In the Realm of Tones: Celebrating Clara Schumann, composer

Friday, Sept 13, 2019 was a full moon. That seemed to get a lot of media attention, that coincidence…omens, portents of doom, rehashery of memes and movie franchises. It was also the 145th birthday of Arnold Schoenberg, which showed up on my feeds, though no one made too huge a deal about it, waiting, no doubt for blowout that we’ll likely see in 2024.

200 hundred years ago, the moon was a waning crescent. More significantly, however, it was the birthday of Clara Wieck, eventually Clara Schumann. Significant because we like nice round numbers, but oxymoronically significant because you wouldn’t have known at all in Kansas City, where there was very little fanfare.

That surprised me. Starting in May/Juneish, I put out a query on social media, to see what people had planned for the big day. Those posts got a few shares, but disappointing results. I sent a few emails to likely parties, to no avail. With no bites, I hoped I had at least put a bug in someone’s ear.

Learning about Clara has been a eye-opening pastime this year. Who was this sad-eyed woman? How did she inspire such devotion from these besotted “geniuses”? From what I could recall from my music history courses (and reinforced by program note after program note) she was a pianist who married a much older Robert, who hurt his hand and then went crazy (a little fuzzy with that timeline), and that Brahms was in love with her, which she may or may not had reciprocated.

All I really knew, though, was that she was a footnote.

I pulled out a few of my old textbooks and flipped through for mentions of Clara.

In Leon Plantinga’s Romantic Music, there’s the chapter “Schumann and His German Contemporaries.” Friedrich Wieck (Clara’s father who taught Robert and her) gets a mention on the second page of the chapter. 33 pages later (harrumph), Clara gets one paragraph, which she shares with Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. The author mentions her as performing in St.Petersburg in reference to St. Petersburg as a popular stop for touring musicians, mentions her again as the object of Brahms’ attention, later in reference Brahms’ work (he asked her opinion of a score, the author does not record what she said), and then again, in reference to Brahms, as a collaborating editor on the works of Robert.

Plantinga mentions she is a pianist and piano teacher, and that she “tirelessly championed” the works of Schumann and Brahms. Harrumph. He does not mention her 60+ year international career and fame, her compositions, or her family responsibilities. There is no consideration into how her championing influenced taste-making and these composers’ legacies.

The standard A History of Western Music, 4th Edition does a slightly better job. Clara again shares a paragraph with Fanny, but at least the editors acknowledged her own and separate career, though they falsely and lazily state she continued to compose throughout her life. She did not. They are not curious as to why. Her half paragraph also includes a side note about her father “(who also taught Hans von Bülow).” LOL why does this small bit of space need to be further impacted by men, hmm? Later, she is referenced in terms of Brahms (though, again, acknowledged as a pianist and composer), and then later as Robert’s “beloved,” before getting one paragraph about her lieder (though with a heading, this time, and a listening example).

I will add, however, that the 9th Edition takes a more rounded approach to Clara and other women, presented in their own right. “Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel have emerged as key figures because of their family ties to composers central to the tradition: their compositions and descriptions of their playing make clear they would have been great musicians even if Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn had never been born, and their stories function almost as parables about how social attitudes nurture and hinder talent” (p.623). It’s refreshing that students now hear a different narrative.

Alex Ross’ Listen to This simply recounts, in the chapter “Blessed Are The Sad: Late Brahms,” that she, summoned by her husband, listening “transfixed” to Brahms (“a lovely young man with flowing blonde hair”) perform, and then (AGAIN) simply as the “object of an infatuation that she reciprocated in emotional terms, although the relationship probably remained platonic.” Cool. Next we hear, he wrote a note to her because he was so sad Robert died (but no word on how Robert’s asylum and death effected her); then again in terms of Brahms’ opinion of her (though Ross notes she was a “leading pianist of the age, and a composer of considerable gifts”); mentioned again as a recipient of Brahms’ letters (but nothing of her response to Brahms); and, finally, one more quote from Brahms’ letter as sent to Clara.

Harrumph. As I’ve read more and listened more and thought more about her, I cannot abide that. This artist was no man’s footnote.

Once I realized the anniversary was going to pass by with no local artists/organizations acknowledging it, I should have done something more myself (similarly to the John Cage 100 party I threw back in 2012).

Luckily, Lawrence, KS-based pianist and educator Christy Fiola Miller put together Clara’s Birthday Party at the Lawrence Public Library. I hauled my kids off to Lawrence for the day, where we visited Chops Comics, the Raven Bookstore, and attended the party/concert, with a final stop at Grinter’s Farm, for a sunset tromp through the sunflower fields.IMG_1721.jpg

The event was pleasantly kid-friendly. Cake, crafts, and a program for kids filled with coloring and activities, plus biographical snippets between each piece, including the movements of the trio. We decorated “Clara crowns” (referencing her Queen of the Piano status) and birthday hats. It was casual, with a little bit of lively ruckus (imagine the chaos in Clara’s house when she was trying to practice!), but an enjoyable time and performances. IMG_1724.jpgThe whole business renewed and amplified my appreciate for what she accomplished. Imagine if she had had the same support she provided others? She started composing very young and continued through her courtship with Robert Schumann and their marriage, but there is only so much time in the day. They married in 1940 and she continued her performance career. She gave birth a year later and from there on out was either pregnant or recovering most of every year for the next 15 years (at least 10 pregnancies).

