In mid-nineteenth century Europe, two colossi of the keyboard crisscrossed the continent, leaving masses of ecstatic fans in their wake, and they could not have been more different performers.  The first, the one history knows, was Franz Liszt, a lanky and mysterious Hungarian with truly demonic talent and a tendency for leaving broken pianos and hearts in every city he visited.  The second, as popular in her day as Liszt, and boasting a career at the beating heart of classical music performance that was some three times longer than his, was Clara Schumann, whom the history books might well have forgotten entirely had she not also been the wife of Robert Schumann, one of Germany’s foremost composers in the era between Beethoven and Brahms.  

But it was Clara Schumann, more than any other single pianist, whose example and overwhelming popularity shaped the modern concert.  Take a look at a famous piano soloist’s concert program from before 1840 and what you’ll see is nothing so much as a grand conglomeration of Stuff that lasted from three to four hours.  The soloist would perform, but in between their numbers would be singers, other soloists, dancers, poetry reciters, and damn near any other stripe of entertainer possessing popularity at that given moment.  

The whole mess had more the whiff of Vaudeville to it than of Carnegie Hall, and though it was Franz Liszt who gave the first purely solo concert, it was Clara Schumann who shaped the concert into its current state.  Rather than concentrating on the operatic variations and dizzy but hollow showpieces that were the bread and butter of the pianists of her youth, Schumann by pure force of will shoved classical music into a more concentrated, serious direction.  In place of showy crowdpleasers, she programmed the late piano sonatas of Beethoven, starting a tradition of Beethoven sonatas in concert programs that continues to this day.  She premiered works by Brahms and her husband Robert Schumann that were considered too deep for the concert stage until she proved their appeal.  Everywhere she went, she showed audiences that a shorter concert centered around two or three worthwhile pieces of music could provide more delight than four hours of superficial musical tidbits slapped down one after the other in dizzyingly monotonous succession, and that is the performance world, Clara’s world, that we continue to inhabit today.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was born Clara Wieck, to Friedrich and Marianne Wieck, the former a musical educator and piano salesman of domineering personality but clear pedagogical genius, and the latter a famous singer who would, shortly after Clara’s birth, get fed up with Friedrich’s controlling nature and divorce him even at the cost of losing meaningful contact with her daughter for years.  Friedrich poured all of his energy and talent into fostering Clara’s precocious musical skills, teaching her to play music by ear before teaching her to read sheet music, and ensuring that she had a thorough knowledge not only of musical performance, but of composition and theory as well.  By the age of eleven, she was a pure musical marvel, even if her education in virtually every other area of life had been completely neglected in Friedrich’s drive to make her the continent’s greatest living pianist.  

Throughout her teen years, she toured with her father, learning vicariously all the practical details that go into planning a tour – hiring pianos and concert halls, negotiating with local musicians for free tickets and the local press for exposure, choosing repertoire based on the locale and producing promotional materials – all of the hundreds of tiny persistent things that make that magical hour and a half on stage a possibility.  Everywhere she went, she was toasted as a miracle, lauded not only for her technical proficiency (which was expected of child prodigies in the post-Mozart era), but for the depth of her feeling and understanding.  She was a twelve year old girl who played with the emotional maturity of an adult (when she wasn’t performing the frilly showpieces programmed by her father) and with the strength and speed of any male performer (as noted in dumbfounded shock by more than one observer).  

Her father pushed her, harangued her, mocked her, and ultimately kept all the money she made in her concerts for his troubles (Clara would later have to sue him to get some part of the money she had earned back), and his corrosive brilliance would leave its mark on Clara’s adult life, giving her a hard and uncompromising edge that was useful in business, but which infected her relationship with her own children, as we shall see.  Fortunately, as against this hard influence of her teenage years, there was another, gentler, presence in the form of one of Friedrich’s piano students, a dreamy legal student who forsook the law to try his hand at music and writing, and his name was Robert Schumann.

Schumann had the makings of a concert pianist until some mysterious hand ailment pushed him out of the profession and into those of music journalism and composition.  Romantic and melancholic, gentle and patient, Robert was everything Friedrich was not, and so it is hardly surprising that Clara found herself drawn to the aspiring composer some ten years her senior or that Robert, so profoundly moved by the spirit of music, would find himself in turn falling in love with the serious, somewhat sad daughter of his teacher from whose fingers every melody of the great classical canon tumbled easily.

Friedrich, however, was decidedly not pleased at this choice of suitor.  Schumann was poor, as yet unproven as a composer, prone to emotional extremes, and had a reputation as a ladies man that was more than legitimately come by (he would die of syphilis).  Friedrich loved his music, but would not consent to the marriage, and went so far as to spread poisonous rumors about Schumann and his own daughter in foreign nations to spike their success and happiness until they were left with no choice but to file a libel suit against him and go to the courts requesting the right to marry without his approval.  It was a drawn out, ugly affair that tore Clara between the father whose actions she hated but whose person and early efforts on her behalf she still respected, and the husband who gave her all the affection and support she had lacked as a child. 

Ultimately, Robert and Clara won their legal battles and were wed in 1840, which brought up a new and potentially disastrous issue: would Clara continue to perform?  Robert loved her playing, encouraged her compositions, and to a large degree relied on her to bring his music to the world when no one else would, but at the same time he had some very traditional expectations about what her role was to be.  First and foremost, he valued his own time at the piano to compose (which brought in virtually no money, especially in those lean early years) over her time at the piano to practice (which was necessary to maintain her profession and which brought in immeasurably more money than anything he did).   “The more Robert involves himself with his art, the less I can do as an artist, Heaven knows!” she lamented to her diary in 1841, just one year into the marriage.  

