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Downplaying a virtuoso? Reflections on the Clara Wieck anniversary

What, asks Katy Hamilton, did we learn from the 200th-anniversary celebrations of one of 19th-century music's great influencers?

Significant birthdays are curious events – and all the more curious if celebrated posthumously. In 2019, we celebrated the 200th birthday of Clara Wieck, while in 2020, we can expect the music of Beethoven (250 years young, as you have no doubt already been told repeatedly this year) in every venue and on every channel. A major anniversary can offer the chance to explore new topics or look afresh at old assumptions, with biographies, essays and editions bound to follow. But for those composers who aren't quite as universally exalted as our friend Ludwig (which, with the possible exceptions of Bach or Mozart, is surely almost all of them), birthdays offer a somewhat different range of opportunities.

One such composer is Wieck. She was a brilliant child prodigy, internationally recognised interpreter, editor, composer and teacher – it is no exaggeration to say that she was one of the most profoundly influential performers of the 19th century. She composed too, of course, though she wrote almost nothing after her mid-30s. Indeed, while her compositions are fine pieces, it would be fair to celebrate her most especially as a pianist and, in modern parlance, an "influencer": promoting Chopin's music when precious few others were playing it, introducing the early works of a young Johannes Brahms to the music-loving public, and also doing her best to persuade audiences of the brilliance of her husband.

And this, of course, is where a big birthday celebration allows us to try something new: to consider a hugely significant musical figure such as Clara Wieck independently of the career and reputation of her husband, or of her relationship to her children or lovers, imagined or otherwise. (Speaking as a Brahms scholar, I can confirm that it usually takes less than ten minutes for people to get from "what's your specialism?" to "so did Brahms and Clara ever actually get together?".)

The great irony is that, while one could hardly claim that the 19th century was a time of gender equality, we have actually become considerably more narrow-minded in the way we write and talk about figures such as Wieck than critics of the 1800s. And yes, I intend to call her Wieck here, to distinguish her from (Robert) Schumann, so that the whole awkward business of being "on first name terms" with women is not part of the problem. But first, a few basic facts to get us started.

Clara Wieck was born in Leipzig on 13 September 1819, to a professional singer and pianist (Marianne) and a zealously ambitious pedagogue (Friedrich), who separated when she was four. Since she was legally her father's property, and since Friedrich had grand plans for her, she was rigorously disciplined in harmony, counterpoint, music theory, composition, piano technique, languages and business skills. She was granted almost no time for socialising with other children, for exploring literature or the arts beyond music, or for learning to do anything traditionally "feminine", like embroidery or grasping the basics of how to keep a household.

She gave her first public performance aged nine, and her solo debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus aged eleven. At the same age most people start secondary school now, she was not only concertizing, but also writing her first surviving compositions, the Four Polonaises Op. 1, and meeting the likes of Chopin. By the time she was 16, she was performing under Mendelssohn's baton at the Gewandhaus. At 18, she was awarded the honorary rank of "Königliche und Kaiserliche Kammer-Virtuosin" (Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso), the greatest musical honour of Vienna. Liszt was a great admirer of her playing, and the two were considered to be the most brilliant pianists in Europe. She was an international superstar, commanding substantial fees and touring extensively.

She was also hopelessly in love with an older man: a rather hapless composer named Robert Schumann, who seemed to specialize in writing brilliantly intense but conceptually baffling piano pieces with abstract literary titles like "Carnaval" and "Papillons". He was exceptionally well-read (his father was a translator, publisher and book dealer, after all), passionate, witty, and equally besotted with Wieck. But while she was worth a considerable amount of money – still, legally, under the control of her father – he had no prospects. Wieck's father forbade the match as a result. Months of secret letters, passed by trusty maids when no one was looking (is it any wonder that this story has prompted multiple film and novel adaptations?), kept their love alive. An ugly and protracted court case followed, and finally, in 1840, Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann were married.

Robert Schumann and Clara, née Wieck, in 1847

This, and the 16 years that followed – the ever-growing family, moves from Leipzig to Dresden to Düsseldorf, Robert’s increasing emotional instability and eventual suicide attempt in 1854 – is the period of her life that we tend to hear about most frequently. Less is said of the emotional abuse of Clara's youth: her father's total control of her diary, for example, which included writing most of the entries himself until she was 18; or his brutal treatment of her brother. Less still is written about the years after Robert Schumann's death in 1856. In the remaining 40 years of her life, Wieck lived in Berlin, Baden Baden, and finally Frankfurt. She continued to tour extensively, also teaching brilliant young players such as Leonard Borwick, Fanny Davies and Ilona Eibenschütz, all of whom were important performers of Brahms's compositions, among other things. Borwick also made a beautifully idiomatic solo transcription of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

So why don't we hear about all of these things in more detail? Is it simply because Clara Wieck was not Claus Wieck? Inevitably, the reasons are more varied and complex than that. But her gender does, of course, play a substantial role.

