Celebrating Clara Schumann At 200

Public Domain
Clara Schumann, ca. 1850, photograph by Franz Hanfstaengl

Clara Schumann did something unthinkable for a woman in the 19th century.  She composed music. And, lots of it. Solo piano music, romances for violin, a Piano Concerto, and most all of it was written when she was in her late teens, 20s and 30s.

It was equally unusual for a woman to perform in public. But she did that, too. Schumann was one of the first pianists to ditch sheet music and memorize compositions for public concerts. Perhaps that was an advantage that made her one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. She was called Europe’s “Queen Of The Piano.” The Guardian newspaper called her “A Genius Of The Highest Order”, and reviewed her concert by writing, “Comparing Madame Schumann with the leading pianists of the day, we would say at once that she surpasses them all in that great quality which we sum up expressively by the word 'soul.'"

Clara Schumann was married to composer Robert Schumann. Theirs was a romance for the ages. Robert met Clara Wieck when she was a 9-year-old child prodigy.  He was 18, and had moved in with the Wieck family to study piano with Clara’s father. When she was older they wanted to get married, but her father fought it ferociously and infamously. They took him to court, and won. They eventually had eight children together. But Robert suffered from mental illness. He was committed to an asylum and died in 1856.

Clara lived another 40 years and made sure her husband’s music was promoted and played.   But at this point, she pretty much stopped composing her own music to focus on performing. Gig money and her work as a piano teacher became important to support her family.

It’s possible that Clara Schumann found love again with Johannes Brahms. The Schumanns were dear friends of Brahms and letters show that he was in love with Clara. After Robert Schumann’s death, Brahms moved in upstairs, and helped Clara with her family and career. Their relationship was likely platonic, but we may never know the details of the story, since they burned many of their letters to each other. 

This month on CPR Classical, we’re marking the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth.  Listen each day for her music and stories about her remarkable life and career. Find CPR Classical at 88.1 FM in Denver, 99.9 FM in Boulder or on your smart speaker by asking it to "Play CPR Classical." You can always listen online or use your phone.