Those of you who have studied music history might be saying to yourselves at this point, “Hey, wait a minute! Lots of classical musicians have heard of Clara Schumann! Why are you talking about her in your History Hunt series?”
That’s an excellent question, and you’re right. Out of the many female composers of history, Clara Schumann is one of the lucky ones who isn’t forgotten or ignored. But the way she’s talked about…now that’s a problem.
The image at the top of the post is from a poster of Classical and Romantic-era composers that a very well-meaning friend gave to me a few years ago. The poster features twelve composers: eleven men and one woman. All of the composers are white (though there remains some debate about Beethoven’s origins). What’s written about Clara Schumann is below:
Clara Wieck Schumann
A talented concert pianist and composer
Performed piano music by her husband, Robert, their friend Johannes Brahms, Chopin, and others
What’s wrong with this picture (and many of her biographies)? It doesn’t talk about her! It talks about the music other people–all men–wrote, not her own compositions! It doesn’t say anything about her bravery in putting on concerts when many people tried to discourage women from playing outside their homes! And so that’s why Clara Schumann is getting her own History Hunt post today.
Clara Josephine Schumann was born Clara Wieck on September 13, 1819 in Germany. Both her parents were musicians–her mother was a famous singer and her father was a respected piano teacher.
Her first piano teacher was her father. She began lessons when she was five, and by the time she was eleven, she was considered a prodigy like Maria Anna Mozart had been 70 years earlier. She travelled throughout Germany and Austria and to Paris, giving concerts and impressing many. By the time she was eighteen, she had received high praise from Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Henri Herz, had a poem written in honour of her performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata, received an autographed copy of a composition by famous composer Franz Schubert, and was given the highest honour available to Austrian visitors, receiving the title Königliche und Kaiserliche Kammervirtuosin (“Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso”). Now that’s a lot of accomplishment in a short period of time!
Not only was she a brilliant performer, but Schumann also changed forever the way other performers played the piano. She was one of the first pianists to perform by memory, starting when she was thirteen–in her days, most performers, even adults, brought their music onstage. She also changed what was expected at a typical piano recital, from difficult technical pieces arranged from operas to pieces from famous composers.
On top of her performing, Schumann was also a respected piano teacher. According to The Famous People, “she made immense contribution towards the improvement of modern piano playing technique.” Her ideas about teaching were carried not only to England but to the famous Julliard School, one of the best music schools in the world.
And, last but definitely not least, Schumann was a composer! She began writing music when she was young; she started writing her Piano Concerto in A Minor when she was fourteen and performed it when she was sixteen. Unfortunately, while Schumann loved composing, women of her time period were not “supposed” to be composers. Eventually, she all but stopped. Without any way to hear about the long history of brilliant composing women, she came to believe what she had been told–that women were no good at composing. If she had lived in a different time, with better access to examples from history, I can only imagine how many more great works she would have created.
That said, nothing could discourage Schumann from performing. She gave her last public performance when she was 71. At the 50th anniversary of Schumann’s performing career, held at the site of her first solo concert, the concert hall was decorated oak leaves and wreaths of green and gold. When she stepped onstage, the audience threw flowers at her feet. That’s exactly the sort of recognition she–and other brilliant female performers and composers–deserved.
To listen to the first movement of her Piano Concerto in A Minor (Op. 7), check out the video below:
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