by Christine E. Shin
“I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?”
Clara Schumann was twenty years old when she wrote this in the marriage diary she shared with her husband, Robert. What is, perhaps most perplexing about this self-doubting statement is the fact that she had already composed over 25 pieces, including art songs, solo piano works & a piano concerto. Eight of these early works are so well regarded that they have entered the modern recorded repertoire.
Fortunately, Clara was not entirely convinced by her own declaration. In the course of the next 16 years, she composed more than 70 additional works—including the lovely Trois Romances (Op. 11), written in the very year she had “given up” the idea that she possessed creative talent.
Born Clara Wieck in Leipzig in 1819, she began her remarkable musical life as a piano prodigy. From the age of 5, she studied with her father, Friederich, a celebrated piano teacher & began performing publicly at the age of 9. Within 4 years, Clara Wieck was considered by many of her contemporaries to be the finest living piano virtuoso.
She was sixteen when she first tried her hand at composition. Many composers begin writing in small forms—art song, piano miniatures—then they move on to large-scale works, such as the symphony & concerto. Clara Wieck took the opposite approach: that first composition was a piano concerto, after which she wrote almost exclusively in smaller forms.
The tendency of women composers to work in smaller genres has often been taken as “proof” that women are incapable of working on the larger canvas. But, because societal barriers prevented women from gaining access to orchestras & other large-scale performance opportunities, the tendency simply reflected the genres in which women were likely to actually have their works performed. What composer of either gender or any time wants to write music that will never be heard?
Whereas many women composers have been discouraged from their craft by their husbands—Alma Mahler is but a single example—Robert Schumann urged Clara to publish her works. She refused, stating both a lack of confidence in her ability & a desire to leave what had been a grueling professional life behind in order to raise what eventually became a family of seven children.
Robert’s tragic descent into insanity in 1854 required Clara to support the family & she did so by resuming her performance career. In the early years of their marriage, a concert program in Russia had referred to Robert as “the husband of Clara Schumann”. By the time she returned to the same stage after twenty years away, Clara had become “the wife of Robert Schumann”.
After Robert’s death in 1856, Clara spent the remaining forty years of her life traveling to perform & promote Robert’s music. Many scholars believe that without her tireless advocacy, the music of Robert Schumann would have faded from the repertoire within a generation of his death.
But Clara’s own compositions—lacking just such a tireless advocate—sat unpublished & unperformed for over a century. In the early 1980’s, her handwritten manuscripts began to be recovered, assessed, edited & published. Included among them are works in the best tradition of the Romantic period—harmonically rich & complex, melodically inventive & technically ingenious. By the 1996 centenary of her death, it was possible for performers to include many of her finest works in live & recorded performances.
© Christine E. Shin. All Rights Reserved.