19th Century Power Couple
By Gary Barton
For much of the 20th century, and to a degree even into our own, 19th century pianist, composer and astute businesswoman Clara Schumann (née Wieck) has been just a bit more than a postscript to the life of her famous husband, the pianist, conductor and composer Robert Schumann. However, recent scholarship (particularly by conscientious feminist writers) has shed new light on the nearly forgotten but spectacular career of Clara and her exploitation by her controlling and manipulative father. Little is widely known of the painful sacrifices she made and the ways in which she used her art and business acumen to maintain financial independence for her children and to support her husband when mental illness cut his career so tragically short.
Friedrich Wieck, Clara’s father, was a self-made man. To quote Nancy Reich in her excellent book, Clara Schumann, The Artist and the Woman (Cornell University Press, 1985), “Where and when Wieck learned enough theory to compose and enough about piano technique to set himself up as a teacher are still not clear. Yet by 1815, (he was born in 1785), Wieck was confident enough to dedicate and send a group of his songs to Carl Maria von Weber. To Wieck’s delight, the composer took the time and trouble to write a detailed criticism of the works.” Wieck had also established himself as the owner of a pianofabrik, which literally translates as a “piano factory.” It was, however, not a manufacturing plant but rather a store that rented, sold, tuned and repaired pianos. Wieck also sold and rented music and even provided trill machines and finger stretchers to budding pianists.
In 1816, he married his piano student, Marianna Tromlitz, who by all accounts was also a skilled singer. She was an excellent pianist, better than Friedrich, so she therefore taught his most advanced students. Marianna gave birth to five children, of whom Clara was the second. However, the marriage did not work out, and the couple divorced in 1825. According to Saxon law, the three oldest children were the legal property of the father in such cases, so shortly after her fifth birthday, Clara was forced to live with her father.
When Clara was born in September of 1819, her father gave her the name she bore, meaning “light and brilliance.” She grew up with music continuously around her. Friedrich had decided early on that he was going to make Clara a musical star, and he did. He worked her mercilessly. Her first public solo concert took place at the Gewandhaus on November 8, 1830. She was not quite 11, but had been playing for small musical gatherings from the time she was eight.
To quote Ms. Reich again, “The impression Clara made on perceptive onlookers in Weimar was described in a letter by the tutor of the Duke of Weimar. ‘We heard the little Wieck of Leipzig - she’s a veritable marvel; for the first time in my life I caught myself admiring with enthusiasm a precocious talent; perfect execution, irreproachable measure, force, clarity, difficulties of all sorts successfully surmounted -- here are rare things at any age -- but one still encounters them occasionally, and if little Clara had offered nothing more, I should have said that she was a machine, to play so remarkably, and I would have remained as cold as a stone; but she is a musician, she feels what she plays and knows how to express it; under her fingers the piano takes on color and life; one takes an interest in her without wanting to, and if she does not succumb early to some lingering illness, she will not have much need of beauty in order to become a tempting siren. Poor child! She has a look of unhappiness and of suffering which distresses me; but she owes perhaps a part of her fine talent to this inclination to melancholy; in examining closely the attributes of the Muses, one could almost always find there some traces of tears.’ ”
Friedrich Wieck’s interest in money was legendary. He bartered for lessons in theory and French for Clara and kept all of the proceeds from her concerts for himself. At one point, he even wanted her to reimburse him for lessons he had given her!
In 1828, an 18-year-old young man came to study with Wieck for a year. He was witty and handsome and quite obviously had a considerable musical gift. His name was Robert Schumann. Unfortunately, his piano-playing career came to an end after he invented a contraption to strengthen a finger that backfired and permanently ruined it. However, he turned to composing and found that this was where his future lay.
Robert also fell in love with Clara Wieck. Mr. Wieck did not favor this relationship, however, and the lovers had to find elaborate ways to exchange letters and to communicate. In justice to the father, he was concerned about allowing his daughter to become involved with a penniless, radical musician. On the other hand, he also wanted her career to continue on its upward trajectory and to continue to enrich him. Finally, Robert and Clara had to go to court to obtain permission to marry without Wieck’s consent. They were united in 1840.
