The Awakening of Clara
Long before my alarm was to go off, one morning in November last year, an idea popped into my mind: a Clara Schumann Home Page on the World Wide Web. It had suddenly occurred to me that I could do more in 1996 than simply perform a few of Clara's songs. Since it was to be the centenary of her death, it would be a great year to encourage a lot of other people to perform her music too.
I'd been working on a Web project at my day job in the library, but had never launched a site. Friends of mine had created their own pages, and it seemed like the easiest way to reach a wide audience by myself. Armed with a two-hour tutorial, I went to work.
Clara had been a favorite project of mine for over a year, since a recital I performed featuring her work. But even before that, as I was considering how to promote the music of women, I had rejected the common approach of the faithful who confine women's music to particular concerts "For Women Composers Only." I found that these events usually turn out to be "For Women Only," with female conductors, female performers, and female audiences. Thus they do little to advance the cause to help women's work gain acceptance by the music world at large. Rather than exalting their creativity, this practice furthers the impression that women composers need special assistance, that their music is inferior, and that they require affirmative action.
Instead, I felt that their music should be allowed to stand on its own, freely mingled and compared with music of male composers, especially their colleagues: those with whom they interact and share influence. Only in this way can the discerning listener be able to objectively assess the imagination and craft of any composer, and praise the genius of those worthy.
I sought to put my theory to work. In the fall of 1994, with my wife at the piano, I performed a lieder concert that highlighted the shared influence of women composers and their male colleagues. I chose a quartet of composers whose lives at one time were centered in Leipzig, and who had considerable interaction: Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Robert and Clara Schumann. The billing for the concert was "Friends, Siblings, Spouses."
I even tried an experiment. For a women's choir at a local high school, my wife and I made a presentation of some songs by the Schumanns and the Mendelssohns. Without telling the girls who had written each piece, I sang them and took a vote whether they thought a woman or a man was the composer. Trying to catch the girls with their biases showing, I sang Clara's massive and strong Am Strande, and Robert's spritely and cute O ihr Herren, Op. 37 No. 3. The first poll was well split. But after a few more songs, they had me figured out.
For further inspiration, we had been reading a fascinating diary. On the day following their wedding, Robert Schumann gave a new diary to Clara for her birthday, recommending that they write and exchange the diary weekly, so that each could pen reflections on music they had heard, projects they were working on, and any personal notes to the other that spoken words could not express. They also wrote about the people they met, those with whom they dined and performed their music. These groups often included the Mendelssohns. They continued this diary for several years, though Robert was not as faithful in keeping up with the writing. The diary serves as an intimate conversation, a first-hand narrative of the lives of two artists, and in its recent English translation, provides us with a detailed chronicle of their creative offspring.1
I found their interaction so fascinating, that Robert would give his symphony to Felix to critique his orchestration; that Fanny and Felix would exchange pieces for comments; and that Robert would encourage Clara to compose songs. What a mix of ideas and sounds! For sure, the music of the Schumanns is quite different from that of the more conservative Mendelssohns; but the stir of music and aesthetics must have provided a fertile soil for creativity.
Though an interesting comparison can be drawn between the lives of the two women, I was most intrigued by Clara Schumann. As the daughter of piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, she benefitted from fine training and a heritage of musical talent. Wieck quickly recognized Clara's prodigious gifts and developed her career as a piano virtuosa from very early. Clara was not quite ten at her first public appearance in 1828, and her first recital was two years later. Different from Fanny's experience, Clara's father encouraged her to write and perform her own music, in an effort to promote her career. Even so, Clara had somehow assimilated the notion that women weren't supposed to be composers. From her diary one reads the November 1839 entry:
One may wonder, given the 76 years Clara lived and her long musical career, why her creative output was relatively small. Since she wrote little music after Robert's suicide attempt in 1854, her composing period was hardly 20 years. During that time, she wrote about 70 pieces. A closer examination of her life provides an answer, considering the aspects of life that foster or hinder creativity.
Clara Wieck married the pianist and composer Robert Schumann, whose demeanor and character were so in question by her father, that only a prolonged court battle enabled their wedding. But Robert was the center of a literary and music circle of great intensity and scope, which certainly was a source of creative inspiration to Clara as well.
Clara and Robert had eight children (ten pregnancies), and their prolific medical history continues to be the subject of many books. Because of the physical and mental instability of her husband, Clara took many of the family responsibilities upon herself. These kept her from practicing, performing, and composing. Also, the proximity of their two pianos often made it impossible for Robert and Clara to work at home simultaneously; they distracted each other. Inevitably, Clara would set her music aside in deference to Robert.
The circumstance of the 1849 revolution in Dresden vividly illustrates the role that Clara played in their family. When it seemed that Robert might be drafted into the conflict, they evacuated with their first daughter Marie to nearby Maxen and the relative safety of the castle belonging to Friedrich Serre. Clara then returned across battle lines with two other women to retrieve her other three children Ä all this while she was seven months pregnant.
Following Robert's death in 1856, Clara devoted herself to editing his works and correspondence, and concertizing widely to support the family.
In my 1994 concert, I performed the six songs of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel's Op. 1, and selected songs by her brother Felix on poems of Heine and Lenau. But to best demonstrate the ferment of inspiration, I sang the Op. 37/12 of Robert and Clara Schumann.
Like the wedding diary whose entries they alternated writing, Robert also suggested that Clara join him in composing a group of songs and publish them intermingled. They eventually chose poems from the collection Liebesfrühling by Friedrich Rückert. Clara's songs were written in June 1841, while she was 6 months pregnant with their first child, Marie. Robert secretly had the 12 songs printed in two volumes and presented them to Clara on their first anniversary, September 12, 1841. As printed, Clara's songs were No. 2, Er ist gekommen; No. 4, Liebst du um Schönheit; and No. 11, Warum willst du and're fragen. Her songs were considered Opus 12. Robert wrote the remaining nine songs of the set as his Opus 37 (two are duets).
Their selection of poetry is quite distinctive. Clara chose poems of devotion and passion uniquely from a woman's perspective; Robert preferred poetry full of metaphor, vivid imagery, and classical themes, but likewise revealing a man's viewpoint. As they alternate in performance, the songs reflect the conversation found in the wedding diary itself, an intimate and touching dialogue of two loving and creative souls.
The crowning glory was in the serendipity that our September 12 concert coincided with the celebration of the 154th wedding anniversary Robert and Clara.
Later, because of my work with these composers, I was asked to visit a doctoral song literature class at Indiana University and make presentations on Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, which entailed performing a handful of songs, and then making some comments on their lives, style, and music. When it came to my current project of creating a home page for Clara Schumann, I initially thought I would post on the Web the contents of the class handouts, which included quick facts on her life and work, a start-up bibliography and a discography.
Then the task began to snowball. I made a list of works by genre, then by chronology; I loaded the program notes and translations of the songs from my recital. And the concept began to grow on me: to create a campaign to perform all of her works in her centennial year 1996. After all, it had been done with other composers; why not Clara?
For more, go to: Why not Clara?