From Prodigy to Priestess: Clara Schumann at 200
Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms
Robert Schumann - Portrait engraved by T. Bauer, based on a painting by Carl Jäger
After an unsuccessful attempt at law school, Robert Schumann (1810–1856) decided to pursue a career as a pianist. In 1830 he moved into the Leipzig home of his piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, to establish a regime of daily instruction and intensive practice. Schumann’s pianistic ambitions were thwarted by a mysterious disorder with his right hand, but his time with Wieck proved fateful in another respect, as he came to know Wieck’s daughter Clara, who was already a piano prodigy.
Over the course of the 1830s Schumann became known as a creative and somewhat eccentric composer. During this period, he concentrated on piano music, especially short character pieces. These compositions are full of allusions and flights of fancy, and they often transform hackneyed popular genres into something personal and poetic. In 1840, the year he married Clara, Schumann switched his focus to the voice, composing more than a hundred songs. The next year, he turned his attention to the orchestra, with the composition of two symphonies and the first version of his piano concerto. He continued his exploration of genres in the following years, composing a variety of chamber works in 1842 and an oratorio in 1843. These and later works—including more symphonies, concertos, and songs, as well as the opera Genoveva—helped cement Schumann’s reputation as one of the major composers of the century.
Schumann was famous for more than just his compositions; he was also the most important German music critic of his generation. He published his first article in 1831 (acclaiming the genius of the young Chopin), and in 1834 he founded an influential journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he edited until 1845. He had a vivid prose style, and his reviews often featured discussions between fictional characters who expressed different sides of his own multi-faceted personality.
In 1844 the Schumanns left Leipzig for Dresden, and in 1850 they moved to Düsseldorf, where Robert served as music director until 1853. That same year Johannes Brahms visited Düsseldorf, and quickly became friends with both Robert and Clara. Profoundly impressed by the young man’s compositions, Robert wrote a celebrated article that hailed Brahms as a genius and proclaimed him heir to the legacy of Beethoven.
Schumann suffered intermittently from psychiatric troubles throughout his adult life, and in 1854 he attempted suicide. He was voluntarily confined to a hospital, but his mental and physical condition deteriorated further, and he died there on July 29, 1856.
Robert Schumann - Etudes symphoniques, Op. 13, Manuscript sketches, Ca. 1834
In 1834, Robert Schumann fell in love with Ernestine von Fricken, a piano student of Friedrich Wieck, and for a time they seemed destined to marry. The relationship did not last—Schumann got cold feet after he learned that she had been born out of wedlock—but it inspired some notable music. Carnaval, Op. 9, a set of character pieces for piano, is based on a four-note motive derived from the name of Ernestine’s home town. The Etudes symphoniques, Op. 13, are variations on a theme by Ernestine’s father, Ignaz Ferdinand von Fricken, a nobleman and amateur composer. Of course, Schumann eventually transferred his affections to Clara Wieck (whom he later married), and it was she who gave the first performance of the Etudes symphoniques, in 1837. The piece was published by Haslinger that same year, with a dedication to the English composer William Sterndale Bennett rather than to Ernestine. A revised version appeared in 1852.
Our manuscript is a sketch that includes the theme and variations 1, 2, 5, 10, 12, as well as five others that were not published until 1873, in an appendix edited by none other than Johannes Brahms. It formerly belonged to Alice Tully (1902–1993), the philanthropist whose name graces a concert hall in Lincoln Center. She gave it to Vladimir Horowitz (who counted Schumann’s music among his many specialties in the piano repertoire), and two years after his death, his widow Wanda Toscanini Horowitz donated it to Yale. The other principal manuscript source for this piece belongs to the library of the Royal Museum of Mariemont, in Belgium.
Johannes Brahms - Capriccio, Op. 76, No. 1, Manuscript facsimile, 1871
Scholars have devoted a great deal of attention to the relationship between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. The two first met in 1853, when Brahms visited the Schumanns in Düsseldorf and played many of his compositions for them, eliciting Robert Schumann’s famous article “Neue Bahnen,” which hailed the young Brahms as the heir to the legacy of Beethoven. After Robert was hospitalized in 1854, Brahms took over many of his responsibilities in the Schumann household, helping with the family and managing their business affairs. (He also regularly visited Robert in the hospital; the doctors did not permit Clara to do so, believing that it would cause him too much stress.) Brahms was certainly in love with her, and she may have reciprocated his feelings, but after Robert’s death made it possible for them to marry, they chose not to do so, perhaps because of Brahms’s concern about maintaining his independence. Over the course of the ensuing forty years, they remained close friends and musical collaborators, but their relationship was never simple, and they had several quarrels.
One such dispute occurred in the late 1860s, and Brahms’s gift of the manuscript displayed here may have been part of their reconciliation. It is written on paper with a printed decorative border, and bears the inscription “Cl. Sch.” as well as the date “12. Sept. 71.” September 12, 1871 was the 31st anniversary of Clara’s marriage, and September 13 was her 52nd birthday. For most of the decade, the piece seems to have been known only to her, but in 1879, Brahms published a revised version, without a dedication and now bearing the title “Capriccio,” as the first in a set of Klavierstücke, Op. 76. Clara, who may have had proprietary feelings about the original, complained that the new version was marred by hidden parallel octaves.
This manuscript formerly belonged to S. Ellsworth Grumman (1891–1975). Grumman (Yale Class of 1913, M.A., 1918) taught piano at the Yale School of Music from 1919 to 1960. He donated the manuscript to the library in 1961. It belongs to the Gilmore Music Library but is now on deposit at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. A facsimile is displayed here.