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The Loves of Great Composers|
The Schumanns: Robert and Clara
by Gustav Kobbé
|Robert and Clara Schumann are names as closely linked in music as those of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in literature. Robert Schumann was a great composer, Clara Schumann a great pianist. In her dual rôle of wife and virtuosa she was the first to secure proper recognition for her husband's genius. Surviving him many years, she continued the foremost interpreter of his works, winning new laurels not only for herself but also for him. He was in his grave - yet she had but to press the keyboard and he lived in her. Despite the fact that tastes underwent a change and Wagner became the musical giant of the nineteenth century, Clara, faithful to the ideal of her youth and her young womanhood, saw to it that the fame of him whose name she bore remained undimmed. Hers was, indeed, a consecrated widowhood.
Robert was eighteen years old, Clara only nine, when they first met; but while he had not yet definitely decided on a profession, she, in the very year of their meeting, made her début as a pianist, and thus began a career which lasted until 1896, a period of nearly seventy years! When they first met, Schumann was studying law at the Leipsic University. Born in Zwickau, Saxony, in 1810, he showed both as a boy and as a youth not only strong musical proclivities, but also decided literary predilections. In the latter his father, a bookseller and publisher, who loved his trade, saw a reflection of his own tastes, and they were encouraged rather more sedulously than the boy's musical bent. It was in obedience to his father's wishes that he matriculated at Leipsic, although he composed and played the piano, and his desire to make music his profession was beginning to get the upper hand. His meeting with the nine-year-old girl decided him - so early in her life did she begin to influence his career!
[Illustration: Robert Schumann.]
Schumann had been invited by his friends, Dr. and Mrs. Carus, to an evening of music, and especially to hear the piano playing of a wonder-child - a "musical fairy," his hostess called her. In the course of the evening he accompanied Frau Carus in some Schubert songs, when, chancing to look up, he saw a child dressed in white, her pretty face framed in dark hair, her expressive eyes raised toward the singer in rapt admiration. The song over, and the applause having died away, he stepped up to the child, laid his hand kindly on her head, and asked, "Are you musical, too, little one?"
A curious smile played around her lips. She was about to answer, when a man came to her and led her to the piano, and the first thing Schumann knew the shapely little hands struck into Beethoven's F-minor Sonata and played it through with a firm, sure touch and fine musical feeling. No wonder she had smiled at his question.
"Was I right in calling her a Musical fairy'?" asked Frau Carus of Schumann.
"Her face is like that of a guardian angel in a picture that hangs in my mother's room at home," was his reply. Little he knew then that this child was destined to become his own good fairy and "guardian angel." Had he foreseen what she was to be to him, he could not more aptly have described her. The most important immediate result of the meeting was that he became a pupil of her father, Friedrich Wieck, whose remarkable skill as a teacher had carried his daughter so far at such an early age. The lessons stopped when Schumann went to Heidelberg to continue his studies, but he and Wieck, who was convinced of the young man's musical genius, corresponded in a most friendly manner.
Clara, who was born in Leipsic in 1819, became her father's pupil in her fifth year. It is she who chiefly reflected glory upon him as a master, but, among his other pupils, Hans von Bülow became famous, and Clara's half-sister Marie also was a noted pianist. Wieck's system was not a hard-and-fast one, but varied according to the individuality of each pupil. He was to his day what Leschetizky, the teacher of Paderewski, is now. Very soon after her meeting with Schumann, Clara made her public début, and with great success. Among those who heard and praised her highly during this first year of her public career was Paganini.
In 1830, two years after the first meeting of Robert and Clara, Schumann, his father having died, wrote to his mother and his guardian and begged them to allow him to choose a musical career, referring them to Wieck for an opinion as to his musical abilities. The mother wrote to Wieck a letter which is highly creditable to her heart and judgment, and Wieck's reply is equally creditable to him as a friend and teacher. Evidently his powers of penetration led him to entertain the highest hopes for Schumann. Among other things he writes that, with due diligence, Robert should in a few years become one of the greatest pianists of the day. Why Wieck's hopes in this particular were not fulfilled, and why, for this reason, Clara's gifts as a pianist were doubly useful to Schumann, we shall see shortly.
[Illustration: Robert and Clara Schumann in 1847.
From a lithograph in possession of the Society of Friends of Music, Vienna.]
Schumann entered with enthusiasm upon the career of his choice. He left Heidelberg and took lodgings with the Wiecks in Leipsic. Clara, then a mere girl, though already winning fame as a concert pianist, certainly was too young for him to have fallen seriously in love with, or for her to have responded to any such feeling. Even at that early age, however, she exercised a strange power of attraction over him. His former literary tastes had given him a great fund of stories and anecdotes, and he delighted in the evenings to gather about him the children of the family, Clara among them, and entertain them with tales from the Arabian Nights and ghost and fairy stories.
