Child prodigy, sought-after concert pianist, mother of seven surviving children, Clara Schumann was also a burgeoning composer in a male-dominated musical world...

On 8 November 1830 an 11 year-old wunderkid by the name of Clara Wieck made her official debut at Leipzig’s Gewandhaus. Her programme included not only showpieces by such fashionable note-spinners as Kalkbrenner, Herz and Czerny, but also her own recently written Variations on an original Theme. In those days it was more or less de rigueur for fame-bent performers to display their virtuosity to best advantage is something composed by themselves, as Clara’s astute piano-teacher father, Friedrich Wieck, well knew. Prompted by sounder musical principle, too, he had always insisted on devoting several hours a day to harmony and counterpoint.

Once he himself had little more to teach her in this field, he sent her first to Christian Weinlig, Cantor of St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig (whose pupils briefly included Wagner) and then to the younger and more progressive Heinrich Dorn, a composer as well as conductor of the Leipzig Opera. Besides her formal exercises, she constantly wrote little pieces for herself to play, bringing her the satisfaction, when still only 12, of seeing her Op.1 in print. This was a set of four neatly shaped Polonaises, the first of which, in E flat, she had even been privileged to play to Paganini on his visits to Leipzig in 1828. As her diary put it: ‘He liked t very much, and he told my father that I had a vocation for art, because I had feeling.’

Introducing his daughter to a wider public now became Wieck’s overriding aim, to begin with a succession of German towns en route for Paris. An invitation to play to the 82-year-old Goethe made their first stop at Weimar unforgettable. ‘As the piano stool was too low Goethe himself fetched a cushion from the anti-room,’ the diary records. Having pleased him with Herz’s Bravura Variations on her first visit, she included variations of her own on the second, winning her a medallion of the great man in a box personally inscribed ‘to the artistically highly gifted Clara Wieck, in remembrance of October 9 1831’.

Warm encouragements was also forthcoming from Spohr on their visit to Cassel:’Her playing is distinguished from that of the ordinary prodigy in that it is not only the result of rigorous classical training but also springs from the heart, as is testified by her compositions which belong, as does the young artist herself, among the remarkable phenomena of art.’

The high spot of her first demanding decade on the concert platform, including debuts in Berlin and Prague, was undoubtedly Vienna. At once rated alongside such keyboard luminaries as Thalberg, Liszt and Henselt, she not only inspired a poem by Grillparzer on the strength of a performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata, but also left the city in 1838 as an honorary member of its illustrious Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde as well as with the title of ‘Kammervirtuosin of the Imperial Household’ conferred on her by the Emperor and Empress.

At home, between tours, Clara the composer was startlingly challenged by the arrival in Leipzig of a young musician just nine years her senior. While briefly living with the Wiecks in 1830 as a resident piano pupil, Robert Schumann at once brought fresh air into their orderly household with his wide literary as well as musical interests, and his unbridled Romantic imagination and general lifestyle. His often teasingly spooky bedtime stories delighted the young Clara no less than her younger brothers. And as fast maturing teenager, nothing more keenly alerted her to the superficialities of the showpieces she so often played in response to box office demand than Schumann’s launching, in 1834, of the New Zeitschrift fur Musik, a boldly progressive magazine designed to divert public attention away from such dross to the glories of the classical past, and the dawning of a new Romantic age.

An eloquent young composer

Just as names like Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Chopin increasingly found their way into her concert programmes, so a new Romantic note entered her own musical thinking. Even the cajoling little waltzes published as her Op. 2 and Op. 4 betray the influence of Schumann’s recent Papillons.

Bravura could not be entirely rejected, as her endearingly effusive, one-and-only Piano Concerto, introduced by her when just 16 under Mendelssohn’s baton at the Gewandhaus and, more importantly, her richly characterful, surprise-laden Variations on a Bellini Cavatina published the following year, make very plain. But it was Clara’s discovery of the eloquence of the short ‘character piece’ that impressed Schumann most. The imaginative daring and personal commitment of her atmospheric Quatre pieces characteristics, Op. 5 and her Soirees musicales, Op. 6 all written by the age of 17, drew glowing praise in his magazine.

As for the yearning intensity of the second of her Trois Romances, Op. 11, composed between 1838-9 in Paris, its closeness to his own cast of thought prompted the confession that he had ‘heard anew’ that they were destined to become man and wife. Aghast t their growing intimacy, Wieck by now had forbidden them to meet. Often were the times when in his own great keyboard works of this period, Schumann interwove ideas of hers, or others they had shared, as a means to reaffirming his love.

