Monday, April 14, 2008

Clara Schumann --- Woman and Artist ahead of her Time

This post is quite long but this whole talk was so fascinating I found it difficult to condense.

June Goldsmith, Founder and Artistic Director of Music in the Morning, came once again to speak to the Faculty Women's Club. This small dynamic woman has spoken to us before and we were delighted to have her return for an encore.

Last time she talked about the program she is most famous for in our city, Music in the Morning which in twenty three years has grown from a few concerts for 20 people to forty concerts per year for over 4500 concert goers. She is passionate about sharing her love for music and recently she shared with us some thoughts on a most interesting woman, one who rose above the expectations of her times, both as a woman and as an artist, Clara Schumann.

Clara was born in Leipsiz, in 1819, daughter of the renowned piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, who had devised his own method of teaching. He recognized Clara's talent very early on and even though Clara did not speak until she was four he began teaching her the piano when she was five. At the age of three her father began to take her on two hour daily walks which she continued as a lifelong habit. When she was seven, she and her father began a communal diary which was a very strange document, with each writing as the other and during her marriage to Robert they too had a communal diary.

Herr Wieck had married one of his own students but when Clara was five her parents were divorced. In keeping with the mores of the time, the father kept the older three children, including Clara, while the mother was given the two younger ones and Clara was not allowed to visit her mother who had remarried and moved to Berlin.

By age ten she had given her first recital and she practised three to four hours per day and had a one hour daily lesson. She also studied violin and voice along with music theory and composition. At the time she began performing, artists were invited to homes to give recitals and the concerts sometimes lasted for three to four hours. There were many different artists invited, even non musicians so Clara might have performed before or after jugglers for example. Often she sat waiting in the kitchen until it was her turn to perform.

But around this time concert hall were being built and public concerts became common. People paid to hear the artists perform and Clara moved into this type of performance. In those days soloists made all their own arrangements, including the acquiring and tuning of the piano, selling tickets and taking care of everything. At first this was done by her father but later she did this herself over her more than 60 year career. Another change which took place at that time was that the piano was turned side on to the audience, supposedly because Lizt wanted to show off his profile. At that time everyone played using the score, but Clara memorized her music, one of the first to do so and gradually the soloists carried on this practice.

Around this time, individualism began to take centre stage in thinking and this affected music. Previously composers and musicians had written and performed according to their patrons' wishes and requests. The first person to break this mould was Beethoven who wrote what he wanted and thus music became very subjective. The period of romantic music arose around 1815 with romanticism in music describing the expansion of formal structures within a composition, making the pieces more passionate and expressive.

Recognized very early on as a great talent Clara was a very self confident child, a child prodigy. When she was ten, Robert Schuman came into her life. He was a writer and law student, among other things but he wanted to study piano. He auditioned for Herr Wieck and was accepted as his pupil. As was usual in those times he moved into their house and brought with him gaiety and fun which had been missing previously, for he loved life and was a playful young man of 19. Somewhere along the way, probably when she was about 16, they fell in love.

However Robert injured his finger, could not play and began to write music consequently he no longer lived with the family and although they loved each other Clara's father would not countenance their marriage. He recognized that Schumann was not really a stable young man, even moody for he was probably bipolar and certainly not the person her father wanted for his talented daughter.

They continued a clandestine courtship, but after taking Herr Wieck to court they were able to marry in 1840. Robert wanted a traditional wife, one who cooked and looked after the children. But Clara was an artist and wanted to continue her career as a musician. Despite bearing eight children in fourteen years she continued to perform and travel for her music, engaging wet nurses for her children. In fact eventually she became the main breadwinner of the family, performing and teaching and touring throughout Europe, continually promoting Robert's music as well as her own. Their life was rather tragic as Robert's mental condition deteriorated until he was institutionalized after a suicide attempt and he died two years later, leaving Clara widowed at 37.

When he was 20 and Clara was 34, Johannes Brahms came into the Schumanns' lives. In fact he and Clara became lifelong friends, with Brahms often caring for her children while she was away touring. They corresponded frequently but fought often and did not speak to each other for long periods of time. But they were always musical soul mates and died within eleven months of each other.

Clara never really had a home after Robert died, for she travelled constantly, with her children scattered among various relatives. But each year they came together, often with Brahms staying with them and spent the whole summer with each other. Eugenie, her youngest daughter wrote in her memoirs of these happy times and she remembered her mother practising every day, but they were all welcome to come into the music room to talk with her while she did so and sometimes she read letters while she practised scales.

Clara was known for her singing tone and her facility of playing the instrument, combined with her knowledge of the music and her artist's heart made her a very sensitive musician who gave her own interpretations. For more than sixty years she was the consummate pianist, performing in concert until she was 75.