Among his compositions at this time are a set of impromptus on a theme by Clara, and it is significant of his regard for her that later he worked them over, as if he did not consider them in their original shape good enough for her. Then we have from this period a letter which he wrote to the twelve-year-old girl while she was concertizing in Frankfort, and in which the expressions certainly transcend those of a youth for a child, or of an elder brother for a sister, if one cared to picture their relations as such. Indeed, he writes to her that he often thinks other "not as a brother does of a sister, nor as one friend of another, but as a pilgrim of a distant altar-picture." He asks her if she has composed much, adding, "In my dreams I sometimes hear music - so you must be composing." He confides in her about his own work, tells her that his theoretical studies (with Heinrich Dorn) have progressed as far as the three-part fugue; and that he has a sonata in B minor and a set of "Papillons" ready; then jokingly asks her how the Frankfort apples taste and inquires after the health of the F above the staff in the "jumpy Chopin variation," and informs her that his paper is giving out. "Everything gives out, save the friendship in which I am Fraulein C. W.'s warmest admirer."
For a letter from a man of twenty-one to a girl of twelve, the above is remarkable. If Clara had not afterward become Robert's wife, it would have interest merely as a curiosity. As matters eventuated, it is a charming prelude to the love-symphony of two lives. Moreover, there seems to have been ample ground for Schumann's admiration. Dorn has left a description of Clara as she was at this time, which shows her to have been unusually attractive. He speaks of her as a fascinating girl of thirteen, "graceful in figure, of blooming complexion, with delicate white hands, a profusion of black hair, and wise, glowing eyes. Everything about her was appetizing, and I never have blamed my pupil, young Robert Schumann, that only three years later he should have been completely carried away by this lovely creature, his former fellow-pupil and future wife." Her purity and her genius, added to her beauty, may well have combined to make Robert, musical dreamer and enthusiast on the threshold of his career, think of her, when absent, "as a pilgrim of a distant altar-picture."
She was clever, too, and through her concert tours was seeing much of the world for those days. In Weimar she played for Goethe, the great poet himself getting a cushion for her and placing it on the piano stool in order that she might sit high enough; and not only praising her playing, but also presenting her with his likeness in a medallion. The poet Grillparzer, after hearing her play in Vienna Beethoven's F-minor Sonata, wrote a delightful poem. "Clara Wieck and Beethoven's F-minor Sonata." It tells how a magician, weary of life, locked all his charms in a shrine, threw the key into the sea, and died. In vain men tried to force open the shrine. At last a girl, wandering by the strand and watching their vain efforts, simply dipped her white fingers into the sea and drew forth the key, with which she opened the shrine and released the charms. And now the freed spirits rise and fall at the bidding of their lovely, innocent mistress, who guides them with her white fingers as she plays. The imagery of this tribute to Clara's playing is readily understood. In Paris she heard Chopin and Mendelssohn. All these experiences tended to her early development, and there is little wonder if Schumann saw her older than she really was.
In 1834 Schumann's early literary tastes asserted themselves, but now in connection with music. He founded the "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik," which under his editorship soon became one of the foremost musical periodicals of the day. Among his own writings for it is the enthusiastic essay on one of Chopin's early works, in which Schumann, as he did later in the case of Brahms, discovered the unmistakable marks of genius. The name of Chopin brings me back to Wieck's prophecy regarding Schumann as a pianist. The latter in his enthusiasm devised an apparatus for finger gymnastics which he practised so assiduously that he strained one of his fingers and permanently impaired his technique, making a pianistic career an impossibility. Through this accident he was unable to introduce his own piano works to the public, so that the importance of the service rendered him by Clara, in taking his compositions into her repertoire, both before and after their marriage, was doubled.
One evening at Wieck's, Schumann was anxious to hear some new Chopin works which he had just received. Realizing that his lame finger rendered him incapable of playing, he called out despairingly:
"Who will lend me fingers?"
"I will," said Clara, and sat down and played the pieces for him. She "lent him her fingers;" and that is precisely what she did for him through life in making his piano and chamber music compositions known. Familiarity with Schumann's music enables us of to-day to appreciate its beauty. But for its day it was, like Brahms' music later, of a kind that makes its way slowly. Left to the general musical public, it probably would have been years in sinking into their hearts. Such music requires to be publicly performed by a sympathetic interpreter before receiving its meed of merit. Schumann had hoped to be his own interpreter. He saw that hope vanish, but a lovely being came to his aid. She saw his works come into life; their creation was part of her own existence; she fathomed his genius to its utmost depths; her whole being vibrated in sympathy with his, and when she sat down at the piano and pressed the keys, it was as though he himself were the performer. She was his fingers - fingers at once deft and delicate. She played with a double love - love for him and love for his music. And why should she not love it? She was as much the mother of his music as of his children. I have already indicated that Clara probably developed early. At all events, there are letters from Schumann to her, at fourteen, which leave no doubt that he was in love with her then, or that she could have failed to perceive this. In one of these letters he proposes this highly poetic, not to say psychological, method of communicating with her. "Promptly at eleven o'clock to-morrow morning," he writes, "I will play the Adagio from the Chopin variations and will think strongly - in fact only - of you. Now I beg of you that you will do the same, so that we may meet and see each other in spirit.... Should you not do this, and there break to-morrow at that hour a chord, you will know that it is I."
[Illustration: Clara Schumann at the piano.]
However far the affair may or may not have progressed at this time, there was a curious interruption during the following year. Robert appears to have temporarily lost his heart to a certain Ernestine von Fricken, a young lady of sixteen, who was one of Wieck's pupils. Clara consoled herself by permitting a musician named Banck to pay her attention. For reasons which never have been clearly explained, Schumann suddenly broke with Ernestine and turned with renewed ardor to Clara, while Clara at once withdrew her affections from Banck and retransferred them to Schumann. We find him writing to her again in 1835:
"Through all the Autumn festivals there looks out an angel's head that closely resembles a certain Clara who is very well known to me." By the following year, Clara then being seventeen, things evidently had gone so far that, between themselves, they were engaged. "Fate has destined us for each other," he writes to her. "I myself knew that long ago, but I had not the courage to tell you sooner, nor the hope to be understood by you."
Wieck evidently had remained in ignorance of the young people's attachment, for, when on Clara's birthday the following year (1837) Schumann made formal application in writing for her hand, her father gave an evasive answer, and on the suit being pressed, he, who had been almost like a second father to Robert, became his bitter enemy. Clara, however, remained faithful to her lover through the three years of unhappiness which her father's sudden hatred of Robert caused them. In 1839 she was in Paris, and from there she wrote to her father:
"My love for Schumann is, it is true, a passionate love; I do not, however, love him solely out of passion and sentimental enthusiasm, but, furthermore, because I think him one of the best of men, because I believe no other man could love me as purely and nobly as he or so understandingly; and I believe, also, on my part that I can make him wholly happy through allowing him to possess me, and that I understand him as no other woman could."
This love obviously was one not lightly bestowed, but Wieck remained obdurate and refused his consent. Then Schumann took the only step that under the circumstances was possible. Wieck's refusal of his consent being a legal bar to the marriage, Robert invoked the law to set his future father-in-law's objections aside. The case was tried, decided in Schumann's favor, and on September 12, 1840, Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck were married in the village of Schönefeld, near Leipsic. That year Schumann composed no less than one hundred and thirty-eight songs, among them some of his most beautiful. They were his wedding gift to Clara.
After their marriage his inspiration blossomed under her very eyes. She was the companion of his innermost thoughts and purposes. Meanwhile his musical genius and critical acumen ever were at her command in her work as a pianist. Happily, too, a reconciliation was effected with Wieck, and we find Clara writing to him about the first performance of Schumann's piano quintet (now ranked as one of the finest compositions of its class), on which occasion she, of course, played the piano part.
Four years after their marriage the Schumanns removed to Dresden, remaining there until 1850, when they settled in Düsseldorf, where Robert had been appointed musical director. There was but one shadow over their lives. At times a deep melancholy came over him, and in this Clara discerned with dread possible symptoms of coming mental disorder. Her fears were only too well founded. Early in February, 1854, he arose during the night and demanded light, saying that Schubert had appeared to him and given him a melody which he must write out forthwith. On the 27th of the same month, he quietly left his house, went to the bridge across the Rhine and threw himself into the river. Boatmen prevented his intended suicide. When he was brought home and had changed his wet clothes for dry ones, he sat down to work on a variation as if nothing had happened. Within less than a week he was removed at his own request to a sanatorium at Endenich, where he died July 29, 1856.
[Illustration: The Schumann Monument in the Bonn Cemetery.]
Clara survived him forty years, wearing a crown of laurels and thorns - the laurels of a famous pianist, the thorns of her widowhood. It was a widowhood consecrated, as much as her wifehood had been, to her husband's genius. She died at Frankfort, May 19, 1896, and is buried beside her husband in Bonn.