Clara Wieck Schumann is one of a small number of women prior to the second half of the 20th century whose musical activities included composition, a reflection of the relatively subordinate role women composers have played in the history of concert hall music. That their creative output has been less than that of men with respect to both quantity and quality is attributable to a number of factors, chiefly attitudes regarding women’s appropriate role in society, presumptions about their inherent intellectual and emotional capacities, their lack of access of education and training, their financial dependence on men, and the exclusion of women from many forms of musical activity. The following assessment appeared in an 1891 article in Women’s Journal:
It is probably true that more women than men have received musical instruction of a sort, but not of the sort which qualifies anyone to become a composer. Girls are as a rule taught music superficially, simply as an accomplishment. To enable them to play and sing agreeably is the whole object of their music lessons. It is exceedingly rare that a girl’s father cares to have her taught the underlying laws of harmony or the principles of musical composition.
In Germany and Italy, the countries where the greatest musical composers have originated, the standard of women’s education is especially low and the idea of woman’s sphere particularly restricted. The German or Italian girl who should confess an ambition to become a composer would be regarded by her friends as out of her sphere, if not out of her mind.
When women have had for several centuries the same advantages of liberty, education, and social encouragement in the use of their brains that men have, it will be right to argue their mental inferiority if they have not produced their fair share of geniuses. But it is hardly reasonable to expect women during a few years of liberty and half education to produce at once specimens of genius equal to the choicest men of all the ages.
Unlike most women of her day, Clara Wieck Schumann was carefully trained from the age of five as a pianist and musician by her father, Friedrick Wieck. In other areas, including the so-called feminine arts of sewing, knitting, or crocheting, her education was meager. She made her public debut in 1828, at age nine; the same year she met Robert Schumann, her future husband, who was then eighteen. Robert was to become one of the leading composers associated with musical romanticism. Between 1828 and 1838 Clara launched a highly promising career, and her friendship with Robert deepened into love. Her father vehemently opposed their relationship and, hoping to reassert his control, sent 19-year-old Clara to Paris with a total stranger as a chaperone. To his astonishment, and probably her own as well, she dismissed the chaperone and managed to support herself in the strange city. She presented herself to the French public through successful concerts she arranged, and she found students, composed music, and had her works published. Even today we would find this remarkable, but in 1839 it was an amazing act of courage, especially for a woman.
Schumann was considered the foremost woman pianist of her day and a peer of contemporary male virtuosi. Her concert programs and her high musical standards changed the character of the solo piano recital in the 19th century. She introduced much new music by her husband, and by Chopin and Brahms, and she was also distinguished as being the first pianist to perform many of Beethoven’s sonatas in public. At the end of her long career, she had played over 1,300 public programs in England and Europe. Clara’s training in composition was also excellent. Her compositions were published, performed and reviewed favorably during her lifetime, and she was encouraged by both her father and her husband.
Clara’s marriage to Robert Schumann took place the day before her twenty-first birthday in 1840, after a lawsuit the couple brought against Wieck was decided in their favor. Both before and after her marriage, she wrote chiefly piano works and songs, genres considered appropriate for female creative expression since such works were intended primarily for performance in the home. Her output was also small, undoubtedly because of her hectic performing schedule and domestic responsibilities associated with raising eight children. With the exception of one work, Clara ceased composing after her husband’s death in 1856.
Much of what is known about Clara’s personal life after her marriage is found in her diaries, in her joint diaries with Robert, and in her letters. It is clear that, while she felt confident of her powers as a performer, she had ambivalent feelings toward her ability and skill as a composer. Comments such as the following from her 1839 diary reflect the prevailing notion of the time that women were unfit by nature for intellectual pursuits and limited to manners of expression which were inherently feminine in character.
I once thought I possessed creative talent, but have given up this idea. A woman must not desire to compose – not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to? It would be arrogance, although indeed, my father led me into it in earlier days.
Clara never intended to give up her concert career after her marriage, and Robert never seriously suggested it. Despite his desire for a quiet home and a woman to look after him and their children, he was aware of his wife’s needs as an artist and his attitude toward her career was, for a man of his time, unusually enlightened and supportive. Clara’s letters and diary entries indicate she recognized her importance as a pianist and considered herself first an artist and only afterward a parent. The conflicts between public concertizing and raising a family intensified in 1854 when Robert, suffering from mental illness and depression, entered a sanitarium where he died two years later. Clara was pregnant at the time he became terminally ill, and soon after the birth of their eighth child, she set out on the first of many concert tours that were to become a regular feature of her life for more than 30 years. She now bore the entire responsibility of providing for a large family. But she also seems to have felt a need for artistic self-expression, which she sought in performing. She may also have found comfort in bringing her husband’s music to the attention of the public. As she wrote to a friend:
You regard them [the concert tours] merely as a means of earning money. I do not. I feel I have a mission to reproduce beautiful works, Robert’s above all, as long as I have the strength to do so, and even if I were not absolutely compelled to do so I should go on touring, though not in such a strenuous way as I often have to now. The practice of my art is definitely an important part of my being. It is the very air I breathe.