Tribune Print Share Text

Clara Wieck Schumann

An early musical prodigy

Created date

September 24th, 2015
Clara Schumann
Clara Schumann

Only a handful of women joined the ranks of nineteenth-century Romantic composers, and Clara Schumann was foremost among them. To this day, her works are favorites with keyboard enthusiasts and staples on the playlists of classical music radio.

From the very beginning, she was destined for artistic greatness.

Clara Josephine Wieck was born in Leipzig on September 13, 1819, and music was in her blood. Her mother, Marianne, was a renowned singer and her father, Friedrich, a rigid yet highly competent music instructor skilled with multiple instruments, including the piano and violin.

But most unusual for the time, Clara’s parents divorced in 1824 when she was just five years old, citing irreconcilable differences due to her mother’s infidelity. After the split, Clara went to live with her father, during which time her musical ability blossomed and flourished.

At her father’s knee

Friedrich micromanaged his daughter’s professional development—every last detail from instrumentation to performance. He trained her in singing, music theory, composition, and playing techniques for the piano and violin. 

By the age of eight, she was performing for some of the most prominent members of European society. It was at one such concert, a recital at the home of Colditz Castle’s mental hospital director Ernst Carus, that Clara met another pianist, 17-year-old Robert Schumann.

A law student at the time, Schumann was deeply moved by the young lady’s talent; so impressed, in fact, that he abandoned his legal studies and moved in with Clara and her father, becoming Friedrich’s second piano pupil. 

Though nine years her senior, Robert grew very close to Clara, forming a bond that would prove everlasting.

Performing to packed houses

Her father, meanwhile, remained keenly attentive to his daughter’s career and, in 1830, the two set out on a European concert tour. At the age of 11, she was playing solo recitals for political and cultural luminaries like author and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  

In the coming years, Clara was a performing sensation. She continued touring throughout the 1830s, playing to packed houses all over Europe, one of them with the great violinist Niccolò Paganini. 

The critics loved her.

“The appearance of this artist can be regarded as epoch-making,” wrote one reviewer. “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.”

Likewise, after seeing her play in Vienna, Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer honored her with a poem entitled "Clara Wieck and Beethoven."

Although flush with fame, she never lost sight of her intimate connection with her father’s other student Robert. In 1837, Schumann proposed to Clara, who said yes.

Yet her father refused to give his consent, so the engaged couple took him to court and won. They were married in 1840 and went on to have five children.

Their marriage marked the beginning of an historic partnership.

Musical soulmates

While her husband was primarily a composer, Clara was a seasoned performer, noted for her brilliant blend of artistry and technique. In addition to Robert’s compositions and a pair of her own, Clara touted a repertoire of remarkable variety and breadth, from Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms to Chopin, Mozart, and Mendelssohn. 

The couple also played regularly with their friend, the up-and-coming violinist Joseph Joachim.

Amidst the productivity and success, however, there were serious problems. Robert had long suffered from extensive bouts of melancholy, episodes that eventually culminated in his attempted suicide.

In 1854, he entered an asylum, where he died two years later. In the face of tragedy, Clara sought refuge in music. 

For the next 20 years, she toured Europe, played recitals (often with Joachim), and in 1878, became a professor of piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. Here she stayed until her retirement in 1892.

In the last four years of her life, Clara had expressed doubts about her talent, especially as a composer. She saw her works, scant in number, as insignificant.

Her late husband would have disagreed. 

“Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before,” he once wrote in his diary. “But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”

Indeed, Robert, along with a majority of the listening public, saw a female virtuoso working and thriving in a world that gave men the upper hand.