Born in Germany in 1819, Clara Schumann was a woman of tremendous talent. She grew up with her father after her mother left him for his friend, resulting in a divorce – a deeply shameful occurrence in 1824. From an early age, Clara’s life was planned to the most minute detail by her father, who had her practice singing, violin, piano, and theory for three hours a day, using a method he had devised especially for her. She gave her first solo concert at the age of eleven, and at fourteen she composed her first piano concerto, which was conducted by Mendelssohn. By the age of eighteen, she was performing to sell-out crowds and was a favourite among the critics. The same year, she was named a Königliche und Kaiserliche Kammervirtuosin (Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso), Austria͛s most prestigious music honour. Meanwhile at home, her husband-to-be, Robert, had proposed to her, which she accepted. But her father, however, had different ideas and refused his permission. Not one to be told what to do after her controlled upbringing, Clara took her father to court, sued him, and then three years later married Robert.
It is ironic that most people in the world of classical music are more familiar with her husband, who had a lot to thank her for, as she relentlessly promoted his work, even when his music was unknown and disliked. She went on to become one of the most distinguished pianists of the nineteenth century, with a concert career spanning a lengthy sixty-one years. Revered by the likes of Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms (she was greatly encouraging of Brahms’ compositions and was the first to publicly perform his work), she blazed a trail by being one of the first prominent pianists to make a habit of performing pieces from memory, something which is now common practice. She also became a close friend and supporter of Joseph Joachim when he was just fourteen, and over the course of their careers, the pair performed over 238 concerts in Britain and Germany together.
While all this is extraordinary on its own, it is even more so when Clara͛s home life is taken into account. After suing her father at the age of eighteen, Clara became a mother to no less than eight children, and took charge of the family finances and general household affairs. She was the primary source of income in the family, organising her own lengthy concert tours. Her input became even more vital when, in 1854, Robert attempted suicide and was institutionalised, dying two years later. In addition to raising her eight children, when one of her sons died a single father at twenty-five, and her daughter also in her twenties, she raised five of her grandchildren as well. Tragedy was a familiar foe; four of her eight children died before her, one in infancy and another in an asylum like his father, ͚buried alive͛ in Clara’s own words. In the Dresden Uprising of 1849, she famously walked into the city, through the front lines of the chaos, defying armed guards to rescue her children, and proceeded to exit the same way. Clearly, she was a formidable character.
Considering all this, it is no wonder that she once wrote ‘Composing gives me great pleasure…one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound’. In her life, she produced twenty piano solos and dozens of songs, chamber music, and instrumental music. But even though she was a hugely celebrated concert pianist, she was not recognised as a composer until many years after her death in 1896. All of her music flows with the heightened emotions that are so synonymous with the Romantic movement and are perfect to listen to if you need to relax. A particular favourite of mine is her Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.7. II Romanze, which offers four glorious minutes of a low, soothing, yet rousing duet between the piano and cello, but to be perfectly honest all of her pieces are equally wonderful listening and I urge you to explore them.