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Clara Wieck Schumann


Robert & Clara Schumann

By Arthur Elson
History has never witnessed a more perfect union of two similar natures, both endowed with rich mental gifts, and each filled with a perfect sympathy for the other, than the marriage of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck. It holds a place in the story of music similar to that occupied by the romance of Abelard and Heloise in poetry. The lives of both composers afford an example of the most unselfish devotion and depth of affection, combined with the highest idealism in an art that poets themselves have admitted to be even nobler than their own.

The birth of Clara Wieck, on September 13, 1819, took place at Leipsic. That city had not yet entered upon the period of musical greatness that it was soon to enjoy. The day of Beethoven and Schubert was apparently passing, and only the lighter and more trivial styles of composition held sway. Her father, however, Friedrich Wieck, was a piano teacher of extensive reputation and most excellent qualities, and did his best to raise the standard of the place. From him, and from her mother as well, the young Clara inherited her innate musical taste. But the maternal influence was not of long duration, for domestic troubles soon caused the separation of Wieck and his wife, the latter marrying the father of Woldemar Bargiel, while the former also entered into a second union, with Clementine Fechner at Leipsic. A daughter of this second marriage, Marie Wieck, won some fame as a pianist, but was far surpassed by her elder half-sister.

Clara did not at first show signs of becoming a child prodigy, but in her fifth year she gave indications of possessing musical talent, and her careful father proceeded at once to develop her powers. So successful were his individual methods that in four years she was able to play Mozart and Hummel concertos by heart, and ready to sustain her part in public. Her first appearance was in conjunction with Emilie Reichold, one of her father's older pupils, with whom she played Kalkbrenner's variations on a march from "Moses." One important paper of the time spoke of her success as universal and well deserved, and did not hesitate to predict a great future for her under her honoured father's wise guidance.

Wieck has been the subject of much criticism on account of his supposed harshness and severity. In the matter of Clara's musical training, however, these charges cannot be sustained, as one of her own letters will show. "My father has come before the world in an entirely false light," she writes, "because he took art earnestly, and brought me up to regard it earnestly. People have no idea how utterly different from the usual standards must be the whole education and career of any one who wishes to accomplish something worth while in art. In connection with artistic development, my father kept the physical development especially in view also. I never studied more than two hours a day in the earliest times, or three in later years; but I had also to take a daily walk with him of just as many hours to strengthen my nerves. Moreover, while I was not yet grown up, he always took me home from every entertainment at ten o'clock, as he considered sleep before midnight necessary for me. He never let me go to balls, as he judged I could use my strength for more important things than dancing; but he always let me go to good operas. In many free hours I used to grow enthusiastic over piano arrangements of operas and other music. One cannot do that when one is tired out. Besides that, I had, even in earliest youth, intercourse with the most distinguished artists. They, and not dolls, were the friends of my childhood, though I was not deprived of the latter. Those people who have no comprehension of such a serious bringing up ascribed it all to tyranny and severity, and held my accomplishments, which may indeed have been more than those of a child, to be impossible unless I had been forced to study day and night. As a matter of fact, it was wholly my father's genius for teaching that brought me so far, by cultivation of the intellect and the feelings united with only moderate practice."

"To my pain," she continues, "I must say that my father has never been recognized as he deserved to be. I shall thank him during my entire lifetime for the so-called severities. How would I have been able to live through a career of art, with all the heavy difficulties that were laid upon me, if my constitution had not been so strong and healthy because of my father's care?"

About this time there came upon the scene a youth named Robert Schumann. Born in 1810, of a family that was literary rather than musical, he had obtained some knowledge of the art with his father's consent. After the death of the latter, his mother would not hear of his choosing a musical career, but insisted on his studying law. This he did at Heidelberg, in a rather original manner,—taking long walks, reading Jean Paul's works, and practising piano nearly all day. In the summer he met Wieck, whom he adopted as a teacher, and in this way he came to know the learned pedagogue's talented daughter.