Along with her career as a performer and teacher, she composed 66 pieces herself and edited the complete works of her husband. Despite all the odds against her, and her difficult life with Robert and as a widow, Clara Schumann fulfilled her destiny as a concert artist. She said herself that she regarded music as "a calling to reproduce great works…To me it is the very air I breathe. "

Clara Schumann, an extraordinary woman who lived an extraordinary life. A life she regarded as a beautiful gift which enabled her to give happiness to others. What more could one ask?

NB: This post is written directly and rather baldly from my notes on the talk. I hope that I have conveyed without error this glimpse of Clara's life so enthusiastically presented to us by June Goldsmith.

When I came home I was telling the "old scientist" about the lecture and he began to talk enthusiastically about Clara and her music, surprising me with his knowledge. Even though he is the only one of his siblings who does not play the piano, in fact he says he hid under the bed to avoid lessons with his musician father, he is aficionado extraordinaire with regards to music for the piano and the Romantic period in particular.


Crushed said...

So many of these great composers seem to have been flawed in some way.

She sounds somewhat similar to Mary Shelley, in some respects.

CherryPie said...

What interesting post, I bet you really enjoyed the talk!

Ellee Seymour said...

Yes, I've heard her amazing story before, what an extraordinary woman. Were her children musical too, did they share her same talent?

Dr.John said...

Thank you for sharing the lecture with all of us. I had never heard of her. She sounds like a person who had a great life despite the problems of parents and husband.

Carver said...

I enjoyed this post and didn't find it long at all.

Josie said...

JMB, what an interesting post. Gosh! When I was a little girl, all I wanted to be was a concert pianist. I loved the piano. My father played, and my daughter plays (and also her children) but In never did.

For some strange reason, for the past few days I have been waking up with a Chopin piano concerto going through my head.

This post was so interesting, and not long at all.

Semaj Mahgih said...

A lovely pen portrait, JMB and I look forward to an equally erudite one on great male composers.

jams o donnell said...

What a fascinating post. Thanks for sharing

Nunyaa said...

I love this post, found it fascinating and wanting to know more as reading progressed. Well done JMB :-)

GatorUnit said...

You've created a very vivid image of her. She sounds like a fascinating woman. Much ahead of her time.

Eight children and still touring?! Blimey.

This is Liz not GatorUnit, by the way!

leslie said...

Clara sounds like a woman ahead of her time certainly! And I think a biopic of her life would be quite fascinating. I was prepared to sit and read for a while with your caution, but the story was so fascinating, I didn't even realise the time passing and suddenly, it was over, making me want to know more. Thanks for sharing! :D

Tai said...

I knew a little about her from before, but it was really interesting to learn so much more! Thanks JMB!

jmb said...

Hi Crushed,
Maybe the flaws go with the genius. I guess you could say Clara was less flawed than Robert but she was not much of a mother, although her children adored her anyway.

Hi Cherrypie,
I did enjoy the talk. June is a very dynamic and interesting person herself.

Hi Ellee,
I don't believe they were musical, which is surprising given their double dose of musical genes.

Hi Dr John,
Clara did have a very tragic life in many ways, she also lost a child at three months, as was so common in those days.

Hi Carver,
I thought the story fascinating, although I had heard lots of it before too. Glad you enjoyed it.

Hi Josie,
What a shame you never learned to play. It's never too late you know. Maybe when you retire or perhaps your grandchildren might teach you.

Hi James,
Thank you. No talk scheduled on a male composer but you have thrown down the gauntlet so I shall have to oblige sometime.

Hi Jams,
Her life was very interesting and I'm glad you enjoyed my cobbled version of the talk.

Hi Nunyaa,
That's the way I felt. More please. I would like to read a well written biography of this woman and I'm sure there is one out there.

Hi Liz,
Where did you son come up with this Gatorunit moniker?
A tough cookie, that Clara and a very interesting person indeed.

Hi Leslie,
She certainly went against the norm in her time. In fact she had to fight Robert over it too, as he had a different idea of what a wife should do.

Hi Tai,
Lots of people know about the great love between her and Robert and their difficulties but not much more. I was very happy to hear more and especially from this very dynamic woman.

Thanks to everyone for visiting and commenting.

Janice Thomson said...

A fascinating read JMB. Geniuses do tend to be flawed as they focus so much on one area of their lives to the detriment of others - yet we would not have such great works if it were not so.

Vic, the Cariboo Ponderer said...

Very interesting read, I had not heard of her before

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I read a biography of her some years ago and I agree she must have been a remarkable woman. What an inspirational speaker you had!

MedStudentWife said...

Very interesting - thank you JMB

I hope you eye is doing well

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