Clara Wieck-Schumann: 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the pianist and composer

Clara Schumann, born Wieck, was a 19th-century pianist and composer. Widely regarded as one of the most talented musicians of her time, her work as a creator has often been forgotten, overshadowed by her husband.

Clara Wieck-Schumann: 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the pianist and composer
Clara Wieck-Schumann: 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the pianist and composer, © Getty / DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI

The name Clara Schumann has long been associated with that of her husband, the composer Robert Schumann. And yet, she composed most of her works before her marriage, and displayed throughout her life an impressive independence and strength of character. 

Who was this composer and pianist known throughout Europe? Who hid behind the mask of the eternal lover of her creative husband? Here are 10 little things to know about the life of Clara Schumann. 

Child prodigy

Born on 13 September 1819 in Leipzig, in Germany, Clara Wieck was raised in an extremely musical environment. Her father, Friedrich Wieck, was a pianist and highly regarded professor in the region. He began his daughter's musical and piano education at an early, and the young Clara joined the ranks of those child prodigies whose musical talents are expressed before even their first words. 

Following the death of her mother at the age of 5, the young Clara pursued with even greater passion her musical education, following her father's demanding routine. So much so that she gave her first concert at only 6 years old, with great success, performing alongside the highly reputable pianist Emilie Reichhold.

A piano star

From concert to concert, from town to town, Clara Wieck gradually built herself a great reputation as a talented pianist. Praised by the European public, each of her performances on stage aroused the admiration of audiences and notable personalities of the period.

"We heard the little Wieck of Leipzig - she's a veritable marvel; for the first time in my life I caught myself admiring with enthusiasm a precocious talent: perfect execution, irreproachable measure, force, clarity, difficulties of all sorts successfully surmounted under her fingers the piano takes on colours and life." 

Charles Alexander, Grand-Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in 1831. 

The critics were also unanimous of the pianist's style and technique. In 1839, the French critic Henri Blancard declared that she was "the musical lion of the moment". 

Admired by composers

Mendelssohn, Liszt, Chopin, Paganini… Clara Schumann encountered several of the greatest composers of the Romantic period. In turn, these composers soon admired the young musician. Liszt spoke of a "grand priestess of the art", and Paganini declared that Clara "had a vocation for art because she had feeling".

Not only in admiration of her performances, many composers also praised Clara Schumann's talents as a composer. Chopin, barely moved by the works of her husband, was "filled with enthusiasm" after hearing the young woman's Pièces caractéristiques opus 5 and 6. It was, however, Clara Schumann's Soirées musicales, composed between 1834 and 1836, that truly garnered the success and respect of her contemporaries, to the point that Liszt chose to perform the works in Vienna two years after they were composed. 

From friendship to love...

Le couple Schumann avec Clara au piano
Le couple Schumann avec Clara au piano, © Getty / UniversalImagesGroup

If Clara marries Schumann, I would say upon my death-bed that she is not worthy to be my daughter.

Clara was only 9 years old when she first met Robert Schumann, a young musician and a student of her father, though evidently less talented than the young Clara. As teenagers, the two grew close, listened to each other play, gave each other advice, and Clara even composed for Robert... Over the years, this close friendship gradually blossomed into an amorous relationship. 

However, several obstacles stood in the way of the young couple, notably the fact that Robert was already engaged to another, and Clara's father declaring outright: "If Clara marries Schumann, I would say upon my death-bed that she is not worthy to be my daughter."

Fighting for the right to marry

Friedrich Wieck's fight to prevent his daughter from marrying Robert Schumann grew to worrying proportions, despite the fact that the young man had essentially lived with the Wieck family for years. Clara's father even wrote anonymous and slanderous letters depicting Schumann as a worthless and untalented alcoholic, in the hopes of tarnishing the young man's reputation.

Why so much hate? Simply because at the time Robert Schumann was still completely unknown! Clara's father worried that his future son-in-law would be unable to provide for his daughter. After years of forbidding the young lovers from seeing one another, he took the matter to court. 

Thus began a trial during which composers, musicians, and friends came to testify in favour of the couple, resulting in a verdict allowing Clara and Robert to marry. At the age of 22, Clara was finally able to distance herself from her father's control and marry Robert. 

A stifling marriage

Liberated from her father's clasp, Clara Schumann now found herself married to a man whom she loved and admired deeply. However, she was also in her husband's shadow, despite having shared with him her fears three years before their marriage: 

"I wish to lead a life free from care, and  I see that I shall be unhappy if I cannot always work at my art [...] Ask yourself if you are in a condition to offer me a life free from care." 24 November 1837.

This idealised lifestyle was soon tarnished by the daily domestic duties to which she was unaccustomed, having been spared from all duties by her father so that she may focus on her musical education... However, Robert required peace and quiet for his art, and would lock himself in the only room with a piano for hours on end, leaving his wife to deal with everyday duties, and care for the children. 

Wife, mother, and pianist

Clara Schumann gave birth to eight children, of which one died after only a year and another, gravely ill, spent the rest of his life in an asylum. In the 19th century, it was the duty of the wife to care for the family. Clara Schumann therefore abandoned her musical career to become a mother, encouraged by her husband who declared: "Clara knows well that being a mother is her main priority". However, Clara was only a part-time mother, as she also continued her career as a concert pianist in order to provide for the family.

Robert was not yet a widely recognised composer, so it fell upon Clara to take care of the children and the house, and earn enough to support the family: her husband's fragile health required her to also become her husband's carer. 

Robert Schumann's "madness"

Almost ten years after their marriage, Robert Schumann began exhibiting the first symptoms of his madness, as was then described his illness. In 1854, he jumped into the river Rhine, a suicide attempt that willingly led him straight to an asylum. The composer was aware of his hallucinations, and drew upon them when composing his music.

Clara was left alone with their children, and therefore decided to stay with close friends.  Two years later, her husband was still and died on 29 July 1856 after holding his wife in his arms for the last time. Clara Schumann wrote: "With his departure, all my happiness is over. A new life is beginning for me."

Between strength and doubt

A woman must not wish to compose.

Following the death of her husband, Clara Schumann did not go back to composing music. Shortly after their marriage, Clara Schumann began already having doubts: "I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea. A woman must not wish to compose—there never was one able to do it. Am I intended to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that. That was something with which only my father tempted me in former days."

Her career as a composer was well and truly over, but not as a pianist. Throughout her life, Clara Schumann performed in towns throughout Europe and organised tours to perform the works of her late husband. A kind of final homage despite the various difficulties: she suffered from rheumatism and led an intense and fast-paced life. 

Brahms, the saviour?

Shortly before Robert was entirely consumed by his madness, a young composer came knocking at the door of the musical couple: Johannes Brahms. Clara quickly noticed the young man's musical talents and took him under her wing, introducing him to the right people and making him a star of 19th-century music.

Following Robert's admission to the medical institute, Clara was completely alone and found comfort in the company of her young protégé. The exact nature of their relationship remains unknown, but Clara and Johannes remained very close until the death of Clara Schumann on 20 May 1896.