Her musical education was now beginning to bear fruit. In the concert tours that she began soon after her first triumph, she never allowed herself to be carried away by the fondness of the public for mere display, but always aimed at something higher. Instead of making a show of her technical attainments, she consecrated her powers to the cause of true art. It required great courage to uphold her standard, for she came upon the scene at a time when only phenomenal playing, bristling with seemingly unconquerable difficulties, won the public homage and the public wealth. Herein both she and her future husband showed themselves actuated by the very highest motives.

Unfortunately for the romantic side of the story, theirs was not a case of love at first sight. No less than five years after their first meeting, we find Schumann deeply interested in a certain Ernestine von Fricken, another pupil of Wieck. It is stated that the beautiful numbers of the "Carneval" were due largely, if not wholly, to her inspiration, which at that time reached its highest point. The letters A, S, C, and H (the German way of notating B) represent the Bohemian town of Asch, where she was born, and are also the only musical letters in Schumann's own name. He himself noted this coincidence in a letter to Moscheles, and built the themes of the various numbers almost wholly upon them.

However this may be, he certainly had a great admiration for Clara even in her early years. He took piano lessons of her father, and became for a time an inmate of their house. He owed much to the teaching, but still more to the stimulating artistic society of the Wieck family.

In 1829 he left his teacher, and made a final effort to prepare for the legal career that his mother had planned for him. It was of little avail, however, for in the next year we find him writing home that his entire life had been "but a twenty years' strife between poetry and prose,—or music and law,—and it must now cease." So earnestly did he plead his case that his mother at last yielded to his wishes, though with fear and trembling, and the final decision was referred to Wieck. That artist, who had by this time fully recognized Schumann's great gifts, gave his decision in favour of music, and the young enthusiast, after having his affairs duly settled, returned to Leipsic and devoted himself altogether to art.

It is probable that he would have given himself wholly to the career of a successful pianist, but for an accident. After a year of painstaking practice, he invented a contrivance by which the weaker fingers were allowed to gain strength by usage, while the third finger was held back. This mechanism was altogether too successful, for, after using it some time, he found his third finger so badly crippled that he was forced to give up hope of ever winning fame on the concert stage. What seemed a catastrophe to him has proven a blessing to the world, for, if he had spent his life in executing the works of others, he would never have had the leisure to create his own immortal compositions.

Meanwhile Clara was steadily improving her already remarkable powers. Besides keeping up her playing, she now began regular study in composition. In later life the two were to labour together in many pieces, but even at this time Schumann's interest in her work was great, and in one of his early compositions (Impromptu, Op. 5) we find him using a theme of hers as the basis of his own piece.

The eleven-year-old girl was now started upon a series of tours by her father, who wished to give her some idea of the world, and to let the world gain some knowledge of her attainments. From Dresden he writes home joyfully to his wife: "It is impossible to describe the sensation that your two little monkeys from the Leipsic menagerie have made here." But the fatherly care and wisdom were not lacking, for he continues: "I am anxious lest the honours and distinctions should have a bad influence upon Clara. If I notice anything of the sort, then I shall travel further at once, for I am too proud of her modesty, and would not exchange it for any decoration in the world." In the next year the triumphs were continued at Weimar, Cassel, and Frankfurt. After winning the approval of Spohr and other competent judges who were above all envy, she proceeded to Paris, where her father had the proud privilege of exhibiting her talents to Chopin. In Weimar, Goethe took a deep interest in the wonderful child, and sent his picture to the "Richly endowed (Kunstreichen) Clara Wieck," as a token of the pleasure her playing had given him.

As the result of her Parisian meeting with Chopin, she became one of the best interpreters of that master's works, and gave them to the world in much the same manner that she did those of Schumann soon afterward. Usually her work in educating the public was successful. But critics are not all safe guides, and even to-day we find many unmusical men in responsible newspaper positions, so it is not surprising to find an occasional misunderstanding occur. In Vienna, for instance, we find the influential but self-important Rellstab writing that it is "a shame that she is in the hands of a father who allows such nonsense as Chopin's to be played." These strictures did not extend to the performance, however, and the writer does not fail to acknowledge her marked talent. Fétis bears witness to the "lively sensation" she created on the banks of the Seine, while along the Danube she won victory on victory. The aristocracy were eager to admit her to their circle, and the Austrian Empress named her court virtuoso, an honour never before bestowed on a foreigner.

