Adventures in Feministory: Clara Schumann, Classical Music Composer
Though Clara Schumann was born in 1819, her biography reads more like a modern-day drama. Raised by a divorced father (the infamously temperamental piano teacher Frederick Wieck), Schumann quickly developed virtuoso skills on the piano and became a child star, touring Europe before the age of 18. While her touring paid the bills (much more than her husband Robert Schumann's job composing), Schumann's piano playing transformed into a love and knack for composition that earned her the adoration of Chopin, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. Yet the environment for women composers in the 1800s was toxic—so much so that it inspired Schumann to lament at the age of 20 that, "A woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?"
After years of acclimating to life on a stage, Clara Schumann began to take command of her performances. She started dropping in pieces she composed alongside the likes of pieces by Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. She also championed the works of her husband, who could not perform live due to a hand injury. She counted among her friends some of the most esteemed composers and players of the time: Joseph Joachim, Jenny Lind, and especially the young talent Johannes Brahms.
Schumann's devotion to her husband alone could have earned her a place in the history books. Over their 16-year marriage she bore eight children, tended to her husband's musical estate, and brought in the vast majority of the income. The two committed their love of music and of each other to record in a weekly diary they shared, writing pages of musings on the nature of their fame, artistic output, and the bristle of competition between lovers. The tome documented the heights of their affections for each other, until Robert's gradual expression of mental illness became too much for Clara to handle on her own. Robert Schumann's death in 1856 ended all of Clara's aspirations to compose her own music. Over the 40 years between her husband's death and her own, Clara Schumann composed just one piece, called "March."
Clara Schumann's piano trio in G minor.
Clara Schumann lived out the rest of her life teaching piano at institutions like the famed Hoch Conservatory. Her influence on music extends to the modern practice of piano players reciting from memory, as well as players' selection of serious, emotionally contemplative pieces by Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert, rather than pieces solely intended to showcase skill. Clara Schumann's legacy continues to thrive because in life, just as on the stage, she chose to tackle challenges that required more than just her rare technical merit.
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