Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The marriage of two key figures of nineteenth-century musical life: Robert and Clara Schumann…
Sunday, September 13, 1840 was Clara Schumann’s 21st birthday, but it was the preceding day that she described in her diary as the “most beautiful and most important” of her life. In fact, given how much had already happened in Clara’s life, she must have felt like an adult well before that birthday.
The “most beautiful” event was, of course, her marriage to Robert, her elder by nine years, after three torturous years of engagement. But there’s another reason that she must have felt mature beyond her years by the time of her marriage: she was already well established around Europe as a virtuoso pianist.
Clara had been giving concerts since the age of nine, and touring Europe for almost as long. As with so many child prodigies, Clara had her piano-teacher father, Friedrich Wieck, to thank for her early success. Friedrich taught her more than just the piano: through copying his letters, Clara also came to learn how the music business operated. This meant that she was able to go on tour on her own in 1839, a remarkable feat of independence for an unmarried 19-year-old woman.
The reason she went on tour alone, though, is not such a happy one. Clara had fallen out with her father by this time, who was strongly opposed to her engagement to Robert—a student of his who already had one failed engagement behind him, and showed little inclination to earn any money.
Friedrich’s initial response to Robert’s proposal in 1837 had been cautious but not unreasonable: he advised Robert to wait a couple of years and save up. But as the couple pursued their engagement, he became more vindictive: he made various threats against the couple, and even made personal allegations against both of them, distributing malicious pamphlets wherever Clara performed.
Eventually, in August 1840, a court awarded a victory to Robert against Friedrich, and the path was at last clear for marriage. The small ceremony took place in the town of Schönefeld, near Leipzig, and the sun came out for the first time in days.
The early years of their marriage are a famous picture of wedded bliss, much of it documented in their “Wedding Diary,” a volume they took it in turns to write in. Not that their idea of bliss was everyone’s—the diary shows that they spent much time in the weeks after their wedding enthusiastically studying fugues.
For Robert, marriage meant a newfound confidence as a composer, and the months that followed became his famous “year of song,” devoted to writing Lieder. His next obsession, in 1841, was the symphony, and chamber music was his focus after that—before his remarkable, although less known today, obsession with oratorio in 1843, which yielded Das Paradies und die Peri. Clara premiered the Piano Concerto in 1846.
Clara, meanwhile, composed as well—although her husband’s composition took priority; plus she had her performing career to maintain. Then there’s the matter of the eight children she had, the youngest born in 1854—the year that Robert, suffering from syphilis, attempted suicide. He died two years later.
Clara may have been an unusually worldly 21-year-old back in 1840, but when she returned to the tour circuit after Robert’s death—in order to support her children—she had been widowed devastatingly young. Though still in her mid 30s, she would spend much of the rest of her brilliantly successful career dedicated to her husband’s memory, performing and editing his work. She died in 1896, just a year before her close friend Brahms. As for her own compositional ambitions: regrettably, she put them behind her.
Watch Martha Argerich perform Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under the direction of Riccardo Chailly!
Watch Lucas Debargue‘s solo recital at the 2017 Verbier Festival, featuring an excerpt from Robert Schumann’s Carnaval de Vienne!