Some time before this, she had won the attention and interest of the young Schumann, if nothing more. He had been at work on a symphony in G minor (which, by the way, proved a failure and was never published), and the performance of the first movement in his native Zwickau took place at a concert given there by Clara, then only thirteen. Even then her performance was astonishing, and, as Schumann put it, "Zwickau was fired with enthusiasm for the first time in its life." Schumann was no less excited than the rest of the town. His letters of that time are full of expressions that seem to betray a deeper feeling, though he himself did not become conscious of it until later. "Call her perfection," he writes to a friend, "and I will agree to it." In a Leipsic tribute, he inquires: "Is it the gifted child of genius (Wunderkind), at whose stretch of a tenth people shake their heads, but admire? Is it the hardest of difficulties, which she throws off to the public as if they were wreaths of flowers? Is it perhaps mere pride, with which the city looks upon its daughter; or is it because she gives us the most interesting things of the most recent times with the least delay? I do not know; but I do feel, simply, that she has the spirit that compels admiration."

The great poets, too, gave her their tributes of praise. "They recognized in this inspiring vision," says Liszt, "a true daughter of their fatherland. They strewed their pearls of song before her, and glorified this Benjamin of their race, who, gazing about with inspired glances and wondrous smiles, seemed like a silent Naiad, who felt herself a stranger in the land of prose."

Meanwhile the love that had been growing in silence between her and Schumann began to take tangible form. His unspoken passion found expression in the written rhapsodies addressed to "Chiarina" in his new music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. In a more purely musical manner, his feelings took shape in such works as his "Daidsbündler" Dances, the "Chiarina" of the Carnival, the F-Sharp Minor Sonata, the Kreisleriana, the Humoreske, the Novelettes, and the Nocturnes,—truly an offering of rare beauty, and well worthy to express the feelings of the inspired lover. They bore witness of his adoration to all who knew him, and all who were able to listen with understanding ears. And Clara, too, in spite of high honours and higher friendships, had already given her heart to the silent man endowed with the deep spirit of romance and poetry. She was his, in spite of the opposition of her father, who guarded his treasure with a jealous eye, and would hear of no marriage unless in the distant future.

It was in 1836 that the two lovers came to an understanding. In the next summer Schumann made formal mention of his suit to her father. Wieck's refusal may have been due to his entertaining higher hopes for his now famous daughter, but at any rate the father found an adequate reason in the vague and unsubstantial prospects of the young composer. This was a sad blow, but Schumann tacitly acknowledged its justice, for he soon began making efforts to better his condition, instead of working only for the glory of art. Although he tried to resign himself to give Clara up, he could not do so, and with her consent he left for Vienna in hopes of giving his music journal a broader field. The effort was not a success; Schumann found Vienna no less trivial in its tastes than many other places, and wrote home that people could "gabble and gossip quite as much as in Zwickau." His sojourn there had one important result in his discovery of Schubert's beautiful C major Symphony, which he sent to Mendelssohn for performance at the Leipsic Gewandhaus.

Disappointed in material prospects, he tried to obtain a more honourable position by getting a Doctor's degree from the University of Jena. "You know, perhaps, that Clara is my betrothed," he writes to an influential friend. "Her high rank as an artist has often led me to consider my own humble position, and, although I know how modest she is, and that she loves me simply as a man and a musician, still I think it would please her to have me seek a higher position in the civic sense of the word. Let me ask you: Is it very hard to get a Doctor's degree at Jena?" Apparently it was not hard when a man of Schumann's fame applied, for in another letter he writes: "Everything combined to fill the measure of my joy. The eulogy is so glorious that I certainly owe you a large share of thanks for it. It gave me and my friends most sincere pleasure. The first thing I did was, of course, to send a copy into the north to a girl who is still a child, and who will dance with glee at the idea that she is engaged to a Doctor."

