Clara Schumann essentials: 5 pieces you should know

A quick guide to one of the 19th century's great pianist-composers on the 200th anniversary of her birth.

A quick guide to one of history's great pianist-composers on the 200th anniversary of her birth

Clara Schumann was born on Sept. 13, 1819. (Public domain)

Sept. 13, 2019, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Clara Schumann.

Famous in her day as a concert pianist and champion of the music of her husband, Robert Schumann, Clara the composer had neither the acclaim nor the opportunities her talent deserved.

"A woman must not wish to compose — there was never one able to do it," she once despaired. Her creative imperative came second to Robert's and to her role as wife and mother.

Despite these obstacles, Clara did manage to have a distinguished career and posterity has always viewed her as a singular talent. However, her legacy is rarely evaluated on its own terms, but rather in relation to those of Robert and, to an extent, Johannes Brahms, her intimate friend.

A survey of her biography yields the following striking points:

  • Clara's father, Friedrich Wieck, was a famed piano teacher who claimed sole custody of his daughter when he separated from Clara's mother. Clara was five years old at the time and Wieck managed Clara's career as a child piano phenomenon for the next 14 years. "Father loved me very much, and I loved him too, but I did not have what a girl needs so much — a mother's love … and because of that was never really happy," she later reflected.
  • When Clara was 11, Robert Schumann became a student of Wieck, moving in with the family. Clara and Robert eventually fell in love, but Wieck, who considered Robert unstable, took great pains to prevent their engagement. The young lovers eventually sued Wieck for permission to marry, which they did when Clara was 21.
  • As a famed performing artist and piano teacher, Clara was the primary earner of her household throughout their marriage. She managed to do so while bearing eight children (one of whom died in infancy) between 1841 and 1854.
A skilled composer in her own right, Clara Schumann spent the better part of her life performing, editing and publishing the works of her husband. (Eduard Kaiser lithograph)
  • She was one of the first concert pianists to play from memory (now the norm). She favoured recital repertoire by Robert as well as Brahms, Frédéric Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn.
  • Clara and Robert befriended Brahms in 1853, when Robert took the junior composer under his wing. But a few months later, Robert became depressed and, following a suicide attempt, entered a psychiatric hospital, where he stayed for the rest of his life. Brahms and Clara grew closer through their shared concern. "He strengthened the heart that threatened to break, he uplifted my mind, he cheered my spirit; in short he was my friend in the fullest sense of the word," Clara later wrote to her children.
  • Her compositions include solo piano pieces (including cadenzas for piano concertos by Beethoven and Mozart), Lieder and part songs, chamber music and one completed orchestral work. Due to the demands of her personal life, Clara seriously curtailed her activities as a composer at 36.
  • Following Robert's death, she resumed her concert career, performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in England and touring to the U.S. among other locales.
  • With Brahms' help, Clara edited Robert's collected works for Breitkopf & Härtel, who published them in 1881.
  • She died in 1896.
  • The Clara–Robert–Brahms triangle is the subject of the 1947 feature film Song of Love in which Clara is portrayed by Katherine Hepburn.
  • In 1996, she was commemorated on Germany's 100 Deutsche Mark note.

If you're unfamiliar with Clara's music, here are five essential pieces.

1. Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22

These are Clara's most popular pieces, and for good reason. They're compact, musically coherent and, above all, lyrical. She composed them for herself to perform with her friend, violinist Joseph Joachim (who introduced her to Brahms), and together they played them six times in concert.

We invited violinist Emma Meinrenken and pianist Michael Berkovsky to Glenn Gould Studio to play them for us. Meinrenken plays the 1689 Baumgartner Stradivarius violin on loan from the Canada Council for the Arts' Musical Instrument Bank.

Clara Schumann: Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22 | Emma Meinrenken and Michael Berkovsky

4 years ago
Duration 8:50
Emma Meinrenken (violin) and Michael Berkovsky (piano) perform Clara Schumann: Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22.

2. Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 7

Clara's only completed orchestral work, this piano concerto comprises three linked movements, the second of which is a lovely interlude for solo piano with cello obbligato. (Is this where Brahms drew inspiration for the beautiful cello solo in the slow movement of his second piano concerto?) The dazzling, expansive third movement, which Clara orchestrated with input from Robert, would have been an effective vehicle for her technical skills at the keyboard when she performed the concerto (conducted by Felix Mendelssohn!) at its premiere in 1835 at Leipzig's Gewandhaus.

3. 'Liebst du um Schönheit,' Op. 12, No. 2

The gist of this four-stanza poem by Friedrich Richter is that, if you're seeking good looks, youth, or riches, then move along. But, if you're looking for love — true love — I'm the one. It's an endearing, modest sentiment whose poignancy is amplified in the hands of Clara, who embodied these lyrics in real life. Gustav Mahler's setting of this poem may be more popular; Clara Schumann's is more touching.

4. Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, Op. 16, No. 1

Clara was born in Leipzig where, only 70 years earlier, J.S. Bach was in charge of music at the city's Thomaskirche. No surprise, then, that she turned to Bach's music as therapy to aid Robert's recovery from a bout of depression. Together, she and Robert studied Bach's counterpoint and the exercise inspired Clara to flex her own muscles with a set of three Preludes and Fugues modelled after Bach's example.

Of the three, we're partial to her Prelude and Fugue No. 1, in G Minor. The Prelude's theme is based on a syncopated rhythm and in the three-part fugue she flips the subject upside-down half-way through. It's a lot of fun.

5. Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 17

Of all her compositions, this substantial chamber work (a performance runs approximately 30 minutes) invites the most speculation about all the great music Clara could have written if her circumstances had been different. Highlights include the deft fugal treatment of the main theme of the final movement and the gorgeous, plaintive melody of the Andante as it's passed among the three instruments.

Clara lost confidence in the work after Robert published two fine piano trios of his own, but Brahms admired the piece and often played it.