From Prodigy to Priestess: Clara Schumann at 200

Images and Letters

MSS 138, Portrait File

Engraved portrait by Em. Raerentzen & Co., 1842

Clara Wieck came from an extraordinarily musical family. Her father, Friedrich Wieck (1785–1873), was a famous piano teacher, and her mother, Marianne Tromlitz Wieck (1797–1872) was a pianist and singer. Clara’s grandfather, stepfather, half-brother, and half-sister were also musicians, some of them of considerable distinction. Her parents divorced when she was five, and her father gained custody. Clara’s exceptional talents became apparent early on, and Friedrich set out to make her into a world-class piano virtuoso, even though women rarely had the opportunity to pursue careers as instrumentalists in that era. (With few exceptions, the most prominent female musicians of the day were singers.) Friedrich was a proud father, a skilled pedagogue, and a tyrannical taskmaster, so Clara’s training was intense in every way. Although her childhood was not easy, she thrived on the challenge; she became a superb pianist at an early age, performing widely and developing an international reputation before she had reached her teens.

When Robert Schumann (who was nine years her senior) moved into the Wieck house to take lessons from Friedrich, Clara was just a child, but the two young musicians soon became close, and as they grew older, their friendship turned to love. Friedrich did not approve, and he did everything he could to thwart their desire to marry—he prevented them from meeting for long periods, tried to intercept their correspondence, filed lawsuits, impugned Robert’s reputation and eventually Clara’s as well, and refused to share the money she had earned with her concert performances. Ultimately his efforts failed, and the couple finally married in 1840.

Marriage was a source of great happiness for both Clara and Robert, but he had mixed feelings about her ongoing career as a traveling virtuoso. He revered her achievements and collaborated with her constantly, but he was not always comfortable with the untraditional nature of their marriage; she was more famous than he was, and earned far more money.

The Schumanns had eight children. The challenges of pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare led Clara to cut back on her busy schedule of concert tours, but after Robert’s hospitalization in 1854 and death in 1856, she became a full-time performer once again, with great success.

MSS 372, Miscellaneous Letters and Documents File

Letter to Herr von Doppler, July 14, 1838

Honored Sir,

Permit me a request: I’m here in the country, at an estate that is one of the most devoted to the arts. The lady of the house has an extraordinary appreciation for all of the arts, and she finds great happiness in an album of hers containing the handwriting of the great masters. Apropos of this, she asked me recently if I might be able to supply her with the handwriting of Mr. von Diabelli, as well as of Franz Schubert. This is the request that I make of you, dear Mr. Doppler. Ask Mr. von Diabelli about this in my name. I am of course not entirely without self-interest in this, and he certainly cannot refuse me a sample of his handwriting. “Isn’t it so, dear Mr. von Diabelli, that you’ll grant my request?” I would be glad to have it as soon as possible, because I won’t be staying here for much longer. If you would be so good, please send it to me at the following address: “Clara Wieck, in Dresden, deliverable to the tapestry building [Tapetenfabrick?] on the Johannisgasse, courtesy of Major von Serre, currently in Maxen.” I eagerly hope that you will grant this request.

Yesterday my father sent me the souvenir, and I’d like to thank you for it. It is beautifully engraved, and so far I’ve found no errors in it. I’m glad to have a memento from beloved Vienna and was excited to see the Stephansturm in it.

I’ve been playing the songs by Liszt, with which you so surprised me, with great enthusiasm, especially “Gretchen,” “Erlkönig,” and “Sei mir gegrüßt”. Is Liszt coming to Vienna in the summer? Thalberg as well? Is he still coming to Leipzig as promised? Liszt as well? - What is Mrs. von Cibbini doing? Lickl, Vesque von Püttlingen, Fischhof? These are too many questions for you to answer, but all the same I hope for an answer soon. Give all of these dear friends my thousand greetings, as well as Mr. von Diabelli, whom I thank sincerely in advance.

If Vienna too is suffering under all this heat, at least you do so under Italianate skies! Please excuse this hurried writing, and send an answer soon.
Your devoted,

Clara Wieck

Please give my best to Graff [i.e., Conrad Graf?], and whether his heart has righted itself.”

I’m costing you so much postage. Send me a bill next time! Or should I do otherwise? Letters travel too slowly for me.

[Translation by Oliver Schowalter-Hay]

MSS 372, Miscellaneous Letters and Documents File

Letter to her daughter Elise, March 2, 1884

In this letter, Clara Schumann writes to her daughter Elise about life in London, and looks forward to the upcoming visit of Elise and another daughter, Marie. She describes the bitter cold of winter, reports suffering from an ongoing, severe toothache, and comments on the difficulties of living in a foreign country. She asks that her daughters bring with them a few “nice things” (“schöne Sachen”) for her, because she feels that everything in London is expensive. Clara provides news of her other children, including Ferdinand, Felix, and Julie, and expresses regret that she and Elise can’t be together on Elise’s birthday.

The Gilmore Music Library’s Miscellaneous Letters and Documents File contains numerous letters by Clara Schumann; the two displayed in our exhibit are just a sample.

MSS 372, Miscellaneous Letters and Documents File

Carte de visite, Photograph by Herbert Watkins, 1877

After her husband’s death in 1856, Clara Schumann gave up composing, and focused instead on performing and teaching. She made many concert tours, and she was universally acknowledged as one of the world’s leading pianists.

She was a vigorous advocate for the works of her husband (which she edited) and of her friend Brahms, and she came to avoid many of the flashy virtuoso works that had featured in her youthful recitals. She usually performed from memory, before this became customary. Renowned for the seriousness of her repertoire, her demeanor, and even her attire, she was often called a “priestess” of music.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the concert experience became increasingly formal and elevated, often taking on a quasi-religious tone, as audiences listened in solemnly respectful silence to masterpieces from the past. Clara Schumann was one of the key figures in this transformation, which remains influential in today’s concert halls.

The second half of the nineteenth century also saw fierce debates over program music and music drama, pitting Liszt and Wagner and their supporters against more traditionally minded musicians and critics such as Brahms and Eduard Hanslick. Clara Schumann was firmly in the latter camp.

In 1878, she joined the faculty of the Frankfurt Conservatory, where she taught until 1892. She gave her last recital in Frankfurt in 1891, and she died there on May 20, 1896.

This item displayed here is a carte de visite, or visiting card. With the growing popularity of photography in the second half of the nineteenth century, it became fashionable to collect cards depicting your friends and relatives, as well as celebrities.