But Wieck's refusal to sanction the marriage could not be altered. In fact, his opposition became even stronger and more determined. Finding any direct appeal of no avail, Schumann was forced to have recourse to law, and Wieck was compelled to give reason for his refusal before a legal tribunal. Although Schumann was not rich, yet he possessed some income from his paper, and his other work brought him enough reward to enable him to make a home for Clara. Besides these receipts, he had a small property that gave him an annual return of 500 thalers, and as he himself wrote: "We are young, and have hands, strength, and reputation.... Tell me now if there can be real cause for fear." Nevertheless the case dragged on, and a nature as sensitive as his must have been deeply mortified by the legal wrangling and the publicity of the affair. At last a favourable decision was reached, and after a year of doubt and suspense the marriage took place on September 12, 1840.

Henceforth their life was one perfect union. There could be no happier marriage in the world than this one, where a man of creative genius was mated with a woman gifted with the ability and the wish to interpret his works earnestly and faithfully. They regarded art from different points, but with the same ideas and ideals. Both were wholly devoted to all that was true and noble, and both felt the same antipathy to whatever was trivial or superficial. Together they moved along the pathway of life; together they won their laurels. "To admire one or the other was to admire both," says Liszt, "for, though they sang in different tongues, their life music made but one noble harmony. The annals of art will never divide the memory of these two, and their names can never be spoken separately."

And now Schumann's happiness began to take tangible form and show itself to the world. Hitherto his compositions had been chiefly for the pianoforte, but now his genius burst forth in song. Cycle followed cycle during the next few years, and the fortunate lover sang of his happiness in strains of such romantic beauty that their charm can never fade while love and music have power to sway the passions of mankind. The warm feeling and emotion in the poems of Rückert, of Chamisso, of Heine, were echoed and intensified by the choicest melodies of the art that is said to begin its expression where language ends. That Clara had some direct share in these songs, besides publishing many of her own, there can be no manner of doubt. She certainly formed their inspiration, and must have assisted in the task of preparing them.

These works placed Schumann in the foremost rank of song composers, and he is now held equal to Schubert and Franz in this form, if not actually the greatest song-writer in the world. Franz is more delicate, Schubert more simply melodious, but Schumann's songs are endowed with a warm vigour of strong emotion that has never been equalled. His contemporaries felt their force, but hardly realized their full power, for one of the writers on Schumann's own paper accorded them only a secondary rank. "In your essay on song-writing," the composer replies, "it has somewhat distressed me that you should have placed me in the second rank. I do not ask to stand in the first, but I think I have some pretensions to a place of my own." Posterity has been proud to place him with the foremost.

In other matters besides those relating to art, the marriage was perfectly happy. Both husband and wife possessed simple domestic tastes, and both were endowed with the innate modesty that prevented their being harmed by the continual praise of the world. They lived for each other, and for their children. He modelled his compositions on lines to suit her artistic nature, and she threw herself ardently into the task of giving these works to the world. Her days were spent in winning fame for him, or in shielding his sensitive and irritable nature from too rude contact with the world. Now that his life was one of perfect tranquillity, he withdrew more than ever from intercourse with strangers, and became wholly absorbed in his domestic felicity and his creative work. The complete happiness of his married life was bound to produce its effect on his nature, and not only in the songs, but in the larger works also, his most beautiful music is due to the inspiring influences of this part of his life.

After a time his wife was able to entice him from the quiet home (first in Leipsic, then Dresden, and finally Düsseldorf) that sheltered this scene of domestic harmony. Sometimes her tours were taken alone, but at last she was able to draw him with her into the world. In Germany, in the Netherlands, in Austria, even in Russia, constant triumphs awaited them. There were a few exceptions, chief among them being Vienna, the city where Mozart struggled so long in vain, and where Gluck was unable to produce more than a passing impression by his great operatic reforms. But nearly all the places they visited offered admiration and incense to the faithful pair of artists. Through Schumann's genius, that of his wife was influenced, and Clara Schumann became far greater than Clara Wieck had ever been. She became a true priestess of art. She did not rest until she gave the world a clear understanding of the depth of thought in his great works. She made her fame serve his, and considered the recognition of his qualities her own reward. Yet it still happened at times that this recognition came slowly, and in Vienna, as late as 1846, he was spoken of merely as the husband of Clara Wieck, and after the court concert given by her, some one turned to him with the question: "Are you musical, too?"

