Clara Schumann, music’s unsung renaissance woman

Schumann is among the most celebrated names in the classical music canon — for most people conjuring the poetic and intense work of Robert Schumann, the Romantic master.

But when the Schumann in question is his wife, Clara, the name should remind us most of the frustrating lack of recognition still accorded female composers.

Not that she has gone ignored. Indeed, Clara Schumann — whose 200th birthday is on September 13 — was a celebrity pianist in her own time; the music she wrote is a recognised part of the narrative of 19th-century musical Romanticism. The milestone has inspired a flurry of Clara Schumann related recordings and concerts, including a birthday celebration concert at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Saturday.

Clara Schumann’s work has long been overshadowed by that of her husband.Credit:Franz Hanfstaengl

But to this day, references to Clara Schumann are routinely centered on considerations of Robert Schumann's life and music — not to mention gossipy speculation about her relationship with Brahms, a close friend of the couple — to the detriment of her own creative achievements.

"When I was growing up, I first learned about Clara from reading about Robert Schumann," US pianist Lara Downes says. As a teenage virtuoso, Downes was determined to track down Clara Schumann's music and played her Piano Concerto in A minor with a small regional orchestra in Alabama.

On her new album, For Love of You, which intertwines music by Clara and Robert Schumann, she again explores her early fascination. She's one of a growing number of performers finding inspiration in Clara Schumann's legacy — and bringing it before a wider audience.

Another is the gifted young British pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason. Having recently been signed to the prestigious Decca label, Kanneh-Mason boldly decided to devote her entire debut album, Romance, to music by Clara Schumann.

Since Schumann more or less stopped composing after Robert Schumann's early death in 1856, when he was 46 and she was only 37, her oeuvre is relatively small — just 23 published works — and comprises almost exclusively solo piano pieces, chamber music and lieder. Romance offers an engaging overview of her style as an instrumental composer, starting with a warmly personal account of her Piano Concerto.

A child prodigy trained and strictly supervised by her father, Friedrich Wieck, Schumann had already debuted at the Gewandhaus in her native Leipzig, Germany, and toured to Paris before her teens. Born in 1819, she became one of the 19th century's foremost piano virtuosos — in the same league as her contemporary Franz Liszt, and over a much longer stretch, remaining active for more than six decades. (She died, at 76, in 1896.)

Schumann also began composing early. In her youth, she "astonished audiences as much by her compositions as by her playing," Nancy Reich wrote in her milestone 1985 biography Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman.

While Robert Schumann was a virtually unknown and deeply insecure composer, Clara Schumann commanded an international reputation; her advocacy helped his work circulate. Robert had first entered her life when he became a student of her father — who eventually waged a losing court battle to oppose their marriage, which went forward in 1840 — and his initial compositions focused on music for solo piano, her instrument. It was Clara Schumann who encouraged her husband to write his Piano Concerto, which she premiered and played often.

Thomas Synofzik, director of the Robert Schumann House in Zwickau, Germany, said the tendency to partition Clara's career into what she composed versus what she performed is misguided. "She was a pianist first — and also a composer," he said. "Since of course she made no recordings, her documented legacy is her composition. But I always think one shouldn't see music history as merely the history of music which was composed but also the history of musicians who have performed it."

New York Times

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