Actually, a significant factor in all of this is how bad music historians have been, until very recently, at treating major performers as just as important as composers. It's all very well to go and write a series of brilliant new pieces, but unless someone is actually prepared to play them, promote them and publish them, they're precious little use. Composers need performers, and Wieck was a pianist with the power to champion new musical voices – Chopin, Schumann, Brahms – as well as to shape the concert repertoire more generally. The frequency with which she performed the music of J.S. Bach, Scarlatti and Beethoven (yes, him again! The Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer even wrote a poem called "Clara Wieck und Beethoven") helped to establish them all as standard concert pieces.

And in an age of exuberant embellishment and improvisation, her adherence to the score was to set a precedent that now steers the vast majority of modern performances. As Wieck's pupil Fanny Davies recalled, it was possible to annotate a piano score to show how different pianists rendered the details or made improvisatory additions to the basic outline. She used a red pencil for Anton Rubinstein, a blue pencil for Hans von Bülow, "but when I listened to Madame Schumann I needed no pencil, for she played everything exactly as it was written."

In fact, something particularly fascinating about the reviews Wieck received during her lifetime is the extent to which the language of being a good woman overlaps with what we now consider an appropriate description of a good interpreter. She had "delicacy and unerring taste", "grace", promoted certain composers in "a quiet, unostentatious way", and was also "faithful to the old masters, true to her husband's art-work, and generous to the productions of men of various styles and degrees of excellence."

Of course, the whole question of faithfulness and "correctness" of interpretation is something that we can merrily debate today at great length – but her pupils also testified to her determination to "serve" a composer in performance, and get out of the way as a result. This is a far cry indeed from the starry pyrotechnics of a pianist-superstar like Liszt, and the beginning of the tradition of a performer subservient to the writer of the dots on the manuscript paper. Ironically, Clara Wieck contributed to the dwindling of her own importance.

So what lessons should the bicentenary teach us? Well, the most important takeaway must surely be that Wieck is most certainly not a "woman composer" or a "female pianist". Nor is she a musician without a surname, or one to be defined solely in terms of her family or her romantic relationships (and no, there is no evidence that she and Brahms ever had an affair).

There's an easy acid test for this sort of thing: simply construct a statement about a more prominent (male) composer in the same terms, and see if it sounds completely familiar or slightly odd. For example: "The life of composer, husband and father Arnold Schoenberg is best understood through his copious diaries and correspondence – which must of course be understood in terms of more recent writings on men's history and gender studies." See what I mean?

On the other hand, it would do many composers and performers a great service to get away from having to show that a woman – gracious, a woman! – managed, at some point in The Past, to achieve "musical greatness". It's a notable pattern of music criticism, certainly from the 19th century onwards, that every few years a woman does manage to struggle past the gatekeepers and have a large-scale composition (a symphony or overture, usually) performed in public, and is then written about as if no such thing had ever been seen or heard of before. If you continue to turn the pages, you're almost certain to find similar exclamations of surprise in the next decade, as if a strange amnesia had taken hold in the interim.

We live in a time of unprecedented opportunities and visibility for female musicians, and it's important to allow them to take up space without sticking them in a category defined by something as arbitrary as gender. It's still, alas, a case of walking the tightrope between championing the under-represented and retaining critical perspective. But consider this. At an academic conference held in Oxford in June 2019, one researcher revealed that, currently, Beethoven's works are performed more often than the combined works of all female composers.

So by all means, let's enjoy his 250th, and sing "An die Freude" to the rooftops. But let's also tip our hats to those ferociously talented musicians who brought his music to the concert-going public, in trousers and in dresses – and to those who did so across decades, while also composing a fine body of music themselves. So: an extra, belated Happy Birthday to you, Clara Wieck. In that vast and vibrant ecosystem of musical personalities who have made our culture what it is, it's salutary to be reminded that there are heroines and heroes aplenty who have not yet enjoyed sufficient time in the spotlight.

Katy Hamilton · Published
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