The first year of their union was wonderful. They played music together, and Robert entered into what was probably one of most productive periods in the career of any composer. However, he could be difficult. For instance, he refused to let Clara practice while he himself was working, as he said it disturbed him. Somehow, despite her illustrious career, Robert thought of his wife as a gifted housewife and mother (the couple produced seven children). However, Clara continued her performing career and was rarely with the children for birthdays or holidays.
The mental illness from which Robert Schumann suffered appears to have come from both sides of his family. In her book, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison tells us that Robert’s father, August Schumann, seems to have been be a manic-depressive. Mrs. Schumann, in turn, suffered from recurring bouts of depression. The composer’s sister committed suicide, as did a cousin. Later, one of his sons went insane and was confined to an asylum for years and another became a morphine addict.
Schumann and a group of friends, dubbed the “Davidsbundler,” a name that may be translated as “Davidites” and was chosen in celebration of the biblical hero, founded the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a liberal weekly journal. Schumann introduced into his public writings two characters that represented the conflicting sides of his stormy personality. Florestan was impulsive, masculine, energetic and high-spirited; Eusebius, in contrast, was gentle and more introspective. These two personae are musically depicted in Schumann’s Carnaval. The fifth movement is titled “Eusebius,” the sixth “Florestan.”
After suffering from periods of high productivity alternating with times of deep depression for years, Schumann became overwhelmed when he was dismissed as music director of the Dusseldorf Orchestra. On February 27, 1854, he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. He was then committed to an asylum for the insane in Endenich. He would not see Clara again for a long time, as she now not only had to support their children but also to earn enough to keep her husband in what was then a relatively humane environment. Schumann never emerged from the institution; he died
there on July 29, 1856, at the age of 46. Clara lived for 40 more years, dying in 1896.
The Essential Robert and Clara Schumann
Clara Schumann: Complete Piano Works
CPO Records # 999758
The complete solo keyboard works of Clara Schumann are available in a three-CD box with Jozef De Beenhouwer performing. Listening to them gives an inkling of what a formidable talent she must have been. Many of the works require incredible technique. She must also have been a very powerful player as well. Listening, I was reminded of Martha Argerich, and the near athleticism of some of her recordings.
Schumann: Symphonies No. 1 "Spring" & No. 3 "Rhenish"
No. 1 "Spring" & No. 2
No. 3 “Rhenish” and No. 4
Sony # 48270
Before I mention the complete sets of Schumann symphonies available, I want to recommend a Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc on the Pentatone label (PTC 5186111). It is a quadraphonic recording made in 1970 and 1971 with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Eliahu Inbal. The disc features Schumann’s two most famous symphonies, No. 1 “Spring" and No. 4 “Rhenish.” It is truly wonderful to get to be inside the orchestra and all the easier to discern the intricacy of Schumann’s orchestration. Buy this one for your future Surround Sound setup.
After repeated listening to three different complete sets of symphonies, I found the Sony “Essential Classics” recordings with Rafael Kubelik conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to be most suited to my taste (and my pocketbook, for they are the cheapest set and the disc with Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4 also contains a bonus in the form of Schumann’s Manfred Overture). Although analog masters, the precision in the intricate passagework of this won me over totally. Better technology does not a better performance make.
Piano and chamber music
For solo piano music by Robert Schumann, the recordings of Carnaval, Kinderszenen and Waldszenen with Claudio Arrau as soloist (Philips #420871) are quite fine.
For the Piano Concerto in a minor, I couldn’t decide between Sviatoslav Richter playing with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Witold Rowicki conducting, on Deutsche Grammophon #447440 (the disc also contains Introduction and Allegro Appassionato for Piano and Orchestra in G, Op. 92 and some solo keyboard works) or Radu Lupu with the London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, conducting (London/Decca #466383). Both have their own virtues.
Finally, for just a sprinkling of chamber music, I recommend the String Quartets Nos. 1, 2 and 3, Opus 41 with the Eroica Quartet on Harmonia Mundi #907270.