‘I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I gave up on that idea,” the celebrated young German pianist and composer Clara Wieck wrote in 1839. “A woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?. . . May Robert always create. That will always make me happy.”
The “Robert” she refers to is Robert Schumann, a law school dropout and her father Friedrich Wieck’s former piano student who became one of the most revered composers of the Romantic era for his symphonies and songs. Less than a year after she recorded those thoughts in her diary, Clara married Robert the day before she turned 21, which she called “the most beautiful and most important” day of her life.
In the long run, Clara Schumann’s reputation as a concert pianist, creative muse for her husband, and (maybe?) vertex on a love triangle with Romantic-era titan Johannes Brahms greatly overshadowed her work as a composer. However, with the recent renewal of interest in unearthing work by women composers who may have been relegated to the footnotes of history, her music has been rolled into a brighter spotlight.
Tatyana Dudochkin, founder and director of the Composer Anniversary Concert series at New England Conservatory, thinks this year, Clara’s bicentennial, is the perfect time to celebrate her work as a composer. While researching Clara’s life and music, Dudochkin said, “my heart was grabbed by a woman who was just an incredible genius.” The concert will take place on Oct. 13, one month to the day after Clara’s 200th birthday.
Dudochkin, a Russian-born pianist, said one colleague was shocked to hear Clara was her choice for this year’s concert, the 29th in the annual series. “Why did you say Clara? You always do such a famous composer, who people love to come to celebrate!” Dudochkin recalled the colleague saying. (Her long list of concerts past includes such names as Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Verdi, and Shostakovich.) “I said, ‘I will do everything to make people believe . . . She touched me, she will touch them.’ ”
Clara’s controlling, stage-savvy father set out to mold her into a virtuoso starting at a young age, even bragging that he didn’t allow her to play with toys or other children. During her concert tours as a wunderkind, she was expected to dazzle audiences with her own compositions and improvisations on top of the other repertoire under her belt. So, as a teenager, she wrote a stack of caprices, waltzes, and character pieces for solo piano — and a concerto for piano and orchestra, her largest-scale surviving work.
This year, two major CD recordings of Clara’s music have been released. British pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason’s debut album “Romance” includes Clara’s Piano Concerto as well as duets, solo pieces, and transcriptions of Robert’s songs. American pianist Lara Downes’s album “For Love of You,” released last month on Clara’s 200th birthday, includes music by Robert and Clara from the tumultuous years leading up to their marriage, during which Friedrich Wieck publicly opposed the match and threatened to disinherit Clara.
“I think the relationship they had was so deeply rooted in the music,” Downes said in a phone interview. “I can’t play his music or her music without really just feeling that blending of two minds. It’s critical.”
The music from the period around their wedding is “overwhelmed with grand passion,” Downes added. But it’s not without conflict. “[Clara] is also fighting . . . for her future as a woman who has already, you know, developed a career and a huge personality in the world.”
Reading the couple’s marriage diary, it seems Robert liked it best when Clara was predictable, taking care of the children and studying music with him. His “dearest wish,” according to biographer Anna Beer, was that his wife wouldn’t even perform in public. Despite her husband’s scruples, Clara did continue to tour and perform as a concert pianist after her marriage, and she was pregnant during much of that time. The couple ultimately had eight children, and Clara’s concerts reliably put bread on the ever-expanding Schumann family table, especially in Robert’s final years when his severe mental illness and worsening physical condition prevented him from earning a steady income as a composer or conductor.
Clara composed infrequently after she married. The demands of performance and parenthood took up much of her time, and Robert required quiet to compose his own work. Still, she produced her Piano Trio, which is possibly her most widely known piece, and she also wrote lieder, choruses, and duets. In the diary that the Schumanns shared, Clara was dismissive of her own music. When she composed three songs as a Christmas gift, she said “they are of no value, only a very feeble effort.”
Listeners now can decide for themselves whether Clara’s harsh self-criticism was merited. Because Dudochkin recruits all kinds of musicians and ensembles for her series, she said, audiences will hear a wide sampling of Clara’s compositions. Fittingly, a teenage girl (Walnut Hill School for the Arts student Taylor Wang) will play the solo in the Piano Concerto.
“In our concert, we try to include all the best of Clara. Not only the piano music or just some chamber music. . . . We do everything,” said Dudochkin, who often travels to her composer-of-the-year’s home country to research and track down descendants . “That is an important collection of her treasure.”
Though Clara’s compositional output almost completely halted after Robert’s death in an asylum at age 46, the second half of her life was full of performances all around Europe, often with violinist Joseph Joachim. She also eventually taught piano at Frankfurt’s Hoch Conservatory. So when Downes looks at Clara’s shortened career as a composer, she doesn’t see a simple tragedy.
“What she did was so huge,” Downes said. “And it would be huge today.”
CLARA SCHUMANN BICENTENNIAL
At Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory. Oct. 13 , 3 p.m. 617-585-1260, www.necmusic.edu/events
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.