Clara Schumann

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“Such love as ours is rare and how cruelly were we parted!”

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German Austrian composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) first met Clara Josephine Wieck (1819-1896) when she was only 8 years old. Clara was a child prodigy born into a musical family, although her parents separated when she was 5. Her father ensured that she received training in piano, violin, singing, theory, harmony, composition, and counterpoint as early as possible. He was a music teacher and Schumann was one of his pupils.

Clara was a virtuoso concert pianist and composer, both of which was really uncommon for women in the 19th Century. She later also became a noticeable music teacher, by the time she reached her mid-teens. She traveled extensively and performed before sold-out audiences and received a lot of praise from the critics.

Schumann first saw her during a concert and was so impressed by her skills as a pianist that he decided to take lessons with her father.

He got to know Clara better in 1830 when he settled in at the Wieck family's home.
Before long he was the family's daily companion and recognized favorite, and Clara's friend in particular. The best thing were the evenings, which 11-years-old Clara and her little brothers liked to spend with Robert. He had an unlimited talent for inventing tales, charades and another games. When entertaining his little friends he became a child again.

During Clara's first concert trip Robert wrote to her:

“My dear Clara, I know your thoughtful head and you understand your old charade-inventing sleep-walker as well… During your absence, I visited Arabia and can tell you the things you like the most: six new tales about [spiritual] doubles, 1001 charades, eight funny riddles and some nice stories about robbers and a white ghost – Oh, I'm trembling so much!”

The bond between Schumann and Clara was mostly strengthened by their shared love of music. Robert had a strong interest in the way Clara's talent developed and dedicated some of his works to her and she even returned the honor. Thanks to music it was easier to find a shared mode of expression, despite their age difference. In 1832, he wrote to her:

“I often think about you, not in a brother's or comrade's way but the way a pilgrim thinks about his distant sanctuary…”

By 1833 the friendship had become so deep that Schumann wrote her a letter containing the following proposal:

“Tomorrow at the stroke of 11, I shall play the Adagio from Chopin's variations and at the same time I shall think of you very intensely, exclusively of you. Now my request is that you do the same, so that we may see each other and meet in spirit. The place will probably be over the little Thomaspförtchen where our [spiritual] doubles meet.”

She answered:

“How can I live happily when you no longer come too see us! As to your request, I will grant it, and shall find myself at 11 o'clock tomorrow over the little Thomaspförtchen.”

In the Spring of 1834, when Clara returned from her usual tour, Schumann noticed she had grown into an adult. At the time, Clara realized that she felt jealous of Schumann's girlfriend Ernestine.

She later told Schumann:

“Strange feelings stirred my heart (young as it was, it beat warmly even then) when we went for a walk and you talked to Ernestine, and sometimes made a joke with me. It was on this account that my father sent me to Dresden, where I gained more hope again; even then I thought how happy I should be if some day you were my husband.”

“How well I remember,” she wrote years later, “how you came into the room, that first afternoon after our return from Hamburg, and hardly gave me even a passing greeting, and how I went in tears to Auguste, who was with us, and said: Oh! I love no one as I love him, and he did not even look at me!”

Schumann wrote about this occasion:

“You were no longer a child with whom I could laugh and play. You talked so wisely, and in your eyes I saw a ray of love, deeply hidden. Do you know what happened then? I broke up with Ernestine. I felt I must. […] Amidst all [...] dark thoughts and images there now came one dancing towards me, yours and yours alone; it is you, who — without knowing or wishing it — have kept me for many long years from all connection with women. Even then, the thought sometimes glimmered in my mind that you might perhaps become my wife; but it all lay too far in the future; however this might be, I had always loved you heartily. […] You are my first love. Ernestine had to come, in order that we might be united.”

Their friendship recommenced and their common interests grew stronger. They grew even closer and on an Autumn evening of 1835, they first declared their romantic love to each other.

Unfortunately, her father did not approve their relationship, because he was afraid that Schumann would not be successful as a composer and was even below her standing musically. He wanted to keep Clara away from him and even threatened him with physical violence.

