Welcome back to another episode – I mean, blog post about Clara Schumann! Last time, I talked in great detail about ‘The Girlhood of Clara Schumann’ written by Florence May (if you’d like a refresher of that, go ahead and click here). Today I’m going to look at a biography that was published more recently, and as such will offer us different insights. As I write, I’ll continually compare this book to Florence May’s – not to judge one over the other, but simply to offer a more nuanced picture. Strap in for another journey through Clara Schumann’s life!
Clara Schumann – A Dedicated Spirit by Joan Chissell (1983)
What made this book interesting to me is that, even though it’s definitely more recent than Florence May’s biography from 1912, it can’t really be considered contemporary anymore either, having been published 35 years ago. Musicology has, especially recently, been making great strides and leaps, and scholars are finally beginning to look at the history of Western classical music more critically than they used to. That is why I thought it would be interesting to see how a woman in the early 1980s would approach a biography about a musician who had probably already descended into obscurity, with only her relationship with Robert Schumann remaining relevant to historians.
Unlike Florence May’s biography, A Dedicated Spirit looks at Clara’s entire life. The title might suggest that most of the book is focused on the men in her circle (most notably Friedrich Wieck, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms) rather than herself, but I was relieved to find that that wasn’t the case. Clara very much takes centre stage and is portrayed as the independent woman she was, though of course there is no denying the strong feelings she had for each of those men. Joan Chissell definitely strikes a good balance between going into those relationships, while at the same time concentrating on Clara’s career as a composer and pianist. I was also very pleased to note that even after Robert Schumann’s early death, the author continues to chronicle Clara’s life in good detail; I was afraid that this relationship might be treated as more important than anything that happened after its end.
In terms of dates, this biography goes into just enough detail about concert tours and repertoire without inundating the reader in dates and numbers (personally I get very sleepy when there are too many numbers within a text) and other all too dry information. At the same time, the writing is not too complicated, and engaging enough to both keep the reader reading, and to make sure information is retained. I read Girlhood right before A Dedicated Spirit, so of course I cross-checked a lot of the section that deals with Clara’s childhood and the years leading up to her marriage, just to see whether Joan Chissell had done her research (I’m joking about that last part). The fact that all of it checked out reassured me that I had picked up a good book.
The description of Friedrich Wieck stood out to me. This time, we definitely see him closer to that image of a dragon jealously guarding his prodigy that I was familiar with from my early education. I found this quite interesting – Florence May had definitely treated him more favourably than what I was reading now. Why? Was it ignorance or misunderstanding on Joan Chissell’s part? Or was she, in being further removed from both the time and the people she was writing about, in fact better equipped to look at what happened in a more objective light? To me, this is question extremely interesting. In 1983, she wouldn’t have had access to first-hand accounts of what happened, unlike Florence May. Her only sources would have been letters, court records (a court had to decide that Friedrich had no right to block the marriage) and diary entries, which inevitably force a researcher and author to either take a very objective (if not to say neutral) approach, or to speculate, the latter of which Chissell mostly refrains from doing. On the other hand, hindsight helps to decode conventions and attitudes of the time; for example, misogyny definitely wasn’t viewed as such during Clara’s lifetime. Looking at it through this more modern lens, both Robert’s wish for Clara to become his wife (he wanted her to be his ‘Hausfrau’, his ‘house/stay-at-home wife’, thus forfeiting her career), as well as Friedrich’s maniacal possessiveness of his daughter become very questionable indeed. He ended up more or less disowning and denying her access to the substantial amount of money that she single handedly earned as a soloist over the years – all in an attempt to stop her from marrying Robert. In the end, we probably will never know which version of events and which point of view is closer to the truth, but I greatly appreciated Joan Chissell’s well-rounded approach to the subject.
On a related note, I was positively surprised and happy about the way Clara’s compositions are treated in this biography. Florence May often has a bit of a dismissive tone when talking about them, and only ever mentions (and really it never is more than a mention) Clara’s pieces in relation to Robert Schumann’s – and throughout treats them as inferior to her husband’s work; this struck me as both lazy and unfair, but yet again this can be explained by the general view of men’s and women’s standing in society at the time. Joan Chissell, on the other hand, takes the time to talk about a lot of Clara’s works, and throughout views them as more or less independent from Robert’s. Not only does she analyse a fair number of the pieces, she speaks highly of each and every one of them, which again is very refreshing; even now, in 2018, it’s hard to find people who acknowledge lesser known (and even less so female) composers’ works not only as having quality, but as being able to stand up to the works of those we’ve decided to classify as “masters”. Now if only it was possible to easily access recordings of these pieces…
As mentioned, after Robert Schumann’s death a good section of the book still remains, detailing how Clara then managed to be the sole provider for her eight (!) children. Even (or maybe especially) by today’s standards, that fact alone is very impressive. Clara had to make up for all those years of her marriage where she hardly had opportunities to continue practising – for one because she was either pregnant, having to look after children, or both at the same time, and for another because her husband couldn’t compose while also hearing the sound of a completely different piece than what was in his head, and of course it was Clara who had to back down, because God forbid the man can’t do his work whenever he wants to. Moreover, Robert didn’t like the frequent travels (and liked it even less when Clara went off on her own), so she essentially had to abandon her career at the height of her success. However, she not only managed to make up for this time, but more or less picked up her career right where she had left off. Wherever she went, Clara was welcomed warmly on her own merit instead of just as her husband’s widow, and England especially became a frequent destination for her concert tours. I hope I’m not the only one in absolute awe over this. Clara must have been such a phenomenal musician, to have remained in people’s memories so vividly and favourably even after taking such a long break from performing. It’s almost unimaginable in today’s fast-moving world.
One thing that stood out to me was the far less objective approach this biography takes concerning Clara Schumann’s thoughts and feelings. It’s possible that I only noticed it because I had only just read Girlhood, which surprised me with its utter objectivity on that subject (while delving quite deep into the psyches of Robert and Friedrich). It can be dangerous to speculate, but I have to say that feeling like I got a glimpse into Clara’s mind made it easier to stay focused on the text. However, I can imagine that some people might prefer the more clinical way of writing biographies, and that’s completely fair.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was informative, thorough and yet concise, and though it was the first complete biography I’ve read about Clara Schumann, I feel that I’m properly informed on her life and opus. The language is fairly modern and easy to understand, even for non-native speakers. Most of all, despite what the title may imply, the focus really lies on Clara as her own person, which can’t be highlighted enough. Even if you aren’t very familiar with music history as a whole, I would definitely recommend this biography as a good starting point to delve into Clara’s life.
Sadly, I can’t give you retail links to buy the book this time, because it seems that it’s out of print and only available second hand. Bummer. Do try your local libraries though! Libraries are great. And if you’d like to have a look at further media about Clara, I’ll refer you to my first post in this series!
Right now I’m all out of books about specific female composers, so do let me know in the comments if there’s anyone you’d like to see me write about next! I’d be especially interested in reading about composers who were (or are!) women of colour, to get some diversity into this series. Until next time!