the age of 13.

After her marriage, Clara’s compositional style matured, most likely due to the influence of Robert’s music. During this period she turned more to songs than character pieces. The couple published a joint collection of songs (her opus 12 was combined with his op. 37). Many of her larger works were also written after her marriage. One of her most successful works, Trio op. 17 (1846), was written at a time of great personal distress and succeeds in its mastery of sonata form and polyphonic techniques; the mood is very melancholic.

After Robert died, Clara stopped composing, perhaps because teaching and performing were more financially stable. After her death in 1896, Clara’s works were mostly ignored. In the 1970s her music was revived and has now been recorded more than 100 times.

Header and other images courtesy of public domain

...no longer a glamorous young woman but a solemn ‘priestess of the art'.

Robert Schumann

Related artist

Discover this artist

Related News