From Prodigy to Priestess: Clara Schumann at 200


On September 13, 2019, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Clara Wieck Schumann (1819–1896), one of the most brilliant and influential musicians of the nineteenth century. Beginning as a dazzling child prodigy and ending as a black-clad “priestess” of high art, she was in the spotlight for six decades. She earned her greatest acclaim as a pianist, and she also achieved considerable success as a composer and as a teacher. She was a central figure in the lives of two other renowned composers: her husband Robert Schumann, and their friend Johannes Brahms.

Clara Schumann’s reputation has had a complicated trajectory. As a girl and young woman, she was a talented and well-known composer, but she gave up composing after Robert’s death in 1856, concentrating instead on performance and teaching, and her music faded from the repertory. Her pianistic career was much longer, and its fame more enduring, but unfortunately she made no recordings that would preserve her playing—the phonograph was still a new and primitive invention—and in the twentieth century, the people who had heard her concerts gradually died out. Too often she was remembered mainly in connection her husband and Brahms. All three of them were musical geniuses, and their personal histories were intertwined in ways as complex and surprising as any soap opera. In recent decades, scholars and performers have re-examined her life and revived her works. But her extraordinary achievements were there all along, hiding in plain sight.

Our exhibit features two manuscripts and two letters in her own hand, along with manuscripts by Robert Schumann and Brahms, as well as images and modern sound recordings.

Richard Boursy, Archivist