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May 3, 1998
Desai’s first chapter, To the Gewandhaus, appears here by permission and unedited:
The artist should beware of losing touch with society. Otherwise, he will be wrecked as I am. ROBERT SCHUMANN
PART ONE ROBERT AND CLARA
Wieck Schumann was not precocious, not as a composer, no Mozart, no Mendelssohn,
but no less a prodigy as a performer, certainly more than Schumann, probably
more than Brahms, perhaps Beethoven, perhaps even Chopin, played with the
big boys on their own turf, the only woman worth mention in the arena,
among Kalkbrenner, Chopin, Pixis, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Thalberg, Hiller,
Henselt, Herz, inflaming the imaginations of all who heard, a girl to their
eyes, a woman to their ears indeed, a man to their ears. Goethe had
said she played with the strength of six boys, this girl of twelve.
You would have known her by her eyes, big eyes, the eyes of a deer, the size of plums, blue as midnight and her nose, sharp, narrow, commanding the first things Robert Schumann noticed, meeting her the first time, at the house of Dr. Carus, a mutual friend of their fathers, she still nine, he eighteen. You would have noticed also her lips, tiny, her face, also tiny, a triangle, also sad, and you would have understood the hostess, agog with Rousseau’s theories of childrearing, upbraiding her pappa for stealing from Clara her childhood for his own gain, even attempting to punish him by refusing him introductions for Clara’s benefit, in Paris, where they were headed. Friedrich Wieck had written to his wife, his second, the erstwhile Clementine Fechner, Clara’s stepmother, not without pride, that their hostess had kept her introductions and he’d kept Clara.
But that came later, 1831, the first Paris tour. Her first concert, right there in Leipzig, at the Gewandhaus, established her from the start, 1828, almost a bad start. She was to play the treble in Kalkbrenner’s Variations, opus 94, with Emilie Reichold, another of her pappa’s students. So skinny, so tiny, she appeared lost in her blue evening dress, the shoulders puffed like cannonballs, making of her head, black hair swept in a blue bow behind, another cannonball, and of her arms sticks. In the parlor mirror she looked, even to herself, a puppet, holding up her arms to curtsey but waiting for the coach, the brilliant glass coach of the Gewandhaus, she imagined herself a princess, smiling through the window as they clopped through the streets, and waving, just barely, as waved princesses and queens.
Her pappa was already at the hall; there were always modifications to be made, regarding tickets, hand bills, refreshments, the instrument, all the logistics concerts entailed.
Her brothers played in the adjacent room, Alwin then seven, Gustav five, Alwin beating Gustav as he was always beating Gustav with the advantage of his years but her pappa beat Alwin, was always beating Alwin, also Gustav, but mostly Alwin, with Gustav he was gentler, or perhaps bored, because he was younger, always the younger. She smiled, he never beat her, she had been the favorite since she’d shown promise at the piano, begun lessons at five, shortly after her mamma had remarried, left for Berlin, and she’d taken her mamma’s place in her pappa’s affection, prevailing even over his second wife. She was his creation, the product of and the advertisement for his Method, to be revealed for the first time in public that day.
The call came from below, a booming voice; that would be the coachman. Nanny came into the room. “Clara, it is time.”
Clara swung from the mirror. “I am ready.” She rushed down the stairs with Nanny to the street, eager, excited, prepared for anything except what she saw, a bus drawn by four horses, more like nags, old from the way they carried their heads, as low as the reins would allow, spines sagging as if in former lives they might have borne Sancho Panzas and Falstaffs and fat, Sancho Panzas and Falstaffs themselves among horses. Inside, two benches faced each other, backs to the windows, to the street, wooden benches, without cushions, not even sheets, not to be compared with the soft white upholstered seat she’d been promised in the Gewandhaus coach. Worst of all, the bus was full of girls in party dresses, but otherwise common; they might have been wearing their day clothes for the way they stared, pointed, giggled, so without decorum.
An older woman smiled from one of the benches, appeared kind.
“Come. Get in. Sit by me.”
She must have looked as scared as she felt for the woman to have invited her to sit next to her.
Nanny squeezed her arms, pushed her gently. “Luck to you, little Clara. Bye-bye.”
Clara nodded, pursed her lips to keep from crying, got in without a word.
The driver flicked the reins. “GEE! HAW!”
Nanny waved as the bus jolted to a start, but Clara stared at the street between the heads of two girls across from her, conscious only of the low slow rumble of the wheels on the cobbles, reverberating around the second E flat below middle C.
She wasn’t nervous, she’d never been nervous when she’d played, not even for her pappa’s friends in Dresden, once even with an orchestra (two violins, two violas, one cello, one flute, two horns), the Piano Concerto in E flat by Mozart, at a rehearsal for someone else’s concert, about which she’d written to her mamma in Berlin that she’d made no mistakes but the applause, which came as a roar, had scared her.
