The Extraordinary Life of Clara Schumann

Composer and pianist Clara Schumann


Donna: I'm Donna Weng Friedman. I'm a pianist, I'm a teacher, and I'm thrilled to be here today with the incredible soprano Allison Charney. 

Allison: I'm so excited to be bringing our series Her/Music: Her/Story onto the radio waves. And today we are excited to be here on WQXR to talk about The Extraordinary Life and Music of Clara Schumann. 

Donna: It's so funny, because I remember after I performed on your concert series, I get the next day an email from you, and the e-mail says: let's be friends [laughs]. And I think, oh I must have played really well, right? And so then we have lunch.

Allison: You did play really well.

Donna: Oh thank you. And we had lunch. 

Allison: It was more than that, it was more than that, I felt a kinship. 

Donna: Yeah it was weird because in that one lunch, what did I tell you about which I never tell about to anybody? 

Allison: Right. What you told me is that you're obsessed with Clara Schumann.

Donna: That's right. 

Clara Schumann was born on September 13th in 1819, in Leipzig, Germany. And we are celebrating her 200th anniversary this year. Her parents were divorced when she was very young. Her mother was a soprano and a pianist, and she left the household. So the father Friedrich Wieck took care of the five children.

Allison: When she was eleven her father took in a boarder, who was also a piano student of his, by the name of Robert Schumann. 

Donna: Robert Schumann heard about Friedrich Wieck, because he was a famous piano teacher, and actually heard about Clara Wieck, the 11 year old prodigy who had just given one of the most successful debuts in Germany. 

Allison: As a pianist. 

Donna: As a pianist. So he moved into the household and he was nine years older than Clara. So he was 20. And he brought a lot of life and laughter into that very serious household of five siblings. And Clara loved it, they just had such a blast when Robert came around. And when she was 13, and she started composing her piano concerto, Robert actually helped her. So it started out a little bit like teacher-student. And then the student created this unbelievable piece and I think Robert was very impressed, and they almost became colleagues after a certain point. 

Allison: So let’s now take a listen to the first movement of Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, performed by the pianist Francesco Nicolosi with the Alma Mahler Sinfonietta.


Romance: Andante Non Troppo Con Grazia from the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Clara Schumann, performed by Francesco Nicolosi and the Alma Mahler Sinfonietta


Donna: And that was the first movement from Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which she started writing at the of 13, with a little help from the 20 year old Robert Schumann, who was already taking more than just a little interest in Clara as well as her music.

Allison: And Robert would wait for her backstage for hours in order to just get a sentence or two in, to his beloved Clara. And as Clara matured into a full fledged teenager their relationship shifted. By the time she was 16 they were already having a flirtation. 

Donna: A romantic relationship. 

Allison: And he actually asked her father for permission to marry Clara.

Donna: And the father said no. They actually got engaged when Clara was 18, but Clara's father said that he was not an appropriate husband, he would never make any money and not only did he forbid the marriage, he deliberately sent Clara away on concert tours to keep them apart. 

Allison: They then took an extra step and decided to go to court to sue him. 

Donna: Basically they wanted to get married before she turned 21 which was the legal age. 

Allison: And strangely or coincidentally or something it just took forever and sure enough they won their suit. They married the day before she turned 21.

Donna: And in the beginning it was just wedded bliss, according to their diary. There's a very strange thing that Clara and Robert shared a diary.

Allison: They even took notes on their apparently quite active sex life. 

Donna: Don't forget! They had eight children down the line, so it was quite a very interesting diary that they shared.

And they shared musical ideas as well… for instance, Robert borrowed the opening of Clara Schumann’s Mazurka

Allison: Let’s take a listen to that Mazurka now. Here is Clara Schumann’s Mazurka in G Major from Soirees Musicales, performed by Susanne Grutzmann.


Mazurka in G Major from Soirees Musicales by Clara Schumann, performed by Susanne Grutzman


Allison: The Mazurka in G Major from Soirees Musicales by Clara Schumann.

