CLARA WIECK-SCHUMANN (1819-1896)

Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7 (1833-1835)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

I. Allegro maestoso

II. Romanze: Andante non troppo con grazia

III. Finale: Allegro non troppo

1833-35: FRAMING “ENGAGEMENTS”

In January 1833, Clara Josephine Wieck, then 13 years old, began composing a single-movement piano piece that grew to become the Piano Concerto in A minor. Her future husband, composer Robert Schumann (24 years old), assisted with orchestrations. In addition, the year marked the birth of Johannes Brahms, a significant figure in Schumann affairs.

 

In the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, 1833-34 saw the early reign of King Kauikeaouli [Kamehameha III] (1814-54), who re-permitted hula, gambling, and alcohol consumption. Kauikeaouli's attempt to separate the church and state departed from the protestant positions of the late Queen Regent, Kaʻahumanu. Christian missionaries saw this reversion as an era of disruption and focused the blame on the monarch's relationship with Kaomi, his Aikāne (male partner).

 

Robert Schumann was initially engaged to Ernestine von Fricken in 1834 but broke it off in 1835. Ernestine's illegitimate birth led to a mutual cessation, but Robert's affection for Clara Wieck, and hers for him, gradually intensified. In 1837, he proposed to the 18-year-old Clara. Friedrich Wieck (Clara's father) strongly opposed the relationship, leading to an ugly episode of family court.

 

THE PRODIGY DAUGHTER

With a career spanning 63 years of concertizing, Clara Wieck-Schumann is a captivating Romantic-era figure. The practice of soloists performing from memory and the championing of masterworks by Bach and Beethoven begins with Clara. Her life intersects with two celebrated figures, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Clara's trailblazing concert career represented a monumental 19th-century presence when women had little opportunity, recognition, and representation.

 

Friedrich Wieck dedicated his life to teaching and producing the finest musicians of the Romantic era, including the conductor Hans von Bülow and Robert Schumann. Clara was his shining and most precious pupil, his daughter-prodigy. In the footsteps of Mozart, she was trained daily in piano and subjects including voice, language, theory, and composition. At nine years old, Clara debuted at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on October 20, 1828, followed by numerous European performing tours.

 

WIECK VS. WIECK

At first, Clara and Robert's relationship resembled that of siblings, but over time developed into romantic affection. When Friedrich Wieck discovered their secret liaison, he forbade them from all contact. Besides the age gap, Clara had more to her name; her talent and virtuosity garnered comparisons to Franz Liszt. She was more famous, and Robert threatened Wieck's designs for his daughter's carefully crafted career.

 

Clara legally required her father's consent to marry. Wieck refused and launched a negative campaign against Robert to separate the two, including threats to life, disinheritance, and rumor spreading. Desperate, Robert (with Clara giving him power of attorney) sued Wieck, with Felix Mendelsohn and Ferdinand David among those ready to testify. The legal battle was nasty and replete with character assassinations, but love triumphed. The wedding proceeded on September 12, 1840, a day before Clara reached legal age.

 

KEEPING UP WITH THE SCHUMANNS

Clara and Robert became the definition of a power couple. Their deep affection and musical collaborations are well-documented through personal diaries, including a joint marriage journal, volumes of personal letters, and eight children (she was with child ten times). However, Clara's marriage came with a cost, estranging her father for a time, and motherhood saw the cancellation of concert tours. She supported Robert, giving him the space to flourish in his compositions, but his growing mental health issues became a crushing fate. She continued to compose, but not on the scale before marriage. The couple befriended the young composer Johannes Brahms in 1853 and, following Robert's suicide attempt, served a substantial role in Clara's life.

 

After Robert died in 1856, Clara resumed concertizing and teaching to support the family and began her lifelong mission to champion her late husband's legacy. Her long-lasting and beloved friendship with Brahms has been gossip-fuel for a secret intimate relationship, though by all accounts, they never indulged beyond friends. Clara's final performance took place in Frankfurt on March 12, 1891, performing the music of Brahms. She died on May 20, 1896. A year later, Brahms followed.

 

A PORTRAIT CONCERTO  

From start to finish, the Piano Concerto paints Clara's teenage years (13-16), represents her only concerto and large-scale composition, and traverses the evolving feelings for Robert. First conceived as a one-movement work for piano and orchestra called Concertsatz, Clara notes in her diary on November 22, 1833, "I completed my concerto. Schumann will do the orchestration so I can play it at my concert." At the time, Robert had less experience with orchestration. Clara had already composed an Overture (1832) and a Scherzo (1833), so handing off these duties illustrates an early trusting relationship. This version was first performed in Leipzig on May 5, 1834, and became the concerto's third movement.

 

By June 1834, Clara had completed the first movement, and the Romanze followed in 1835. In a letter on September 1, 1835, Clara wrote to Robert of her progress, including revisions to his original orchestrations, "You will smile, but it is true: first, I completed my score; second, I wrote all the different voices myself…I started orchestrating the concerto but have not copied it yet. The tutti sections I have slightly changed."

 

At 16, Clara premiered the three-movement concerto with the Gewandhaus Leipzig Orchestra conducted by Felix Mendelssohn on November 9, 1835. Unifying themes connect the concerto's three movements, unfolding continuously without pause. The concerto runs for 20 minutes, and in addition to solo piano, the score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, two trumpets, a trombone, timpani, and strings.

 

I. ALLEGRO MAESTOSO

The orchestra starts with a regal A-minor call to attention, seasoned with the rhythms of a French overture. An ascending fury of octaves marks a royal piano entry, all hands on deck. When the opening orchestral material returns in glorious E-major, the piano gives the last word, linking the first and second movements with an ascending gesture. 

 

II. ROMANZE: ANDANTE NON TROPPO CON GRAZIA

The piano is the main dish of the Romanza, the orchestra not included. Joining the solo much later, a partner to romance, solo cello. As a songful cadenza, it is a Mendelssohn-like song without words, weaving an intimate and warmer perspective of the Allegro's lyrical theme.

 

III. FINALE: ALLEGRO NON TROPPO 

Distant timpani rolls connect to the last movement seamlessly. The music is already three bars into the Finale when the trumpets sound. In triple time, the opening piano octaves of the first movement return transformed with capriciousness. Clara composed this movement first, and it bears reminding she was only 14. Youthful energy and beauty blossom with flourishes, elegant and fierce. The final hurrah in duple time leads to an electrifying cadence, a barrage of power chords rocking in a blaze of A-minor. 

 

Clara Wieck-Schumann was born in Leipzig on September 13, 1819, and died on May 20, 1896, in Frankfurt.

© 2020 Michael-Thomas Foumai