If you were to ask most people, even yourself, to name a few prolific composers of classical music, what names would you hear? Undoubtedly the usual names would appear; Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin…the list goes on. Now, what if I asked you to name some female composers? Did they even exist? Surprisingly, there are quite a few female composers that have slipped under the radar. From the duchess Anna Amalia who set up her own “Court of Muses” and wrote one of the first German operas, down to the opera singer Pauline Garcia Viardot who not only achieved international recognition, she also wrote several arrangements for voice by such composers as Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, and Handel.
One of the women I find most interesting is Clara Schumann. I know what you may be thinking, that surname sounds awfully familiar, and it should, as she was married to the more well known composer, Robert Schumann. Unfortunately because of this, and the fact that the great Johannes Brahms was infatuated with her for much of his life, she has mainly been mentioned in the context of these relationships. Recent interest has allowed us to discover more about her own life and musical training, and thankfully some of her works have been recovered.
Born as Clara Wieck in 19th century Germany, Schumann was brought up in a society that expected much from young women in terms of music. Girls were taught piano from an early age and received musical theory training, limited mostly to the basics as they were only to play and compose for salon gatherings in the house. Schumann was quite a special case. When her parents divorced, Schumann and her four siblings were taken into custody by their father, an amateur pianist, as was the law. With her father, she received an extended musical education including lessons in harmony, counterpoint, transposition, singing and violin.
After her father remarried, the Wieck household became a meeting place for many people concerned with the musical tradition, most importantly publishers and writers as well as other musicians. Schumann was very lucky in that it gave her a chance to perform for influential figures, even if the performances were not of her own works. This was her first step towards becoming a more public figure, and soon enough she had her first public appearance in October of 1828. She performed profusely after that, completing two Viennese tours. Clara also introduced the idea of solo concerts which were highly unusual at the time. She achieved wide critical acclaim and she was impressively given the opportunity by other composers such as Frederic Chopin and her husband Robert Schumann to premiere certain works.
Despite her talents and the hype that surrounded her, Schumann herself felt inferior as a composer, compared to her husband and many others. Who could blame her really? Her world was one that only took star female performers seriously, and often reviews began with a delightful; “Considering this composer is a lady…”. Her lack of self confidence still did not stop her. She refused to let domesticity get in the way of her love for music. Even after the birth of her children, she always put her role as a mother before her composition but not before her role as an artist. Usually women were holed up in their houses for the duration of a pregnancy, but Schumann toured right on through her eight pregnancies! As a result, her performing career was one of the longest sustained during the nineteenth century, lasting from 1828-1891 and included over 1,300 public recitals.
When her husband found himself in an asylum, she was at no great loss financially. She was able to support her family by performing and organising concerts. She also taught piano in the Leipzig Conservatory for some time, but as she took her role as a concert artist so seriously, she did not become a full time piano teacher until she was offered a place in the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt.
Clara Schumann wrote many works in her lifetime and it is a shame that few have been recovered. At the mere age of nine, one year after she commenced her musical training, she wrote her first piano pieces; 4 Polonaises op. 1. After that she composed in a wide range of musical forms which was unusual for a woman of the time, who were usually restricted to writing salon music due to the basic musical education they received. These forms included; piano works, music set to text, orchestral and chamber works. Many women of the time published their works under a man’s name so as to be taken seriously. Even Schumann used her husband’s name for three songs on texts by F. Rückert, op. 12. What is unusual about this is the fact that she had written and published before she had even met her husband, and before that she did not go under the guise of a male composer. The real reason for this is not known, however, her new role as a wife may have been the reason for this change, as women generally were expected to give up everything for a life of pure domesticity once married. Many of her piano works have surfaced, however, her German Lieder (songs) have received much less attention.
These Lieder are crucial to the examination of Clara’s growth as a composer as she only began writing them after her marriage to her husband. This coming together of two musical people provided them both with new ideas and inspiration as they began to explore their song writing abilities. Clara Schumann’s songs were more similar to the more older songs of Schubert and Mendelssohn which was odd as she was great friends with one of the most prolific Lieder writers of the time, Brahms. One would expect that he would have had some influence on her work. Even the style represented in her husband’s song cycles was completely different to hers.
The main problem with knowledge of Clara Schumann in recent times is there is much detail about her biographically. After all, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms are two canonical composers that generate much interest so it is understandable that Clara Schumann has really only been described in the context of these two relationships. As of late, much attention has been given to her life as a composer and not just as an accessory to the other composers’ lives. This is thanks to many music scholars, more notably, Nancy Reich and Pamela Susskind, who have brought the idea of Clara Schumann as a composer to the fore.