Regarded today as one of the most influential and popular women composers, Clara Schumann’s body of compositions is incredibly impressive. Her style, technique and expression amalgamates into some truly fine chamber and solo music, which are still enjoyed today. For this blog, I shall be looking into her life and her work for solo piano - Scherzo No. 2.
Clara Josephine Wieck was born on September 13th, 1819, in Leipzig. Her mother was a famous singer in the area, and a lot of her musical experiences originated with her. However, when Clara was five years old, her parents divorced and she lived with her father. Friedrich Wieck saw the potential in Clara’s musical abilities, so he began to plan her career, including all the small details. She received daily composition, piano, violin, singing, theory and harmony and counterpoint lessons. This was then followed by 2-3 hours of practise. At age 8, Clara performed at Dr. Ernst Carus’ house. There, she met another young musical talent - Robert Schumann. Robert apparently admired Clara’s playing so much, that he asked to stopped studying law, so that he could take up piano lessons with Clara’s father. By age 11, Clara was touring Europe, giving recitals to the public. Her first tour was around Paris, and there she met Niccoló Paganini, who thought very highly of her, and requested to perform with her in the future. By age 18, Clara had performed in a series of tours and recitals around the continent, and she often performed the piano works of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin.
Whilst in Vienna in 1837, Clara was named the Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso, which was the highest musical honour in Austria. Robert Schumann was still in Clara’s life at this point, and when she turned 18 he proposed to her (she was nine years his junior). Although Clara wanted the marriage to go ahead, her father did not offer his blessing. After much drama, which involved the courts, Robert and Clara wed in 1840. The marriage lasted sixteen years, until Robert died after being committed to an asylum for the last two years of his life (due to numerous suicide attempts). After Robert’s death, Clara began going on more concert tours, as well as shifting some of her focus onto composition.
Later, in 1878, Clara was appointed the position of piano teacher at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where she stayed until 1892. Clara passed away in 1896, and was subsequently buried with her husband. Her legacy as both a performer and composer has stood the test of time, as she is still highly regarded today. Her 61 year career was, and still is an incredible achievement. In regards to composition, Clara once said, and I think this should ring true with all composers in some way:
“Composing gives me great pleasure. There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.”
Although she enjoyed composing, due to her hectic performance schedules, she never regularly composed. As well as Clara feeling that this was a shame, her husband also thought similar things:
“Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does 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.”
It has been said many times that Clara famously stated that “women are not born to compose”, however during the middle of her career, she churned out a significant amount of compositions. Her Three Romances for Violin and Piano was composed in 1853, and was very popular. It was dedicated to her close friend and violinist, Joseph Joachim, and the pair toured playing this work, with King George V of Hanover commenting that:
“All three pieces display an individual character conceived in a truly sincere manner and written in a delicate and fragrant hand.”
Clara Schumann Three Romances for Violin (1853):
As a pianist herself it is unsurprising that a large body of her work uses the piano, either in a chamber ensemble, or as its own solo instrument. Clara’s earliest composition date from around 1828, and the piano works she liked to compose show the virtuosity of the performers, with her writing bravura works that show technical dominances. Numerous caprices, concertos and variations showcases her evident brilliance on the piano. Op. 14 Scherzo in C minor was composed in 1845. This particular work very much reflects the stylings of Chopin. The stormy arpeggiated figure that dominates a large proportion of this work resembles that of Chopin’s game changing Etude style.
The fast pace and technical demands of the first section of the work add to its light, yet intense nature. The transition into the Ab major trio section, is mainly chordal, and brings the mood down just a tad from the previous section. This dance-like section shows her grasp on various genres, and how to express them in innovative ways. Her composition style is accessible, virtuosic and legendary still to this day. The seamlessness of her Scherzo No. 2 is perhaps why it is a well-loved work to this day. To hear a performance of this must be incredibly exciting.
Dr Helen Thomas