by Noelle McMurtry
Clara Schumann (1819-1896), a German Romantic-era pianist, composer and piano teacher, was a celebrated virtuoso. From the age of eleven, she managed a 61-year concert career, touring throughout Europe. Her success as a concert artist secured essential income for her family, including her husband, the renowned composer Robert Schumann, who suffered from mental illness, and their eight children. She began composing as a child, and her compositions later included solo piano pieces, chamber music, choral works and lieder.
At the age of 13, Clara began to compose one of her most famous works, Piano Concerto in A minor, which she premiered in Leipzig at age 16, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. Clara’s compositional output, however, was often sporadic, due to her heavy touring schedule, the management of her large household, and the financial, emotional and medical support that she needed to provide for her husband.
Although Robert encouraged her composition during their courtship, even publishing together a volume of joint lieder in 1841, Zwölf Gedichte aus F.Rückert's Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann, he became less supportive once they had married. From her diaries, Clara expressed intense self-doubt about her compositional abilities. She wrote in 1839, “I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it. Am I intended to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that.” After Robert’s death in 1856, Clara composed only two other pieces. Instead, she turned her energies to performing, teaching and raising her children. After decades of neglect, Clara Schumann’s compositions are now more frequently performed and recorded.
Further advocacy and research is needed, however, to establish her legacy as an influential Romantic-era composer and to offer a more nuanced interpretation of her life and artistic contributions.