The Pursuit of Clara Schumann
Tue, 06 Feb 2018

This month I’d like to explore the topic “Behind the Scenes: Jealousy throughout Music History.” Everyone experiences jealousy at some point in life, even our favorite composers. But how did they deal with their jealousy and how does our knowledge of their little “secrets” affect how we listen to their music?

With Valentine’s Day being right around the corner, I thought it would be fun to spend the next few weeks exploring two of my favorite romantic dramas in music history. This week, let’s look at what I like to call “The Clara Schumann Love Affair.”

Robert and Clara Schumann are probably the most well-known couple in music history, Robert known for his compositions, and Clara for her piano virtuosity. Robert studied piano with Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck, until a hand injury turned his focus to that of a music critic and composer. Though Wieck strongly resented the union of his daughter with Schumann, the two took the matter to the court to override his disapproval in 1840. Schumann composed many love songs during that same year, expressing his deep passion for the young Clara while also hoping it would be lucrative in order to help support his new family.

The couple worked together musically for a number of years before meeting Johannes Brahms in 1853. Robert and Johannes quickly became each other’s advocates, Robert publishing positive remarks regarding Brahms’ work, thus launching the young composer’s career. It is a known fact that Brahms admired Clara, who was fourteen years his senior. This explains why he quickly stepped in to assist her when Robert’s health began to fail, eventually leading to admittance into an insane asylum in 1854 following an attempt at suicide. Prone to depression, Robert’s behavior became bizarre and unstable. Two years after arriving at the asylum, Robert Schumann passed away. During this difficult time for Clara, Brahms never ceased pitching in and offering his comfort and support, many times caring for her family so that she could travel and perform. Was this the behavior of a friend or a lover? Was Brahms trying to catch Clara’s eye during a weak moment or did he respect Robert too much to attempt such actions? Historians do not know the truth about their relationship but many surviving correspondences do provide interesting details. Join me next time to read excerpts from these letters.


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