During the years that her father tried to keep the lovers apart, Clara and Schumann wrote to each other secretly through an intermediary.

The couple ultimately had to go court to obtain official permission to get married, which finally happened when she was 21. They eventually reconciled with Clara's father, when Schumann had shown to be an important composer.

Their musical marriage was happy and they had eight children. Clara continued to perform, compose, and teach piano, while at the same time she supported Robert and his career.

However, four of their children died young. Tragically, Schumann also suffered from severe depressions. He eventually attempted suicide in 1854 by throwing himself into the Rhine. He ended up in a mental asylum and Clara was not allowed to visit him, until a few days before his death of syphilis in 1856.

She became a widow at the age of thirty-seven and wrote:

“With his departure, all my happiness is over. A new life is beginning for me.”

And to her children, she added:

“He was a man of godlike qualities, one who had few equals. What heavenly benevolence he felt towards all men, how he protected all young and straggling artists, with knew nothing of envy or jealousy! How he loved you [her children] and me. And this was your father, whom you have now lost, and for whom all Germany mourns.”

Years later she would write in her diary:

“Spirit of my Robert look down on me, comfort, strengthen your unhappy wife — ah! I can write no more.”

In 1861 she expressed her lasting grief in a letter to a friend:

“I am unable to feel the benefit of what you call resting in the country, and taking care of my health. I cannot long bear being quiet, it throws me into a terrible state of melancholy. I feel, this already here, the loneliness is so dreadful that often I can hardly breathe, a load seems to weigh upon me.

Dark thoughts crowd upon me, and I think of all the terrible experiences I have known, and live through them once more, and then my longing for Robert becomes so violent that often I hardly know how to control myself. My happiness went with him, and I can never again know what it is to be really light of heart. I know what you will say and that is why I do continue to live. The children have kept me alive, but for them all would have been over long ago.”

Another diary entry, from August 1880, reads:

“I am reading through our correspondence, day by day, and it makes me unspeakably sad for as I read these letters my heart once more throbs with passionate love for Him, the noblest and grandest of men, and I feel bitterly conscious of my loss.
Why could I not possess him longer?
Why was our time together so short, after such struggles?
Such love as ours is rare and how cruelly were we parted!
I thought with deep yearning: If only I could play them to him once more. He never heard me play his things the way I play them now. The thought often makes me terribly sad.”

In a letter to Rosalie Leser, dated July 29th 1894, Clara writes:

“How time passes! It is more than 30 years since I lost my dearly loved husband. It is incredible that one should survive such a loss, and live so long without him who was everything to me. But he left me the children, and I had to live for them — now indeed it is no longer necessary, for I am nothing but a trouble and a burden to them. But it is better not to speak of this. That I should live to see how the number of my husband's adherents has increased, that is indeed a happiness such as seldom befalls a great man's wife.”

Despite her state of mind, Clara a continued to tour as a concert pianist after her husband's death. She never remarried but did develop a close platonic friendship to another German composer, Johannes Brahms.

She resumed traveling and performing in order to earn money to support her family an was very successful. Health problems forced her to slow down during the early 1870s, though she continued traveling well up to the late 1880s.

Clara Schumann left behind a significant body of compositions that include

‘Quatre Polonaises pour le pianoforte’ (1831),

‘4 Pièces caractéristiques for piano’ (1836),

‘Piano Trio in G minor’ (1846), and

‘Drei Romanzen für Pianoforte und Violine’ (1855).

In the 1870s, she devoted a considerable amount of time to tasks related to Schumann’s work, including editing the Gesamtausgabe of his works and a volume of his Jugendbriefe.

In 1878, Clara became the principal teacher of piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, while simultaneously continuing her career as a performer. She appeared publicly for the last time in 1891 but continued to teach until she passed away in Frankfurt on May 20th 1896.

Sources

I owe this case to the diligent research and translation efforts of Cyril Galaburda.

Comment

This case could be considered a mix of a platonic friendship and a erotic relationship, especially because their bond only became romantic when she was around 16 years old. However, Clara had become aware of her feelings when she was 15. We may conclude that her relationship started as a real platonic friendship but developed into a romantic relationship over the years.

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