200. Birthday of clara schumann : a star was born

During her lifetime Clara Schumann outshone her husband Robert. After his death it is the other way round. Now there is an exhibition.

"Clara’s hand may be touched," it says of the tactile object Photo: Christian Kern/Schumann-Haus

"I don’t want horses, I don’t want diamonds, I am happy in your possession, but I want to live a carefree life and I realize that I would be unhappy if I could not continue to work in the arts," wrote the 18-year-old Clara Wieck in 1837 to her fiance, the composer Robert Schumann, nine years her senior, who was not nearly as famous as she was at the time.

Already as a very young girl Clara celebrated great successes as an artist on the piano throughout Germany and abroad. Her father Friedrich Wieck, a musical autodidact with pedagogical vision, had taught her and made her one of the most important pianists of her time. Wieck, accustomed to and expecting unconditional obedience, flatly rejected a union between his daughter and Schumann, who in some respects was not very solid. Clara was to marry a rich man so that a comfortable economic situation would enable her to practice her art.

But things turned out differently. The young woman, who had previously been so obedient, proved to be extremely stubborn in this affair of the heart, fell out with her father and, together with Robert, went to court to enforce the marriage. The lovers won the case. Clara Wieck became Clara Schumann, bore eight children in 14 years, seven of whom reached adulthood, endured the depressive phases of Robert, who was presumably suffering from bipolar disorder, organized the growing household all by herself, and moreover earned a large part of the family income with her concert activities. She outlived her husband, who died in a psychiatric hospital at the age of 46, by 40 years. They had been married for 16 years.

Not only during this marriage, but also before and after it, Clara was very committed to the works of Robert Schumann, used to include them in her concert programs, and after his death became the administrator and editor of his estate. As difficult as her widow’s fate and life at her husband’s side may often have been: as far as late posthumous fame is concerned, Clara Schumann was probably more than right in her choice of husband; after all, by what musicologist Beatrix Borchard calls "shaping memory," she also secured a place for herself – as well as her father – in music history.

Good reasons for Clara

While during Robert Schumann’s lifetime his wife’s fame far outshone his own, in retrospect it was ultimately the other way around. Even more: if Clara Wieck had not become Mrs. Schumann, she would be as good as forgotten today. Her much attested art of interpretation and brilliance died with her and can no longer be relived; the music of Robert Schumann, however, still resounds two centuries later.

Although Clara also appeared as a composer, she did not have a particularly high opinion of herself in this respect. That she, as a woman, was creative at all, was already unheard of enough.

In the course of the 19. In the course of the 19th century, women began to play a more important role in musical life; or rather, they became more visible. While Clara Schumann was still an exceptional public soloist in her youth (Fanny Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, who was 14 years older, performed only in private), she later became a leading pianist at the Hoch’s Conservatory in Frankfurt. Hoch’s Conservatory in Frankfurt itself trained female pianists. For a long time, however, she was the only woman among the teachers at the institution, which was founded in 1878, and she was only hired because, in the director’s opinion, she could "be considered a man".

In recent decades, much research and writing has been done on the gender-sociological aspects of past musical life. This perspective has also found its way into the museum field.

Clara Schumann drawn by Elwine von Leyser Art: Staatsgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig

A new successful example of this can now be visited in Leipzig, where the newlyweds Schumanns once spent their first four years of marriage. In the Schumann House, the couple’s former home on Inselstrasse, there is an exhibition in honor of Clara’s 200th birthday. A new permanent exhibition, curated by Clara Schumann researcher Beatrix Borchard, has been set up in Zwickau on the occasion of the composer’s 70th birthday under the title "Experiment Kunstlerehe" (Experiment in Artistic Marriage).

The focus of the exhibition concept is clearly more on Clara than on Robert. This is justified for several reasons. On the one hand, there is the Robert Schumann House in Zwickau, the composer’s birthplace, which does not necessarily have to compete with the actual Schumann Museum.

In addition, Clara’s life offers special points of connection to the context in which the small Leipzig museum is embedded; for one shares the house with an elementary school and a music school.

One exhibition room is dedicated to Clara’s education and the pedagogical work of Friedrich Wieck. That Clara had to go for walks as much as she had to play the piano (no more than three hours a day) can be learned here, but also that the choleric father sometimes tore up sheet music if the child’s performance did not meet his expectations.

Animation with Spinnchen

Audio stations, text panels, pictures, film clips and objects complement each other. A plaster cast of Clara Schumann’s hand lies in a display case; opposite, on a pedestal, is a copy in wood. "Clara’s hand may be touched," it says, "but please be careful, gentle or tender."(Gently I place my own hand on Clara’s wooden right hand). The lady had really big hands! Her thumb is almost twice as long as mine.)

While standing in the narrow cabinet and working through the diverse material, sounds, children’s voices, solmization syllables waft over from the neighboring "sound room." The multimedia room is used for teaching on weekdays.

During non-school hours, it is open to museum visitors, and then adults may also make the historical objects hanging from the ceiling (mostly household appliances from Clara and Robert’s time) sound by moving them around.

The exhibition

Schumann House Leipzig, Inselstrasse 18; Mon.-Fr. 2 to 6 p.m. Sat./So. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m

But it’s also nice in the museum on weekdays; there are children’s shoes in the hallway, and as you stroll from room to room, you can meet little people on their way to music lessons.

Each of the museum’s rooms has a multimedia offering that is both informative and caters to different needs. In the "Horkabinett" you can listen to works by the Schumann couple, while the "Ehe-Experimentierraum" (Marriage Experiment Room) offers an interactive sound-film installation.

Mendelssohn played four hands with Clara

The "Travel Cabinet" is decorated with wall-sized maps on which two extended concert tours to Russia and Denmark can be followed, which Clara and Robert undertook together. If you want, you can read the texts inside; but you can just as well admire Clara’s concert dress or watch an animated film at a listening station, in which Clara complains by letter about the hardships of her trip to Russia – and in the inn a spider dangles very vividly from the ceiling.

The books

Beatrix Borchard: "Clara Schumann – Music as a Way of Life". Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim 2019. 431 S., 29,80 Euro

Clara Schumann: "Jugend-tagebucher 1827-1840" (Youth Diaries 1827-1840). Edited by Gerd Nauhaus/Nancy B. Rich. Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim 2019. 703 S., 48 Euro (published for the first time in complete edition)

The large hall in which the Schumanns received guests and where music was played has a few special chairs among the normal ones. To sit down here is to have one of several individual narratives played on your ear, in which special guests of the house are presented. Among these, the most important: Felix Mendelssohn, Gewandhauskapellmeister since 1835, who lived within walking distance and liked to stop by Schumann’s house off-duty to play four-hands with Clara.

In a sense, the exhibition has also rewoven the Schumann-Mendelssohn bond, for unmistakably the same creative spirit was at work in the redesign of the Schumann Marriage Museum as was at work in the addition of a Fanny Hensel floor to the Mendelssohn House two years ago. It is probably the special spirit of the highly lively music city of Leipzig.

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