She stopped composing after Robert’s death. Left with seven children to support (the eighth died in infancy and she endured two miscarriages), she continued her busy career as an international concert artist and as a teacher. She spent much of her career (with at least 1300 performances) promoting the work of others (significantly Robert and Johannes) and is quoted (whether she believed it or not) that it was arrogant to think women could compose:

“I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose—there never was one able to do it. Am I intended to the one?”

Does that sound like a someone who does not think she can compose, or one who despairs of her creative work being supported in the way men’s work is, without models from which to learn from and draw inspiration?

Thankfully, during the 1970s her work started to get the acknowledgement it was due, and many celebrated her legacy at the centennial of her death in 1996. Still, her reputation is always tied to that of Robert and Johannes and too often discussed only in relation to their success, her role as muse, and not in terms of what her influence did for their careers and lasting reputation. For some time, she was far more famous than either of them.

There have been a few local performances in recent past. Bach Aria Soloists performed her Drei Romanzen für Pianoforte und Violine during their February 2019 “Celebrating Women” concert. Previous to that, we hear Midwest Chamber Ensemble in 2016 with her piano trio during their annual women-focused chamber series and NAVO, too, in their 2018 “Celebrating Women” concert. Not to knock these efforts, but perhaps there will come a time when this music is not relegated to one specific “women’s” concert and integrated into the main programming.

Clara’s name does pop up pseudo-annually, in program notes and often around Valentine’s Day, when her relationship with Robert is discussed (and the Johannes gossip, harrumph). Avila University professor Amity Bryson discussed their romance with KCUR back in 2016.

We at the UMKC Music/Media Library put together a tidy collection display of a few different composers celebrating significant anniversaries: Barbara Strozzi (b.1619), Mlle Duval (circa b.1719), Clara (b.1819) and Galina Ustvolskaya (b.1919). [Admittedly, Duval’s inclusion is a fudge, since more likely she was born 1718ish, but we don’t know for sure, and we couldn’t find another composer born 1719 that fit our criteria, so we rolled with it.] On Sept 13, 2019, we featured UMKC professor of trombone JoDee Davis’ 2001 album “In The Moment” which includes selections of Clara’s lieder arranged for trombone.

Thankfully, I guess, KC and its environs do not represent the world. London, New York and Stockholm had theatrical (also dance and chamber opera) productions. The New York Times ran a great article. Over the summer, Minnesota Orchestra had a sold-out staged concert performance, “The Prodigious Life of Clara S.” Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason released an all-Clara album and performed a recital on Clara’s piano for the re-opening of the Schumann-Haus in Leipzig, a city which has, reasonably, celebrated all year long. I learned that Clara’s lovely flower diary has been published. Those I follow on twitter were all over the event of the day, posting old stuff and new, with a live stream of 200th anniversary celebration concert hosted out of Vanderbilt University. I loved reading Emily Hogstad’s exciting interpretations of life events from a 2013 series of postings on her blog Song of the Lark.

In all of Missouri, I could find one timely mention, with Clara’s work cast in an assortment of songs by women in the faculty recital “Fête of the Feminine” by Drs Ann Marie Wilcox-Daehn (voice) and Elizabeth Avery (piano) at Missouri State University in Springfield (Sept 8, 2019). The only other hit was from July’s Summerfest, which played a piece by Brahms and just mentioned Clara as inspiration (harrumph), which isn’t annoying at all.

In Kansas, at least, there are a few things coming up involving Clara’s work. Lyric Arts Trio presents “Brahms and His Friends(harrumph, but I guess it’s better than nothing) which includes an arrangement of Clara’s lieder, Sept 29 in Topeka,  while violinist Keith Stanfield and pianist Robert Lamar Sims present “Celebrating Clara Schumann: Her Life and Times” (FREAKING FINALLY) at Overland Park’s InterUrban ArtHouse on Oct 13, with works by Clara, Robert and Johannes.

And while there is no regional performance of her piano concerto that I know of (I can’t even find a mention of it having been performed ever in KC, but surely that can’t be accurate – can it?), and though Kansas City Symphony opens their Classical Series on October 4 with Robert’s piano concerto, instead, at least the program notes indicate “R. Schumann” (not assuming there’s just one significant composer named Schumann) and acknowledge Clara’s role and thoughts as premiering performer.

Just as a new moon indicates a new start, perhaps what attention we’ve seen for Clara Schumann indicates a renewal of appreciation of her legacy and a deeper understanding of her influence, her struggles and her artistry.

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