Donna: So Robert wrote in his diary: "Clara has written a series of small pieces more delicate and richly musical in their invention than she's ever achieved before. But having children and a husband who constantly improvises does not fit together with composing. Clara herself knows her primary occupation to be a mother...”. And then he goes on to say: "After all Clara also understands that I have a talent to nurture and that I'm now at my best and have to take advantage of my youth as long as I have it. That's the only way it can work in artist marriages you know. You can't have everything together...". 

Allison: You know what he doesn't say, however, is not only is her primary occupation being a mother, but her primary occupation is financially supporting his career which was not lucrative. So she was not only caring for their eight children and him, but also on the road performing as a pianist and brought home enough money so that they could live the life that they led. And he could sit being creative nurturing his talent. 

Donna: Well, interestingly enough, the next entry in the diary is from Clara. And this is what she says: "My piano playing is falling behind. This always happens when Robert is composing. There is not even one little hour to be found in the whole day for myself...". 

Allison: To be fair, Robert Schumann suffered from a serious mental illness, and I think Clara understood that. As much as he might have written certain things in the diary that makes it seem as if he is belittling her, he also promoted her. I think he was very conflicted. 

Donna: In their marriage, I think there was some tension because of that. 

Allison: And as much as he thought of himself as being the great talent, he suggested that she try her hand at songwriting and she said to him: "A song you say? No, I simply cannot. In order to write a song, to comprehend a text completely this requires intelligence...". 

Donna: She wrote in her diary: "I sat around composing quite a bit this week for my beloved Robert. I just hope that they please him a little...". And boy did they ever, because Robert put his songs and her songs together in a collection and published them as a surprise one year anniversary gift for Clara. 

Allison: And so the song cycle Liebesfrühling was born. Let’s listen to one of Clara’s contributions to that cycle. Here is Warum Willst du And're Fragen performed by the swedish tenor Kalle Leander, and pianist Conny Antonov.


Warum Willst du And're Fragen by Clara Schumann, performed by Kalle Leander and Conny Antonov.


Allison: And that was Warum Willst du And’re Fragen from Clara and Robert Schumann’s song cycle, Liebesfrühling.

Donna: Clara was inspired by several composers and one of them was Schubert. 

Allison: Who wasn't inspired by Schubert? Especially if you want to write a song for voice. He was a master at word painting. You know even if you just listen to Schubert’s Rastlose Liebe, the piano introduction and the piano introduction to Clara’s Er Ist Gekommen, you can hear the painting of the text that's about to happen. There are storms raging, there's snow, there's wind, there's rain, all signaling a tumultuous and turbulent love affair.


Rastlose Liebe by Franz Schubert, performed by the ARK Trio and arranged by Michael Ching


Donna: So that was the beginning of Michael Ching’s brand new arrangement of Schubert’s Rastlose Liebe, performed by the ARK trio and that’s you, Allison, as the soprano. 

Allison: That’s right Donna, and you can listen to the whole song on our website, at WQXR.ORG/HERMUSIC. Now let’s compare that to Clara Schumann’s Er Ist Gekommen, performed here by the husband and wife duo, pianist Sviatoslav Richter and soprano Nina Dorliak, who actually sings the piece here in a Russian translation.


Er Ist Gekommen by Clara Schumann, performed by Sviatoslav Richter and Nina Dorliak


Donna: And the was Clara Schumann’s Er Ist Gekommen. What a great example this is of her mastery as a songwriter. So let’s take a break from Her/Music: Her/Story - The Extraordinary Life of Clara Schumann, and we’ll be right back.




Allison: Welcome back to Her/Music: Her/Story, I’m Allison Charney.

Donna: And I’m Donna Weng Friedman.

Allison: So, after she tried her hand at voice and realized that she could write for an instrument other than piano, Clara Schumann got even more... 

Donna: Ambitious. 

Allison: Ambitious. 

Donna: Yes. 

Allison: And decided to write for many instruments at once.

