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Clara Schumann, Piano Concerto

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2023–24 subscription concert "Kanneh-Mason Performs Schumann."

Clara Schumann_photo.jpeg

For much of the 20th century, history books primarily positioned Clara Wieck Schumann as muse to her husband, Robert — a committed companion and stabilizing force who encouraged his work and, in the decades following his death, cemented his legacy as one of German Romanticism’s most gifted composers. And while Clara was indeed a sensitive and supportive muse, to Robert as well as the couple’s close friend Johannes Brahms, her impact on 19th-century classical music travels far beyond that border. 

Clara was one of the finest performers of her day, an acclaimed pianist who, after making her debut at the age of 9, maintained an astonishing seven-decade career as a concert artist — while also serving as her own manager, promoter, and agent. She was among the first to regularly perform J.S. Bach and Beethoven on the concert stage and helped establish new standards for virtuoso pianists, including always performing from memory. At 18 she was named Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso of the Austrian Court, by which point her playing had been hailed by Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, and Niccolò Paganini. She raised eight children, managed household finances, and served as the family’s primary breadwinner (and after Robert’s mental collapse, its sole earner). 

So yes, Clara propelled Robert to greater heights in his artistry, so much so that his name eclipses hers in those history books, but when the couple wedded in 1840, Clara was the internationally renowned celebrity and Robert a relatively unknown composer of piano miniatures. 

The daughter of two pianists, Clara was immersed from a young age in Leipzig’s musical world, where she met the major figures who swept through town on European concert tours. As a result, Clara’s teenage compositions reflect the same influences as those of her older male contemporaries. She embraced the ornate melodies of Italian opera, infused her work with a dazzling virtuosity that matched Paganini, and found inspiration in music both old and new, from Bach’s freshly rediscovered keyboard works to Hector Berlioz’s avant-garde Symphonie fantastique, premiered in 1830. 

By the time Robert began studying composition with Clara’s father, Friedrich, she had enough experience to support Robert’s work as a composer, identifying new techniques for him to consider and persuading him to experiment with orchestral, choral, and chamber music. Although the number of compositions she produced grew smaller over time, due to her increasing demands as concert artist, wife, and mother, Clara managed to publish the majority of her music during her lifetime — an enormous achievement for any composer, let alone a woman in mid 19th–century Germany. And despite her music falling into the shadows for nearly a century after her death in 1896, Clara’s work largely wasn’t marginalized during her lifetime. In fact, it was celebrated by audiences and critics alike, as was the case with her Piano Concerto.

Her only surviving orchestral work, the Piano Concerto evolved from a one-movement concert piece (Konzertsatz) Clara began composing in 1833, at the age of 13. As a piano soloist on the rise, she would have been expected to perform improvisations and works of her own making, so the Konzertsatz ultimately served as both a statement of creative expression and a star-making showpiece. 

Clara eventually expanded the work into a three-movement concerto, using the Konzertsatz material for the final third. She orchestrated the first and second movements and made comprehensive edits to Robert’s original orchestration of the Konzertsatz. Following the concerto’s 1835 premiere, which featured Clara as soloist accompanied by the Gewandhaus Orchestra under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn, the work received many performances throughout Clara’s career — including an 1837 concert in which she was summoned to the stage for a record four curtain calls. 

A groundbreaking work for its time, the concerto not only carries the emotional intensity and operatic melodicism of the new Romantic style, but its structure is also inventive: three uninterrupted movements, made architecturally cohesive by the use of shared melodies woven across each movement. And while the concerto teems with flashy displays of virtuosity in its outer movements, it includes none of the improvised cadenzas made standard by composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Rather, the technical fireworks are baked into the work’s character, with flights of filigreed fancy across the keyboard alternating with pulsating passages of thunderous chords. 

As expected in a work meant to showcase the soloist’s superpowers, the piano doesn’t converse with the orchestra as much as towers over it. Still, Clara manages to capture moments of quietly mesmerizing beauty, especially in the central Romanze. As the drama of the first movement subsides and the first four notes of its main theme echo slowly in the distance, the solo piano spins them into a new melody of aching beauty. Eschewing tradition, Clara silences the orchestra for this movement, giving the piano room to deliver a rapturous aria that becomes increasingly ornate until a solo cello enters the scene. Together they scale the melody of longing to new heights as the cello ascends into its uppermost tenor. After we’re lulled into blissful reverie by this intimate conversation, timpani rolls and brass fanfares plunge us into the final movement’s fervent dances. 

So why is this youthful concerto the only large-scale work to have flowed from Clara’s pen? Of course there are societal reasons: Clara and her husband tenderly supported each other’s work, but Robert still considered the duties of wife and mother to be her main priorities — though that idea troubled him. Three years into their marriage, Robert wrote about the impact of household responsibilities on her creativity: “To have children and a husband who is always living in the realms of imagination do not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.” 

Look deeper, however, and we discover Clara herself was ambivalent about the role of composition in her career. Although she confessed that “there is nothing that surpasses creative activity, even if only for those hours of self-forgetfulness in which one breathes solely in the world of sound,” she also carried the composer’s trademark sense of inadequacy and imposter syndrome, writing: “I once believed I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea.” 

Clara’s letters and diaries provide evidence that being a creator, as opposed to an interpreter, wasn’t easy for her. Rather than chasing her own muse, she largely composed because it was expected of her — by her father during her training, by her husband during their marriage, and by the concert-going public early in her career, who expected piano soloists to perform their own works. 

We can also see how Clara’s departure from the world of composition overlapped with major changes in those audience expectations. As attitudes shifted in the final decades of her career, with soloists now called upon to deliver immaculate readings of works by established (and often dead) composers, Clara had a diminishing need to continue composing. But that never stopped her from performing her music: At nearly every concert until she retired from the stage at 72, at least one work on the program bore the byline Clara Schumann

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