Clara Schumann, Music’s Unsung Renaissance Woman

Clara Schumann, Music’s Unsung Renaissance Woman

Schumann is among the most celebrated names in the classical music canon — for most people conjuring the poetic and intense work of Robert Schumann, the Romantic master.

But when the Schumann in question is his wife, Clara, the name should remind us most of the frustrating lack of recognition still accorded female composers.

Not that she has gone ignored. Indeed, Clara Schumann — whose 200th birthday arrives on Sept. 13 — was a celebrity pianist in her own time; the music she wrote is a recognized part of the narrative of 19th-century musical Romanticism. But to this day, references to Clara are routinely centered on considerations of Robert’s life and music — not to mention gossipy speculation about her relationship with Brahms, a close friend of the couple — to the detriment of her own creative achievements.

“When I was growing up, I first learned about Clara from reading about Robert Schumann,” the pianist Lara Downes said in an interview. The experience immediately resonated, she added, because she had found a classical music figure who looked like her, and could be a role model. As a teenage virtuoso, Ms. Downes determined to track down Clara’s music and played her Piano Concerto in A minor with a small regional orchestra in Alabama.

That was considered unusual at the time, in the mid-1990s. “I was fortunate to have teachers when I was really young who let me explore repertoire off the beaten path,” said Ms. Downes. On her new album, “For Love of You,” which intertwines music by Clara and Robert Schumann, she again explores her early fascination. She’s one of a growing number of performers who are finding inspiration in Clara Schumann’s legacy — and bringing it before a wider audience.

Since Schumann more or less stopped composing after Robert’s early death in 1856, when he was 46 and she was only 37, her oeuvre is relatively small — just 23 published works — and comprises almost exclusively solo piano pieces, chamber music and lieder. “Romance” offers an engaging overview of her style as an instrumental composer, starting with a warmly personal account of her Piano Concerto — the one Ms. Downes played — which Clara wrote as a teenager. That work also made a belated debut at the BBC Proms festival on Aug. 18, played by the young pianist Mariam Batsashvili.

“I was inspired by Clara’s music itself to read more about her as a woman and pianist. She was a great virtuoso and also a very passionate person,” Ms. Kanneh-Mason said, adding that she finds, even in Schumann’s early pieces, “an underlying sense of sadness — of grief from early on in her childhood — that becomes harmonically more complex as she gets older.”

For her part, Ms. Downes is intrigued by the reciprocity of Clara and Robert’s work. In her account of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto (also in A minor), a staple of the concert hall, on “For Love of You,” she said she wanted to elicit a sense of Clara’s “presence as a pianist, as the embodiment of his work.” Ms. Downes points out that in other pieces, Robert explicitly incorporated phrases of Clara’s music as a private code they shared.

“Their music is so profoundly connected that you really can’t separate the one from the other,” Ms. Downes said. “From the very beginning, they were so deeply enmeshed, always listening and sharing, consulting and collaborating. It’s like all of the music they produced carries both sets of genes, and that’s so beautiful.”

Roe-Min Kok, a musicologist at McGill University in Montreal, has studied the Schumanns’ relationship and its effects on their work, as well as Clara’s careful management of her husband’s legacy after his death, which followed a mental breakdown.

“Overall, Clara Schumann was a highly intelligent Renaissance woman who could do many things,” Ms. Kok said in an interview, pointing to her work not only as a composer and performer but also to her role in shaping generations of pianists as an influential teacher as well as her efforts in editing her late husband’s works. At the same time, Ms. Kok added, Clara was a highly efficient “micromanager of the household,” raising and financially supporting seven children; an eighth died as an infant.

Using a rare example of transcribed improvisation from near the end of Clara’s life as a model, Ms. Loftus presents improvisations of her own to link together short character pieces. “Improvisation influences how you read a text,” she said. “It must have affected everything Clara was doing.”

Even before she gave up composing, Clara Schumann was championing the music of others over her own work. But her art of improvisation gave her freedom to insert ideas of her own.

“There’s a sense of sadness that Clara didn’t end up composing as much as she could have,” Ms. Loftus said. “But not as deep as regret. She had so many other things she was devoted to and believed in.”

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