Gradually the perfect happiness was marred by the growing sickness of Schumann. Always extremely nervous and excitable, he had on one or two earlier occasions been forced to forego work. In 1851 the disease became evident again. By degrees his conduct grew more and more eccentric, and he became a victim of actual delusions. He often insisted that he heard one particular note, or certain harmonies sounding, or voices whispering messages of hope or of sorrow. One night the spirits of Schubert and Mendelssohn seemed to reveal a theme to him, upon which he tried to complete a set of variations. At times he would work calmly and sensibly, but one day, in a fit of mental anguish, he left his house, alone, and threw himself into the Rhine. Rescued by some boatmen, he went home to experience a few more lucid periods, but insanity gradually mastered him. His last two years were spent in a private asylum near Bonn, where he died July 29, 1846. His wife, who had been on a tour in London, returned just in time to witness his end. He was buried in Bonn, near the tombs of Beethoven and Schubert.

As widow, Clara Schumann continued faithfully the work of her married life. Her many tours were still a means of performing her husband's music, and she was able to know that her life-work was successful in Germany at least. Soon after his death, the name of Schumann became immortal, and the very peculiarities of his work were recognized as essentially national in character. His widow found a home with her mother in Berlin, where she stayed for four years, and whither she returned after twelve years in Baden-Baden. In 1878 she became chief teacher of piano in the school founded by Doctor Hoch at Frankfort, and there for ten years she lived and worked with the most complete success. In 1892 she retired from her labours, and on May 19, 1896, her long life of usefulness came to a quiet end. Five days later she was laid at rest with her husband in the peaceful little cemetery at Bonn.

In private life, as well as in public performance, her personality remained one of earnest simplicity and nobility of thought. She was admired and loved by all who knew her, and when failing health compelled her to give up her teaching, their affection showed itself in the substantial form of a large subscription.

Her compositions, according to the foremost critics, are not numerous, but show the sincerity of purpose that marks all her work. Even her earliest pieces, chiefly short dance forms for piano, are redeemed from triviality by interesting rhythms and fresh, almost abrupt, modulations. They are mostly delicate rather than forceful, with frequent ornaments and staccato passages that require a light and skilful touch. Among her later and more serious works, the G minor trio is musicianly and interesting; the three cadences to Beethoven concertos are charming examples of their kind, and the preludes and fugues (Op. 16) form an excellent legato study, and are eminently successful in construction as well. A piano concerto, Op. 7, dedicated to Spohr, is short and poorly balanced, the first movement being a single solo leading into the andante. The later works, especially the songs, show plainly the influence of her husband's great genius. The list of her published compositions is as follows:

Op. 1, Quartre Polonaises, piano.
Op. 2, Caprices en Forme de Valses, piano.
Op. 3, Romance Variée, piano.
Op. 4, Valses Romantiques, piano.
Op. 5, Four Piéces Caracteristiques, piano.
Op. 6, Soirées Musicales, 6 pieces, piano.
Op. 7, Piano Concerto in A minor.
Op. 8, Variations de Concert (Pirate de Bellini), piano.
Op. 9, Souvenir de Vienne, Impromptu, piano.
Op. 10, Scherzo for piano.
Op. 11, Three Romances, piano.
Op. 12, Three Songs from Rückert's "Liebesfrühling."
Op. 13, Six Songs.
Op. 14, Second Scherzo, piano.
Op. 15, Four Piéces Fugitives, piano.
Op. 16, Three Preludes and Fugues, piano.
Op. 17, Trio, G minor, for piano, violin, and 'cello.
Op. 18 and 19 did not appear.
Op. 20, Piano variations on a theme of Robert Schumann.
Op. 21, Three Romances, piano.
Op. 22, Three Romances, piano and violin.
Op. 23, Six Songs from Rollet's "Jucunde."

Without opus number, Cadenzas to Beethoven's concertos, Op. 37 and 58; Song, "Liebeszauber," Geibel; Andante and Allegro for piano; Song, "Am Strand;" and a march in E flat, composed in 1879 for a golden wedding.

Clara Schumann edited Breitkopf and Härtel's edition of her husband's works, and issued a volume of his early letters.