Marriage in 1840, so long delayed, brought immeasurable joys, but for the 21-year-old Clara, its conflicts too. Household responsibilities previously unknown, indifferent health during pregnancies and most of all the impossibility to practicing when her husband was composing inevitably cast passing shadows – likewise his reluctance to disrupt his own unprecedented absorption in larger projects to act as her escort on extended, money-earning concerts tours.

Their shared marriage-diary leaves no doubt of her dismay on feeling that her old spontaneity in composition had gone. Never before had he attempted a piano sonata. But only two of her G minor work’s four movements were finished in time to give Robert as his intended 1841 Christmas present (the Scherzo alone was printed in her lifetime; the sonata in its entirety was not published until 1992 in an edition by Gerd Nauhaus).

The projected Konzersatz in F minor intended for his birthday in 1847 never progressed beyond its first 175 bars in short score (we know it today only through the recent reconstruction by Jozef de Beenhouwer). The immediate sympathy that sprang up between herself and Mendelssohn’s brilliantly gifted pianist-composer sister, Fanny (married to the painter Wilhelm Hensel), when they met in Berlin that same year could well have grown from their mutual awareness of the pressing counterclaims of wife and artist.

By the time Clara herself already had four children, and three were born in very quick succession. It was not altogether surprising that motherhood on top of increasing involvement in Robert’s activities (such as preparing piano scores of his orchestral works), plus occasional nearby concert-giving of her own, did soon silence her composition for the most part of the next six years.

Despite frequent self-doubts, expressed in such diary entries as ‘women always betray themselves in their compositions’, there was nevertheless much in those earlier married years that she could look back on with pride. And first alongside more keyboard miniatures and concerto cadenzas, for her Robert-inspired burst of song. She had particularly enjoyed joining him in settings of Ruckert poems for his Liebesfruhling-cycle, just as Fanny Mendelssohn had contributed (with different poets) to her brother’s Op. 8 and Op. 9 a decade before.

Mendelssohn’s own passionate love of Bach also encouraged both Schumanns to embark on a detailed study of that composer’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, resulting in 1845 in brief sets by Clara herself, skilfully conveying the discipline of a past age in the idiom of her day. It was soon afterwards, with her craftsmanship at its peak, that she produced the work now generally recognised as the most revealing of her potential in larger forms. This was the Piano Trio in G minor Op. 17, distinguished not only by an inner musical grace all her own.

It was in 1853, in a congenial new Dusseldorf apartment with a music room out of earshot of her husband’s that she took up the challenge anew. ‘There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation,’ her diary recorded at the time. Besides more songs and character pieces for the piano, she found a potent new source of inspiration I the 22-year-old violinist, Joseph Joachim, whose performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto had been one of the glories of Dusseldorf’s recent music festival.

Little could she have guessed, when dedicating three Romances for violin and piano to him soon afterwards, the major role he was to play in her life as duo partner for so very many years to come. But it was into a new set of piano variations for Robert’s imminent birthday that she put her whole heart, basing it on a plaintive falling five-note theme that, throughout both their lives, had become as symbolic of their union as a ring. ‘For my dear husband for June 8, 1853, a weak attempt once more on the part of his Clara of old’ was how she inscribed this Op. 20, totally underestimating its moments of outstanding harmonic surprise, and its very subtle interweaving of another theme they had shared during her own first stirrings of love, into its intimate close.

The shadow of insanity

Robert and Clara Schumann

The birthday itself wad radiant, in spite of Robert’s deteriorating health. But breakdown was only eight months away and, after two years in a private asylum, Schumann died in 1856. Clara’s grief went into a nostalgic little B minor Romance written for Joachim’s friend, Johannes Brahms, who, young as he was had been on of the very few people allowed to visit her husband during his incarceration at the Endenich, and had done more than anyone else to uphold and comfort Clara in darkest hours.

No-one ever came closer to her heart for the rest of her days. The main theme of the Romance recalls the bitter-sweet ‘Ruckblick’ in Brahms’s own F minor Piano Sonata growing from the unforgettable autumn of 1853 when Schumann had so proudly hailed him, them a totally unknown twenty-year-old, as ‘he who was destined to come’.

To all intents, it proved Clara’s swansong. Without Robert’s incitement and encouragements, the urge to create had gone, In forty years of widowhood, she only once, some 23 years later, broke her silence in a ceremonial keyboard March written as a special golden wedding present for some old Dresden friends, the artist Julius Hubner and his wife, with quotations from two of Schumann’s own works in its two trios to evoke the vanished past.

With seven surviving offspring to support alone, it was to the concert platform that she returned for the rest of her days, with a schedule of travel that would have taxed the endurance of the strongest. Her true legacy was in establishing a new school of piano-playing in which searching musicianship counted for more than self-centred virtuoso display.