“Whoa, Hans! Whoa, Bruno, Hilda, Greta! WHOA!”
The bus jolted to a stop.
The door was opened, a new girl got in, also wearing a party dress, the older woman confirmed her name, “Fraulein Antonie?” and the bus was off again with another flick of the reins, another “GEE! HAW!” another jolt, more desultory clopping along the cobbles. Clara couldn’t imagine who the girls might be, but after the bus stopped again, picked up yet another girl, and showed no signs of picking up speed, she was afraid she would be late. Still she might have said nothing but instead of turning down the Neumarkt and around the corner, the way to the Gewandhaus which she knew well, the bus turned the other way. “This is not the way to the Gewandhaus, is it?” she asked the older woman.
The woman’s eyes opened as wide as Clara’s. “To the Gewandhaus? Oh, no! We are going to Eutritzsch.”
Clara said nothing but her deep blue eyes shone, she could no longer keep them dry.
The woman frowned with puzzlement. “What is it, liebchen? Why do you cry?”
She knew she was the focus of all eyes, but remained dumb. She was bad with words, had learned music before words; her pappa had thought her stupid because she wouldn’t talk, but music had given her courage for words, she could pull notes out of a piano, repeat them to herself, learn them as she couldn’t learn words. There was no piano from which she could pull words, and her pappa had encouraged her with words only after he’d seen what she could do with music. Nanny, with whom she’d been left much of her babyhood while her mamma and pappa resolved their differences, wasn’t good with words either but there had always been music in the house; her mamma played, her pappa taught, which was how they’d met.
She was saved by the clatter of galloping hooves behind them. The girls and woman turned as one body. The glass coach of the Gewandhaus swung around a corner into the street, the driver hailed them to stop.
Both bus and coach came to a halt, the door of the coach opened, and the porter’s daughter, also named Clara, stepped out. The mistake became clear; the bus was heading for a country ball; the two Claras entered their rightful vehicles. The ride to the Gewandhaus was hardly as Clara had expected, much too fast to see the street, to be seen herself, much too fast for dignity, but in her anxiety that she would be late, her pappa angry, the audience impatient she no longer imagined herself a princess waving.
The Gewandhaus itself wasn’t impressive, the Clothiers Building, a converted warehouse, foursquare structure on the Neumarkt, without a formal approach, no portico, no column, no approach at all, one step took you into the building, off the street, narrow wooden steps led up into the narrow hall, bare walls, seats like pews, above the stage an inscription: Res Severa est Verum Gaudium, the Truest Joy Comes Through Seriousness.
She was afraid of what her pappa would say, but he approached with a papercone of sugarplums. “Clarchen,” he said, smiling, her stern pappa who smiled only when he saw his advantage, “I forgot to tell you. Performers are always taken to the wrong house the first time they play, always. It is the custom. Do not be afraid.”
Her pappa appeared so unconcerned she lost her own concern, answered his smile with her own, couldn’t hold back. He patted her head, careful not to upset her bow, handed her the cone. She took the cone, picked a plum, popped it in her mouth.
Onstage, both girls (even Emilie, though older, was hardly a woman) were graceful to watch, smiling, stately, never lifting eyes from the notes, hands from the keys, but despite their benign appearance their attack was feral, particularly Clara’s, befitting the feral Variations, and the discrepancy between what was seen and what was heard was startling, the women still as madonnas, the music hard, brittle, brilliant, roiling but always irresistible, making of the Variations a song, the essence of her pappa’s Method, not to strike the keys, not to sound fingers on the keys, only hammers on the wires behind, giving up fingers to the piano, not conquering the piano but becoming the piano, keeping fingers close to the keys, hovering in readiness, building energy, before sliding them forward, building pressure, pressing the keys, mining the sound, the song.
You would have thought, watching her concentration, that she had nothing else on her mind, but you would have been wrong; it wasn’t that kind of work, murder on the fingers more than the mind, mechanical magic, and her fingers were trained too well to surrender however her mind turned, as it was turning then to how she would tell Alwin and Gustav her story, how they would laugh and how she would tell Herr Schumann the next time she met him at Dr. Carus’s house.
She was thinking also of the curtsy to follow, the descent from the bench, facing the sea of strange smiling faces, the staccato slap of hands, more fearsome than the performance itself. Later she felt she’d curtsied too quickly, bobbed more than curtsied, but it didn’t matter, didn’t detract from her success.
The concert was reviewed the next morning in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung:
It was especially pleasing to hear the young, musically talented Clara Wiek [sic], just nine years old, perform to universal and well-earned applause Kalkbrenner’s Variations on a March from Moses. We may entertain the greatest hopes for this child who has been trained under the direction of her experienced father, who understands the art of playing the pianoforte so well and teaches with devotion and great skill.Copyright © 1998, Boman Desai.