Donna: And this was a tough time for her because she had just suffered a miscarriage. And then she immediately became pregnant with her fourth child. So this was a period where she couldn't tour as a concert pianist. So it gave her time to work on one of her biggest works and absolutely one of her most popular pieces, the Piano Trio in G minor. She put in so much of how she was feeling during that time. You can hear the turbulence and the turmoil in the first movement. 


First Movement from the Piano Trio in G Minor by Clara Schumann, performed by Rodolfo Bonucci, Andrea Noferini and Francesco Nicolosi


Allison: The first movement of Clara’s Piano Trio in G Minor, performed by violinist Rodolfo Bonucci, cellist Andrea Noferini and pianist Francesco Nicolosi

Donna: So in 1853 the Schumann's moved to Dusseldorf and they moved into a bigger house. But in this big house, what was so wonderful was that Clara had her very own music room, away from Roberts. And she says in her diary: "composing gives me great pleasure. There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation if only because through it, one wins hours of self forgetfulness when one lives in a world of sound...".

Allison: Donna let’s talk about the messages that the two of them, Clara and Robert, sent to each other through their music.  

Donna: Yes. And they had many different ways of communicating to each other through their music. And one of them was called 'Musical Cryptograms'. So, what Robert Schumann did, he assigned different notes to different letters of the alphabet. We have C. L. A. R. A. 

I’ll just play the theme Robert wrote that calls out her name. 


Robert Schumann’s “Clara” Theme performed by Donna Weng Friedman (recorded live in WQXR studios)


Allison: So there's Robert Schumann expressing his love for Clara by spelling her name musically and putting it into his piece. 

Donna: That gorgeous theme inspired Clara Schumann to compose one of her most beautiful pieces, it's called 'Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann'. And she wrote this as a birthday present for his 43rd birthday. Towards the end of her piece she inserts a theme that she wrote when she was 14 years old. It's from her Romance Variée and I'm just going to play that opening theme. 


Opening theme from Romance Variée by Clara Schumann, performed by Donna Weng Friedman (recorded live in WQXR studios)


Allison: And remember Donna, or remember our listeners that when she was 14 Robert was beginning to take an interest in Clara Schumann and perhaps it was this very theme that made him fall in love with her. 

Donna: Well, certainly it meant something because she uses this theme and creates a love duet, towards the end of her theme and variations based on Robert Schumann's theme. And it becomes this secret message from Clara to Robert. And I'm going to play for you just the two melodies. 


Donna plays the piano


Donna: So I just wanted to illustrate the two themes together. Obviously there are other voices around it but I wanted everyone to hear Clara and Robert's love duet. 

Allison: So that maybe we can hear them, we can isolate them, as we listen to the whole piece. Clara Schumann's Variations based on a Theme by Robert Schumann in this performance by Konstanze Eickhorst. 


Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann by Clara Schumann, performed by Konstanze Eickhorst


Allison: We just heard the Clara Schumann’s Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann,  performed by Konstanze Eickhorst

Donna: So during this period of time you know where Clara is celebrating Robert's 43rd birthday in Dusseldorf, was also the time when a very young dashing brilliant composer by the name of Johannes Brahms waltzes into the Schumann household. He's 20 years old. He is dripping with talent and basically wows both of them. 

Now if you want to get a little glimpse into this musical menage a trois, you can look at this movie that I loved called 'Song of Love' starring Katharine Hepburn who plays Clara Schumann. And ever since I saw that movie, that's the only way I can envision Clara Schumann. Strong, gorgeous, and very self-assured. 


Excerpt from Song of Love

Katharine Hepburn as Clara Schumann: 

“Give us our freedom your worship, the freedom to live together under the same sky, and die if we must, together where our hands can touch. I love him proudly, immodestly, everlastingly.” 

Robert Walker as Johannes Brahms: 

“Please Clara, I need you. The music and the glory, they’re meaningless when a man’s alone…”


Allison: So let's talk a little bit about their relationship. I think Brahms and Clara and Robert fell in love with each other musically first. They had a musical love affair and whether that was consummated as a physical love affair, I don't know. 