Clara had to snatch bits of practice time here and there when he wasn’t composing, which fit in with Robert’s larger conception that her first duties after marriage should be those of mother and wife.  Even before they were married he had written to her, “The first year of our marriage you shall forget the artist, you shall live only for yourself and your house and your husband… just see how I will make you forget the artist-because the wife stands even higher than the artist and if I only achieve this much-that you have nothing more to do with the public-I will have achieved my deepest wish.”  During their marriage, Clara, who adored performing live, played publicly far less than she could have, and correspondingly earned far less than she might have, a situation which would force her, after Robert’s death in 1856, to push herself twice as hard to support her children and herself.  

When she could, she composed, and to this period belong not only a number of charming solo piano pieces that manage to bridge the gap between profundity and technical brilliance, but a piano concerto and piano trio that belong in the standard repertoire.  Her composing career, however, was cut short with Robert’s death and the need to spend as much time as possible on the road earning money through her performances, stockpiling thalers while the public still clamored to see her.  As it turned out, unlike many virtuosi, tickets for Clara Schumann concerts continued to be in demand well into her sixties, but the thirty seven year old widow facing a lifetime of supporting a brood of seven children, several of whom proved deep financial drains, had no way of knowing this, and so she threw herself into concert tours that would have broken a performer of less stamina and personal resolution.

She was her own manager, overseeing every detail of her concerts, including the controversial decisions to remake how concerts were done in Europe that changed the face of classical music performance.  These were hard years of almost constant tragedy, beginning with the death of her first son in 1847, continuing through Robert’s descent into hallucinatory madness at the hands of the tertiary syphilis that would ultimately kill him in 1856, the institutionalization of her second son in 1870, the death of her third daughter in 1872, and the death of her irresolute, spendthrift third son in 1891, whose children all fell to her care.  

And yet, amidst all the loss and madness, Clara Schumann was building a professional career that made her feel alive in ways impossible during her marriage or childhood.  She shined onstage and when playing music with her circle of friends which included some of the greatest names in European music – Brahms, Joachim, Stockhausen (no, not that one), and Lind.  Her deep friendship with Brahms was a source of support for the rest of her life, as he paid her the great compliment of sending the majority of his works to her for comment, and she corresponded with him about the creation of a definitive edition of Robert Schumann’s works.  Liszt left the field of concert pianists in 1848 to concentrate on composition and conducting, and Clara filled the vacuum until the arrival of the next wave of performers led by von Bülow and Rubinstein, whose program style she directly influenced.  

Ultimately, Clara Schumann lived long enough to see some parts of her work taken up as the industry standard, and others violently repudiated.  The era of the four hour concert was over, but there was also no stopping the Music of the Future as advocated by Liszt and Wagner, and which Schumann could not stand.  The music she had championed as part of the intellectual leading edge in the 1840s had become dismally passé by the 1880s in spite of the essentially conservative compositional spirit of Johannes Brahms, and the subsequent decades would only deepen the exploration of massive Wagnerian orchestras and the steady drift of harmony towards atonality.  Clara’s legacy, which seemed so assured from the perspective of the 1830s through the 1870s, grew dimmer with each decade after her death, while her compositions, which she had never championed as vigorously as those of her husband, similarly moldered in obscurity.  Though recorded and performed more often than Fanny Mendelssohn, she still ranks 94th on the list of most performed composers, according to a 2018 Bachtrack survey (Mendelssohn ranked 159th but is catching up fast), with only one woman composer in the survey above her.  

That’s a depressing number no matter how you consider it – there are literally NINETY TWO other male composers that world audiences would rather listen to before they will entertain anything by Clara Schumann – it’s a ranking appropriate for a third tier composer – somebody who managed a couple of derivative tunes momentarily capturing a moment’s vibe – not to the woman whose performances entranced a continent and whose pieces were championed and performed by some of the greatest composers of the nineteenth century.  But then, of course, symphonies and pianists only play what is profitable, which means if we want more Clara in the concert hall (and, believe me, we do), we need to vote with our feet and our wallet – when an artist is courageous enough to release a recording of her music, pick it up, and when they are outrageously bold enough to use a precious programming slot to perform one in public, by all means GO!  Her music combines the technical proficiencies of Chopin and Liszt with the musical profundities of Beethoven and Schumann, resulting in a sonic cocktail unique to its time, delightful to contemplate, and disgraceful to continue ignoring.

Lead image: Clara Schumann photographed by Franz Hanfstaeng, circa 1850. Public domain, via Wikimedia

There are quite a few books about Clara, Robert, and Clara and Robert, but the definitive one available in English will I suppose be Nancy B. Reich’s Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman (1985, revised 2001) for some time to come.  It combines a deep familiarity with nineteenth century performance and musical trends with exhaustive research into the extant diaries and letters of the Schumanns.  

As to recordings, Ragna Schirmer is one of those brave souls I mentioned above who has made the recording of Clara Schumann’s work a sort of career quest.  She has put out no fewer than three different recordings of Clara’s music, and here you can see her, under the baton of French conductor Ariane Matiakh, performing the third movement of her A-Minor piano concerto:  

For her great G-Minor Piano Trio, there are a number of live recordings available of the full piece but the sound quality is on the wonky side for a number of them. This one, with Bernard Jullien, Maelle Vilbert, and Julien Hanck, though of only the Andante, is nice and crisp and lovely:

But if you want a sense of what the young Clara Schumann was like, full in the splendor of her child prodigy virtuoso days, then this Scherzo from 1838, as performed by Michael Ponti, is a pretty solid starting point: