One of my resolutions for this year was not only to read more books (I managed a shameful four last year), but to read more books about female composers and musicians of the past. To ease myself into it, I decided to start with the more well-known ones, and out of a personal preference, I settled for Clara Schumann, née Wieck. From the outset I found myself wondering whether we would have remembered her at all, had she not been married to Robert Schumann, one of the Romantic greats. The two are now usually regarded as the most well-known lovers in the history of music, which is just as well for my purposes – it means that a fair number of books have been dedicated to Clara. During the last few months I’ve had the chance to read two biographies about her, which I would like to review and compare for your benefit! For the sake of keeping it short-ish, I’ll start with just one book here, then review the next one in a different post. As always, grab a drink and a comfy seat, and enjoy.
The Girlhood of Clara Schumann, written by Florence May (1912)
I found this book by chance in the library, and from the get-go I knew there was something special about it – for one, it felt so old. I quickly realised that this was because it was old; I was holding a first print in my hands! I was holding a book that was over one hundred years old!! My inner book-geek was freaking out.
There are more substantial reasons, however, why this book was so exciting for me: the publishing date, and the author. Clara Schumann died on the 9th of May 1896, which means that this biography was published mere sixteen years after her death. Though one has to be very careful with accounts written by contemporaries of well-known artists (point in case being Anton Schindler, whose heavily edited biography of Beethoven provided us with an extremely skewed view of the composer for far too long), they are nonetheless a very interesting and informative read, since they act as a window into the general worldview of the time. 1912 – the outskirts of the Romantic era, and two years yet to go before the outbreak of the first World War. A time that still held a very conservative and far stricter view on the roles of man and woman in society. I was really looking forward to reading about Clara’s childhood up until her early marriage with Robert from that particular point of view.
As for the author, not only is she a woman, but – and she doesn’t mention this until about a hundred pages into the book, and then only in a footnote – she was one of Clara’s piano students! I remember texting my mum in utter excitement over this discovery, and inwardly congratulating myself on this fantastic find.
The title already indicates the span of time the book discusses, which seemed very promising, seeing as it holds a formidable 330 pages (excluding appendices). We begin not with Clara’s birth, however, but with the early life of her father, Friedrich Wieck. This is a wise choice, considering that everything in her life up to her marriage was dictated by the choices he made for her: Friedrich was the one who decided that his Clärchen would become not only a concert pianist, but the most celebrated soloist of her time. It was his strict regime that gave Clara the physical and mental strength to hold her own in a terribly competitive field – her contemporaries were the likes of Niccolò Paganini, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn and Frédéric Chopin, to name but a few – from a very early age; and it was his extreme opposition to her marriage with Schumann that caused the story of their love to all but pass into legend. It does sound like a proper stage play, doesn’t it? Two highly musically gifted lovers, forced apart (for a while at least) by an irrational hatred of the girl’s father towards her beloved. That’s what I learned about this whole affair when I was young, anyway (though it was from Robert Schumann’s perspective, not Clara’s – we don’t generally hear about women in music history, after all). Friedrich Wieck was The Bad Guy, end of story.
This is where The Girlhood surprised me for the first time: it paints Friedrich Wieck in a much more favourable light. We get to know him as a man who went through hardships early on in life, who wanted so much to be a famous musician or composer, but had to accept that it wasn’t to be. When his daughter Clara was born with unusually big and strong hands and fingers, he realised that this was his chance to experience through her what wasn’t meant to be for him. He dedicated everything he had – his entire life, basically – to her education and training, determined to hone the talent she displayed from an early age and make her into the exceptional musician he knew her to be.
And, well, he succeeded! Clara was first celebrated as a Wunderkind, a child prodigy; then, as an incredibly gifted young pianist; and finally, as an exceptional performer who easily overshadowed most, if not all her contemporaries, no matter their gender. At one point, Florence May writes “she was the greatest pianist of the 19th century, save for Anton Rubinstein”. We learn in great detail how Clara revolutionised the culture of concerts and recitals; how she was the first to introduce piano works by composers like Beethoven and Bach, as well as of course Schumann, Chopin and Mendelssohn, to a much wider audience; how she, probably to the chagrin of many performers since, established playing from memory in public performances.
Until her marriage, her father supported her all the way, completely and utterly. May depicts him as strict, but loving and caring, sacrificing his own comfort and time for the sake of his daughter, which is quite different from the picture of a hellhound guarding his precious prodigy that I have been taught. In this regard, The Girlhood seems to really provide the reader with a more complex view of Friedrich Wieck, which I was very grateful for. It definitely gives us plausible reasons for Wieck’s opposition to the marriage – most of all, the fact that by marrying Schumann, Clara would forsake a very lucrative career as independent performing artist, seeing as she would henceforth be bound to the household and unable to do anything without her husband’s say-so. If she remained unbound, she would be free to continue travelling extensively, as she had done all her life, and her successes as a young girl certainly proved that she would be able to earn enough money to sustain herself at a comfortable and respectable level.