Donna: I have a quote. Brahms wrote a letter to both Robert and Clara Schumann and in it he said: “Even I before I knew you, imagined that such people as you in such marriages as yours could only exist in the imagination of the rarest people. People do not deserve that you two, Robert and Clara, should be on earth at all. And I feel uplifted when I think that I may see the time when people will idolize you, two such wholly poetical natures...”

Allison: He insisted on referring to her often in his correspondence with other people as the virginal Clara Schumann. Now remember, she's had eight children. So clearly this is his own poeticization of how he thinks of her.

Donna: But that also goes back to his own history. As a child, he was forced to perform and play in brothels. 

Allison: He basically contained his sex life to partnering with prostitutes. So Clara was not somebody who he thought of in that same way even though he worshiped her.

Donna: Yes. 

Allison: And loved her romantically. 

Donna: Yes. 

Allison: But not sexually. That was different for him. You know Brahms moves in with Clara because at the end of Robert Schumann's life, he fears for Clara’s safety, he's not sure that he is safe to live with. And so he really commits himself to a mental institution where he lives out the last two and a half years of his life never seeing Clara again until the very, very end of his life. 

Donna: And Brahms was living with Clara and her children helping her manage the household and taking care of the kids. And this is when he composes his variations based on Robert Schumann's theme, that same theme that spells out Clara's name. And towards the very end of it, again, in the tenth variation, he quotes that little Romance Variée theme that Clara snuck into her piece for Robert. 

Allison: This piece of his which is also called Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, He dedicates in the music to Clara. 

Donna: And since they were living in the same house, he showed her every single variation and got her approval.

Allison: Let’s here just the first variation, from Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann

Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann (first variation only) by Johannes Brahms, performed by Idil Biret

Allison: So Robert Schumann dies in 1856, and Brahms and Clara are now presumably free to... 

Donna: Be together. 

Allison: Be together romantically. And they go off together on a holiday to Switzerland. We don't... Nobody really knows what happened, but it seems that Brahms cuts it off. 

Donna: Yes. 

Allison: And that Clara writes about this moment in her life as if she had been to a funeral. 

Donna: That's right. 

Allison: The death of her potential love affair with Brahms. They never did see each other again. 

Donna: No. 

Allison: But they wrote to each other, until Clara died in 1896. 

Donna: And Brahms died in 1897. 

Allison: So we've talked about how Clara Schumann so greatly and profoundly influenced her peers, her contemporaries, composers like Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Amazingly she is still influencing composers today. 

Donna: I think that it’s so important for the world to know today about who Clara Schumann was, and her legacy, that she left in her music. And for young women everywhere to feel empowered. It’s important to know that you can not give yourself up for anybody else, and she didn’t. She found the time to compose, and I think if she were alive today, I think she would just be ruling the world.

Allison: Donna it's been a pleasure talking to you about The ExtraordinaryLife of Clara Schumann today. 

Donna: Same here Allison. I had a blast. 

Allison: And I’m looking forward to next week when we explore the music and stories of our Three B’s; Lili Boulanger, Amy Beach...

Donna: Wait wait, let’s not give away the third one quite yet, because maybe our listening audiences could guess.

Allison: And you can hear more on our website, go to WQXR.ORG/HERMUSIC, to learn about Clara Schumann’s influence on today’s composers.  There you’ll a track of I Roar from the new piece, The Clara Cycle, by Kim Sherman.

Donna: In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this last heavenly taste of Clara Schumann’s music. Here is The Eggner Trio playing the Andante from her Piano Trio in G minor. 

Allison: We’d like to thank our fabulous production team: Curtis Macdonald, Sapir Rosenblatt and Mike Shobe. Her/Music: Her/Story is from Classical New York, WQXR. I’m Allison Charney. 

Donna: And I’m Donna Weng Friedman, and we’d like to thank you listeners for joining us today. We hope you’ll tune in again next week for Her/Music: Her/Story. See you next time.

The Andante from the Piano Trio in G Minor by Clara Schumann, performed by The Eggner Trio.


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