Clara Schumann: The troubled career of the pianist

Clara Schumann resumed her piano career even as her husband Robert lay dying in an asylum. Devoted wife or damaged prodigy? Jessica Duchen investigates

Robert Schumann, who died 150 years ago this year, would not have written much of his music without his wife, Clara. Muse to Brahms and Schumann, and mother of seven, she is revered as a musician and woman of historical significance. But does this image mask a darker truth about her personality?

Born in 1819, Clara was the daughter of Friedrich Wieck, an ambitious piano teacher who groomed her to be a child prodigy. Schumann, one of Wieck's pupils, lodged in their house and first met Clara when she was a small girl. Later, her father, trying to protect his daughter from this thoroughly unsuitable young man, kept them apart until they took him to court and won the right to marry in 1840. Until then, Schumann filled his works with ciphers and sent them as coded love letters.

Thirteen years of domestic life followed: they settled in Düsseldorf and began to raise their family. But Schumann's dissolute lifestyle in his youth had landed him with syphilis; he was probably also schizophrenic, manic depressive or both; and five months after Johannes Brahms blazed into their house, Schumann tried to drown himself in the Rhine. He died two years later in a mental asylum.

That, though, is not the full story. It appears that Clara - who did not see her husband again until he was on his deathbed - could have brought him home when his condition improved, but chose not to. The writer Bettina von Arnim visited him in Endenich and found him in good health, but in the care of doctors who verged on the sadistic. Effectively imprisoned, Schumann lost the will to live; his death was the result of self-starvation.

The cellist Steven Isserlis, a passionate Schumannophile, feels that Clara did her husband substantial harm, not only during his lifetime. "Schumann composed several Romances for cello and piano - Brahms and their violinist friend Joseph Joachim loved them and used to argue over which was their favourite," he recounts. "But after Schumann died, Clara decided the Romances weren't good enough and destroyed them."

He also points to an incident in 1854, when Clara was upstaged by the soprano Jenny Lind in a shared concert. She wrote: "The whole of last winter, with all its torments, did not exact such a sacrifice as this evening when I was forced to humiliate myself from a sense of duty." "That had been the winter in which Schumann attempted suicide," Isserlis exclaims. "She was only interested in her career."

But after Schumann's breakdown, Clara had to support her children; presumably she had no choice but to resume performing? "Lots of people offered her assistance," Isserlis points out, "but the only person she allowed to help her was Paul Mendelssohn.

"If you look at Clara's upbringing," he adds, "you can see why her personality developed as it did." One day, Clara's 10-year-old brother was playing to their father. He kept breaking down; Wieck became furious, and knocked him over. Clara smiled, walked past him and played the piece perfectly. "She was reared to think her raison d'être was to be a concert pianist, so she would have been deeply frustrated during the years when her playing was restricted," says Isserlis.

The accompanist Graham Johnson takes different view. "One has to see Clara in context," he explains. "She was a typical Victorian. Her attitudes were characteristic of her day, especially the avoidance of scandal - and Schumann's mental illness would have been a dreadful scandal. Clara was endlessly devoted to music; the routine was essential to her survival. But women are generally expected to be nicer, softer, more amusing - none of which she was. If she'd been a man, her behaviour would not have been seen as at all remarkable."

Johnson has written a play with music, Mother Clara. It centres on Clara's tempestuous relationship with her daughter, Eugenie, who moved to London to live with her lesbian lover, but came back to visited Clara on her deathbed. "Clara as an elderly, embattled lady was much more interesting than Clara as a simpering bride," Johnson says. "And there was the fact that she had allowed one of her sons to die in someone else's arms while she was giving a concert."

Eugenie had escaped relatively lightly, for the Schumanns comprised a tragic catalogue. There was Julie, with whom Brahms fell in love, but who died of tuberculosis in her twenties; Felix, the youngest, dead of tuberculosis in his teens; Ferdinand, whose morphine addiction killed him; Marie, the eldest, who lived a repressed life as her mother's assistant. Emil died at 16 months. Worst of all, Ludwig was locked away in another asylum for some 30 years; his mother's visits amounted to barely a handful.

The pianist Lucy Parham, director of the festival Schumann 2006: The Poet Speaks at Cadogan Hall, defends her: "From a human perspective, to have gone through what she went through, to have had to fight like that with her father, must have caused a huge amount of distress. It's generally men who take a negative attitude to Clara; any woman today would recognise that life was not easy for her. She was tough; she had to be."

The pianist Piers Lane agrees: "She must have been the most extraordinary woman to have coped with the life she had, and she was a talented composer as well as a marvellous pianist. But," he adds, "if she inspired music like Schumann's C major Fantasie then I don't care what sort of woman she was. It's what she meant to Schumann that counts." Lane's recital series at the Wigmore Hall includes the Fantasie, a masterpiece from the courtship period.

"Clara was a complete superwoman," says Roger Vignoles, lieder accompanist and programmer of two Schumann concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. "It's interesting that in Schumann's song cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben, which is sometimes deemed demeaning to women, the protagonist is a very strong character. At that time, it would have been natural to Clara to hero-worship Schumann despite his faults; that doesn't stop her being strong and powerful." Did she damage Schumann? "It's possible. He was obviously sensitive, volatile and unstable; living with someone as tough and capable as Clara could have induced him to withdraw into himself even more."

Isserlis is now working on a Schumann concert script. "I'm amazed people are so pro-Clara," he says. "Of course one has sympathy for her: she had an awful father and a difficult marriage. But one reason Schumann wanted to go to Endenich was that he was afraid he'd harm her, which is maybe some indication of how he felt about her. She was a profoundly damaged person. She triumphed in the end. She got what she wanted. But at what cost to other people?"

Graham Johnson's song recital series, 16 and 17 March, and Piers Lane's Metamorphoses, 14 March, at Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7935 2141); Album Leaves, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0870 401 8181) 20 March

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
arts + entsFor a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past