Clara Schumann – A Look Behind the Veil

Dieter Kühn: Clara Schumann, Klavier. ISBN 978-3-596-14203-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Before I read this book, I didn’t know much about Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s wife, born as Clara Wieck. On my music blog I exclusively refer to her under her maiden name; I will proceed in the same manner here. Having been married to a famous composer tends to obscure the fact that this woman had a fascinating life before she married Robert Schumann and even more so after her husband’s tragic death in an asylum.

Dieter Kühn’s biography is an excellent book. The amount and variety of sources he has consulted is impressive. The testimonies from the 19th century he has chosen to illustrate Clara Wieck’s world, how it changed, its highlights and the uncertainties, are remarkable and often hilarious. His narrative style is a little special: He interrupts the long list of biographical facts by interjecting personal speculations and philosophical musings. This makes the rather voluminous book fairly easy to read and entertaining, but I could imagine that this us not to everybody’s taste. I enjoyed it however, so I will not dwell upon this any longer.

The most extraordinary quality of the book lies in Kühn’s talent to let himself be fascinated by Clara Wieck’s person without losing his objectivity. He makes a point of not writing a hagiography and wants tp do away with many myths that surround Clara and her husband. Myths that Clara has partly created herself. Kühn maintains a considerable distance to his subject and is very critical of Clara Wieck. For Clara Wieck was a very complex person. A duplicitous person.

Appearances greatly mattered. Clara Wieck presented herself as a loving and true wife, a loving and tender mother, as a pianist devoted to her art and the composers whose works she performed: Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann. She presented herself as a good friend of Johannes Brahms and as the guardian of Robert Schumann’s heritage. All of this was true. But there’s was a dark side to all these aspects.

Robert Schumann had contracted syphilis as a young man; this illness lead over time to mental disorder. When he gradually become more and more confused, depressed, irate, Clara told him at some point she could not deal with the situation any longer and that she would like to hand his care over to professionals i.e. to transfer him to an asylum. This triggered Schumann’s suicide attempt. During the two years her husband spent at the asylum she visit him only once, shortly before he died. Three of the Schumann’s children suffered from severe ailements: Ludwig was schizophrenic and had been “burie aluve”, as Clara put it, while Julie and Felix had tuberculosis. Clara never visited Ludwig in the asylum, and when the other two died, she was too busy to attend the funerals and to mourn. She had concerts to give.

While Clara did occasionally compose, she felt no inner voice that wanted to express itself in a piece of music. She had to be pushed, by her father, by her husband. She had an excellent pianistic technique, she exercised a lot and sometimes against medical advice, but her style did not please all. Masterful yes, but too dry, too academic – those are the judgments of experts of her time.

Clara Wieck was obsessed by her career as a pianist. She had been trained by an ambitious father, she had been held back by an ambitious husband, but once Robert Schumann was dead, Clara Wieck’s career took of. She earned fame all over Europe and quickly became a very rich woman. At the same time her excuse for devoting very little to her children was that she had to give concerts to feed the family. A blatant lie, one of many.

Here is another one. Clara Wieck and Johannes Brahms – the story of a truly legendary friendship? Brahms had fallen in love with her and courted her for years. She gladly accepted his devotion while her husband was still alive. After his death, her initial friendship to the young composer evolved into real love and a romance. It did not last however, and somehow both settled for long-lasting friendship. The details are unknown, Clara erased most traces and spread a narrative that suited her best. Appearances mattered.

Clara Wieck – since I have read Kühn’s biography, her name triggers in me ambiguous feelings. I like her compositions, I find her career as a female pianist in a reactionary Germany impressive, but I judge her tendency to run away from painful moments and truths appalling. Her many efforts to spread myths glorifying her husband and her relationship to him, her insistence that it was her duty as a mother to give hundreds of concerts over decades when it was pure vanity repulse me.

I am glad I read this book. I might have fallen for the embellished picture that Clara Wieck has spread about herself. When she was a very young girl and did not yet think of manipulating people, she wrote a wonderful work, her Piano Concerto in A minor:

Un air de Chopin signed Clara Wieck