Clara '96 at

Why Clara '96? A Personal Account

David Kenneth Smith

In the fall of 1982, when I began my Freshman year of college at Wheaton Conservatory, I was confronted by a powerful music that was all the rage that semester. I was a member of the Concert Choir, which was working on the Symphony of Psalms by Stravinsky, and though it took several weeks of hard work to learn the music and overcome my many misgivings, I finally came to accept and love it. Since then, I have performed the work several times, conducted it in classes, and now I hold it fast as one of my favorite pieces, and as a great masterpiece of this century.

I recall there were several Stravinsky concerts that fall that I participated in or attended; I heard the Symphony in C, the Octet, L’Histoire du soldat, and a valiant reading of a serial piece for tenor. My choir even attempted Stravinsky’s Anthem.

Why would a naive Freshman such as myself be subjected to such difficult and inaccessible music? Not only because of the wisdom and forethought of my professor, Paul Wiens, but because our conservatory, and indeed the world, was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s birth.

In the spring of 1991 I was privileged to be a member of the Indiana University Chamber Choir conducted by Robert Porco, as he prepared the Mass in C minor, K. 427 by Mozart, along with the Ave verum corpus. Lucky for me, Lincoln Center was hosting performances of Mozart’s complete works, and our choir was invited to New York, orchestra and all, to perform.

It was the 200th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s death. But what a thrill, to be a small part of history, to touch in the slightest way the very staves of music that he penned.

Since then, in my studies and recitals, I have sought ways by which I could come closer to composers, though often long dead. Some composers I began to like through hearing their music; others, I read about. I found that a stronger way to become attached was to analyze their music, perhaps imitate it. More recently, I’ve read their diaries and letters. It was this way that I met Robert and Clara Schumann, practically in person.

Another approach I encountered in a Song Lit class, when a classmate, Cheryl Martin, presented herself one day as Fanny Mendelssohn. With her feet propped and blanketed, and without ever stepping out of character, she told of her youth, her marriage, her music, and struggles with family and brother over composing and publishing. Fanny finally excused herself from the class to go to a rehearsal of her brother’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht. From the handout we’d been given, we suddenly realized the significance of the moment. Fanny would collapse and die during that rehearsal. It sent chills up and down my spine to be so close to the ghost of Fanny!

Taking inspiration from this and discussions later in that class, I began to plan a recital to include the lieder of Clara Schumann. I remembered something from an earlier Robert Schumann class I’d taken from Thomas Mathiesen, that Robert and Clara had some lieder which were published intertwined. I researched some more, and found the collection, Liebesfrühling, Op. 37/12 (Robert’s Op. 37, Clara’s Op. 12) drawn from poems of Friedrich Rückert. I knew I had to perform these.

Around the same time, I discovered the newly translated Marriage Diaries of Robert and Clara, and began to read their intermingled entries. During the summer of 1994, while I learned the lieder and made my own translations, I read through the entries of the diary for the years 1840 and 41.

The things you find! Not only did I read about the concerts they attended, the books they read, and the people they came into contact with during those years, but I found that while Clara was writing her Op. 12 lieder, she was pregnant with their first child, Marie. I was especially tickled by this, since my wife, the pianist for the recital, is also named Marie. We both enjoyed reading through the diary that summer.

It turned out that I needed to delay my recital from summer to early fall, and I couldn’t resist it - September 12 was the 154th anniversary—to the day—of their wedding. I can’t imagine a more auspicious time to perform the songs that were written that first year of marriage, which Robert secretly published, and then presented to Clara on their first anniversary.

Short of actually meeting a composer in person, and living with them for a while, I consider that total immersion in their music, writings, life and times is the only way to really know them and perform their music with knowledge, insight, and emotion. With the centennial of her death upon us, we now can seize the opportunity to become an actual part of the history of Clara Schumann.

By total immersion and participation in her history, I think one can most closely know the essence of what Clara might have felt when she set:

Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen,
er hat genommen mein Herz verwegen.
Nahm er das meine? Nahm ich das seine?
Die beiden kamen sich entgegen.
 He came in storm and rain,
 he boldly seized my heart.
 Did he seize mine? Did I seize his?
 Both came together.
                       or :
Liebst du um Schöheit
o nicht mich liebe!
Liebe die Sonne
sie trägt ein gold’nes Haar!
 If you love for beauty,
 oh, do not love me!
 Love the sun,
 she has golden hair!

In performing Clara Schumann’s lieder, I found pieces that were simple and heartfelt, or dramatic displays of piano virtuosity; she chose poems of devotion and passion, often uniquely reflecting a woman’s perspective. Her expression of text is direct but full of nuance. Simply bewitching.

An eminent lieder performer and pedagogue, upon hearing the Op. 37/12 in my recital, said that if it was a contest between Robert and Clara, she would have won hands down. I could only agree. I preferred her pieces to Robert’s - and I love his music like that of few other composers.

I assure you that once you perform her music, you too will beg her forgiveness that for the beauty of her music, you love her.

What can I do?

Perform a concert. Send in your program. Become a member of the Clara Schumann Society.

Do research. Send in a citation. Become a member of the Clara Schumann Society.

Go to information on Membership.

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