Talk to me with Music: Robert and Clara Schumann

Talk to me with Music: Robert and Clara Schumann

“Take us to Royalty,” begged a famous actress in a radio advertisement for diamonds during the runup to Valentine’s Day last week. The diamond is mentioned already in the Bible as one of the stones in the high priest’s breastplate, but the great musicians of history gave their beloveds even greater treasures: they wrote music for them. Unlike diamonds, which are intended exclusively for the One and Only, these musical works now belong to us all, and what Robert Schumann wrote for his wife Clara because of his love for her is still enjoyed today by many others. But was love the only motivating force behind the works that Robert dedicated to Clara? It’s a romantic notion we can enjoy contemplating, but when we look at the Schumanns’ biographies, we may find ourselves struck by other thoughts.

Robert Schumann was the pupil of Clara’s father, the famous and highly respected piano teacher Friedrich Wieck. Clara, who was nine years younger than Robert, was an excellent musical performer and a composer in her own right, and when Robert fell in love with her, Wieck opposed the marriage for fear it would cut short the magnificent career he envisaged for her. And he was right: When Clara married Robert in 1840, that was more or less the end of her musical career. It’s true she helped Robert write some of his compositions, which she also edited and performed, and she composed a few pieces of her own, but she also gave birth to eight children to whose care she devoted herself while running the family home.

Could it be that Robert Schumann wrote her steamy love letters and dedicated works to her not only out of love, but also because he recognized her talent, and his conscience was troubled by the fact that she had sacrificed her career for his?

Whatever the truth of their personal situation may have been, the rest of the world has gained, and here are two works that Robert dedicated to Clara.

Firstly, the piano quintet he composed on the eve of their marriage, which is played here by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra:

Secondly, the first movement of the Concerto in A Minor, the only three-movement piano concerto he wrote, played here by Daniel Barenboim:

Music is indeed a wonderful thing, though the cynics among us are liable to recall Mark Twain’s famous remark that if there were such a thing as a thought-reading machine, people would be ashamed of their good deeds, too. Could it be that these works, like other overly valuable gifts, such as large diamonds for example, are not just an expression of love, but also stem from a guilty conscience?

Robert Schumann died in very sad circumstances from a serious illness whose precise nature is still not known. However, sometimes one person’s tragedy is, at least partially, another’s redemption: because of the deterioration in Robert’s health Clara returned to the concert platform, less from artistic considerations than from her need to support herself and her children. Towards the end of her life, Clara Schumann became an important and respected figure in the world of classical music, and today the names of Robert and Clara are uttered in the same breath when his works are performed, and the story of their love continues to inspire musicians all over the world.

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