The book also does a great job of very thoroughly chronicling most, if not all of Clara’s performances, right down to exactly which pieces she played. The author’s proximity to the time she writes about gives her a huge advantage over other, more removed and recent biographers; I imagine that gaining all this information (i.e. programme notes, posters, notices in the papers) was a lot easier then than it is nowadays. May often references Clara’s first biographer, Berthold Litzmann (who was the first person to have access to her letters and diaries), not just using the information he provides, but treating it critically (she occasionally corrects him on concert dates and repertoire, for example). But what I personally appreciate even more, is how often May makes the reader understand what exactly Clara’s talent was, by quoting letters and reviews such as the following:
“In her case, it was not mere technical facility that we were called on to admire, but playing of irresistible musical charm, which captivates the attention that one almost forgets to notice the triumphant skill by which the greatest mechanical difficulties are vanquished. […] Each tone of her instrument seems to breathe forth the spirit of the pianiste. […] She reminds us most of Felix Mendelssohn, only the latter controls his performance to greater repose; his rival allows herself to be more carried away by her enthusiasm, without, however, exceeding the limits of feminine grace [!].”
What struck me as peculiar, is how distant Florence May remains in her writing, and how she never attempts to speculate about the emotions of whoever she’s currently focusing on. I’d have assumed, given that she personally knew Clara, that she would have gone into at least some detail as to what the young pianist felt at certain moments in time. On the other hand, I suppose this is to be expected of a biography written at the beginning of the 20th century; plus, I have since learned that the elderly Clara Schumann was reserved, and quick to take personal offence. Maybe that explains it. However, while it can be refreshing for a biographer to have a more objective approach to a person’s life, sometimes it seems to me that Florence May takes too much of the letters sent between Clara and her father, as well as Clara and Robert, at face value, without questioning how much of it is just empty phrases. But then again, this too could be attributed to the zeitgeist; questioning private correspondence in that way might simply not have crossed her mind.
Now, for my only true gripe with this book. As mentioned, it is 330 pages long, and I was really excited to have so much writing dedicated to such a fantastic pianist and her life before her marriage. However, I soon came to realise that a substantial part of the book is, in fact, entirely focused on… Robert Schumann. And by this I mean, entire chapters are just about him; May even spends many pages analysing his piano works, which often only tangentially relate to Clara herself, if at all. At the same time, she often seems to dismiss Clara’s own compositions as inferior to her future husband’s work. She talks in great detail about his childhood, his adolescence, what brought him to Leipzig… I’d say a good third of the book is actually about him. I suppose that at the time, there wasn’t as much literature about him as we have now, but still – the realisation kind of stung. I found myself trying to skip the parts that talk only about Robert’s struggles. Similarly, a good number of pages are dedicated to more or less detailed accounts of the lives and deaths of composers and musicians who surrounded Clara. Again, this could at the time have served to simply educate readers about comparatively recent music history… but to me, it seemed excessive and gratuitous. I just wanted to learn more about Clara!
Overall I really enjoyed reading this book, and not just because it was very informative. Its style and date of publishing make it an exceptionally fascinating document of its time, giving the reader insight not only into Clara Schumann’s life, but also sociological and historical context (and revealing that, at the time the book published, Mendelssohn was regarded as a name of “merely historical interest”, and that his music “does not possess those supreme qualities attributed to it when its clearness and brilliance first fascinated the world.” Yikes!). That also means, however, that it can be a bit of a difficult read, as we are dealing with language that is over 100 years old; this might be a challenge for less experienced non-native speakers. And, as mentioned, I really wish there had been a lot less emphasis on the life and work of Robert Schumann, seeing as the book was supposed to be about Clara. However, if you know nothing of the people I mentioned in this review, then this book might actually be of great use to you, as you’ll learn a lot about a great number of great names! Either way, I would definitely recommend you pick it up if this review has piqued your interest, I promise you won’t be disappointed. I’ll leave a link to Amazon and Waterstones below (these are not affiliate links, though!).
Next time, I’ll be talking about Joan Chissell’s Clara Schumann – A Dedicated Spirit, and compare both books. In the meantime, if you end up reading or have read The Girlhood of Clara Schumann, let me know what you think! And if you have any recommendations for other books (or media!) about Clara Schumann, please leave them in the comments too, so that we can all profit from each others’ knowledge and learn more about female composers and performers. \o/
Buy The Girlhood of Clara Schumann
Further reading and listening (which isn’t an awful lot, because guess what! People don’t write or talk about female composers much.)