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Robert and Clara Schumann briefly shared a creative life of intense happiness

Posted in Historical articles, History, Music on Thursday, 29 August 2013

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This edited article about Robert and Clara Schumann originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 388 published on 21 June 1969.

Robert Schumann, picture, image, illustration

Music teacher Friedrich Wieck shouts at Robert Schumann while his daughter, Clara Wieck, looks on

Robert Schumann was 18 when he gave up the law as a career and began to study music under a stern piano teacher named Friedrich Wieck. Robert found that his instructor was “sometimes as wild as a boar,” and at first he almost dreaded going to Wieck’s music shop.

There was, however, one calm and gentle person in the Wieck household – the teacher’s gifted young daughter, Clara.

Clara had always been something of a puzzle to her parents. She did not speak a word until she was almost five. Then, when in the following year (1825), she started playing the piano, she showed such brilliance that by the time she was nine she had given a successful public performance. Four years later she went on a highly-praised concert tour.

Everyone agreed that Clara was a “musical genius,” and as a pianist she certainly far outshone her new friend and fellow-pupil. Dissatisfied with his own progress, Robert cut the webbing between his fourth and fifth fingers to increase the stretch of his hands. But it was soon clear that his real talent lay in composing rather than playing music.

To escape the distractions of student life, he moved into a room at the top of the Wieck’s house, in the German city of Leipzig, where he could work in peace. He looked upon Clara as a younger sister, and shortly afterwards became engaged to one of her friends. Despite this, the bond between him and Clara grew stronger still.

By 1833, their names were being linked together musically. Clara gave a concert in Leipzig at which she played “the first movement of a symphony by Robert Schumann . . . who has already made a favourable impression by several interesting and original compositions.” So ran an advertisement for the concert, which marked the beginning of a distinguished partnership between two young musicians.

Gradually Robert came to realize that his feeling for Clara was stronger than mere brotherly affection. He broke off his engagement to the other girl and, although Clara was frequently away touring the concert halls of Europe, which meant they were parted for long periods, they kept in touch by letter and by both playing the same piece of Chopin music at the same time.

Clara’s father was strongly opposed to their romance. He felt that she should be “wedded” to her piano, and stormed that, “the idea of Clara being married is preposterous!” In an attempt to end the relationship, he sent his daughter to Dresden, where she was put in the care of another music teacher.

Herr Wieck had an additional reason for not wanting Robert as a son-in-law. There was mental instability in the composer’s family, and both his mother and sister had been affected by it. But even this did not deter the young sweethearts.

Letter after letter now passed between them, until finally Robert forced Clara to choose between the two men who dominated her life. “You cannot belong to both me and your father,” he declared. “You must give one of us up.”

So Clara agreed to marry her childhood friend. She felt they should wait until she became of age – but that was five years away, and Robert was not prepared to delay things any longer. He sought legal permission to marry Clara despite her father’s objections, and an unpleasant court hearing dragged on for many months.

In the end they had to wait until Clara was 21; then, in September, 1840, they were married in a small village near Leipzig.

By this time Schumann was in full flower as a composer, and he wrote that: “I compose so fast it is almost unnatural: but I could sing myself to death, like the nightingale!”

He had set to work on his famous Spring Symphony, which he “conceived in a fiery hour.” He hurriedly wrote down the outline, which left him feeling “perfectly blissful but exhausted.” But the details of the score itself cost him countless nights without sleep – all of which were sympathetically noted in Clara’s diary.

When the Symphony was finished, Schumann said that its conductor should “inspire the orchestra with something of the spring longing which obsessed me when I composed it. At the opening, let the trumpet-call be the summons to awaken. Then, in what follows, suggest the tender green of spring; even the flutter of a butterfly. . . .”

Conducted by the eminent composer Felix Mendelssohn, the work established Schumann as a musician of the highest order. He and Clara attended the symphony’s first performance, and Clara recorded that, “I have never heard a symphony so much applauded. The happiness shone out of Mendelssohn’s eyes!”

In spite of their early troubles, the Schumann’s marriage proved a very happy one. They were reconciled with Herr Wieck, and Clara played many of her husband’s most beautiful compositions, her interpretations helping them to become known and loved throughout the world.

Their home was filled with children and music, and nothing contented Clara more than to hear notes and chords “booming through the house, and to know there is another work being created in the depths of Robert’s soul.”

Schumann, who now kept a joint diary with his wife, appreciated the sacrifices that she made for him. “Too often,” he confessed, “she must pay for my songs with silence and invisibility. That is often the way in an artistic marriage. But if the people concerned love each other, that is good enough.”

One of his greatest works, the Piano Concerto in A minor, was given its first performance in Leipzig in 1846. The piece was in three movements, and naturally enough Clara was chosen as the soloist. “I am as happy as a king,” she wrote, “at the thought of playing it with an orchestra.”

Soon after this, however, Schumann’s health began to fail. He suffered from increasingly severe bouts of depression and “mental exhaustion,” until in 1854, at his own request, he entered an asylum. He died there two years later, leaving Clara to outlive him by forty years.

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