Clara Schumann was one of the most important pianists and composers of the Romantic era, who at 19, was honoured by the Austrian court and also was elected to the prestigious Society of the ‘Friends of Music’ (‘Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde’) in Vienna. Often termed as music’s unsung Renaissance woman whose creative legacy deserves far greater recognition, over the decades, albeit centuries, Clara has been rated as a virtuosic pianist and a brilliant composer.
Clara was was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1819. She started training at the age of 5 under her father, an eminent pianist, and almost spent her entire childhood studying piano. A brilliant student, Clara debuted with her first concert at the age of nine; and at the age of 11, she performed Musikalische Akademie in her first public concert. By the age of 16, Clara had established a reputation throughout Europe as a child prodigy.
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 7 – 1. Allegro maestoso
When Clara was 21, she married Robert Schumann, a student of her father, who later became a world famous composer, and perhaps overshadowed her with his towering musical contributions. Many classical music lovers feel that while Robert Schumann was a virtually unknown and deeply insecure composer, Clara commanded an international reputation, and that her advocacy helped his work circulate. His initial compositions focused on music for solo piano, her instrument. It was Clara who encouraged her husband to write his Piano Concerto, which she premiered and played often.
Some of her best works include works such as Liebesfrühling (Love’s Spring), when she was 22 in collaboration with her husband, where her songs received more public accreditation for their expressive simplicity. Earlier when she was 17, she constructed her piece, Piano Concerto, famous for its bold first movement that explored the virtuosic range of a piano. The piece becomes more mature as it advances, flourishing the aesthetics of her romanticism, finishing with the optimism of youth. At 27 came Piano Trio in G Minor, which exudes an outflow of character, while the finale combines a dynamic journey between light and darkness. The Piano Trio has been called by many as the masterpiece among her compositions. The work, written for a piano trio comprising piano, violin and cello, was her first attempt at writing music for instruments other than the voice and piano.
Another of Clara’s best compositions was Drei Romanzen, at the age of 34, where all the movements are demonstrated in her original voice. Sadly when Clara was in her 30s, her husband, Robert Schumann, after a suicide bid, had to be admitted in a mental asylum; and he died when she was 37. This took a heavy toll on her creative pursuits soon thereafter. However, she edited the collected edition of her husband’s works (published 1881–93).
States LA Phil, ‘The Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22, were among the last pieces that Clara ever wrote. The romance was one of Clara’s favourite character genres, and these make complementary companions to Robert Schumann’s Marchenbilder. The Andante molto has hints of gypsy pathos amid lyrically supple sentiments, and the merry spirits of the Allegretto likewise have a darker centre. Almost as long as the other two together, Clara’s final romance, marked Leidenschaftlich schnell (passionately quick), features a long-limbed melody over rippling pianism, developed with assurance.’
Three romances for violin and piano Op 22
To mark the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth (1899), the first of its kind, three-day International Bicentenary Conference was held in June 2019 at the University of Oxford, which brought together an international group of scholars from Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the UK, and the USA. At the heart of the conference was a desire to reanimate the musical and cultural contexts in which Clara Schumann lived and worked. What emerged from the deliberations was a vivid picture of Clara Schumann’s artistic vision, together with an enriched understanding of the significant contribution she made to nineteenth-century life and culture.
Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason referring to Clara in an article titled, ‘The Overlooked Romantic Composer You Need to Know’, writes: ‘One can see what a virtuoso she must have been. She was a very strong woman and had seven children – and I come from a family of seven siblings. It’s fascinating that 200 years ago Clara could maintain such a long career as a pianist while having a large family and coping with the difficulties of her husband’s mental illness. Her strength across her long life impressed, inspired and hugely intrigued me. Her music reminds me of Chopin and Mendelssohn, but at the same time it sounds like no one else. You can tell from it what a romantic person she was, but also how strong she was. These are two defining strands to her character.’