My history hero: Clara Schumann (1819-96)

Chosen by composer and broadcaster Howard Goodall

A portrait of the brilliant pianist and composer Clara Schumann.

This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Born in Leipzig, then part of Saxony, Clara Wieck took up the piano at a young age, showing remarkable promise, and eventually becoming a world-famous pianist. She married the composer Robert Schumann in 1840 and had eight children, but continued to play and compose music. After Robert’s death in 1856, Clara helped promote his works, as well as those of other musical friends such as Brahms.

When did you first hear about Schumann?

I had heard about her when I was a music student at university but it is only in researching my TV series, Howard Goodall’s Story of Music, that I fully came to appreciate her significance in musical history and became familiar with her exquisite music.

What kind of person was she?

She was incredibly talented and determined – the kind of person who could carve out an international career, against all odds. By the end of her life she was extremely famous and she used her concert platform to champion the (then little known) works of her late husband, Schumann, as well as her friends, Brahms and Chopin. All three of these male composers idolised her, and Schumann composed many beautiful pieces to express his love for her. She coped with his mental illness and early death, and brought up their children single-handedly.

What made her a hero?

She was a real trailblazer. For a woman, pursuing a career in music before the 20th century wasn’t just difficult, it was practically impossible. Society frowned on women taking an active part in music. And, while parents were happy to allow their daughters to learn the piano as a hobby, they strongly dissuaded them from going any further with it. Schools, colleges and universities were closed to young women, so they could not acquire the years of training necessary to create large-scale musical works such as symphonies, concertos or operas.
Clara broke all these taboos and barriers – along with her friend Fanny Mendelssohn (composer Felix’s brilliant sister) – and did so with great courage and patience.

What was her finest hour?

It wasn’t her ‘finest’ hour, but a lovely, historic moment came when, aged 12, she sat down at a piano in a lodging in Paris and played to Chopin one of his own Nocturnes. He was entranced, though little did he know that this young woman would be his most dedicated champion for decades after his (early) death.

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

No. My journey through music has been a doddle compared to her struggle. In a sense, all female musicians of the 20th century owe her a debt of gratitude for being their pathfinder. I do, on the other hand, share her – often hilarious – disdain for the pomposity and arrogance of Richard Wagner, while acknowledging his astonishing musical gifts.

If you could meet Schumann what would you say to her?

I would tell her that in the decades after she died, the world finally woke up to the nonsense that prevented women pursuing professional careers in music, and that her compositions, neglected during her lifetime, are now performed and recorded throughout the world. I would also tell her that she is an inspiration to anyone with a desire to follow their chosen passion, whatever the obstacles.
Finally, I would tell her that the illnesses and conditions that blighted, then ended, the lives of so many of her nearest and dearest have now been conquered, and that it was similar breakthroughs to hers in the field of medicine – allowing women to participate fully in research and practice – that brought about many of those advances. I think she would be very proud.
Howard Goodall CBE is an award-winning composer of choral music, stage musicals, film and TV scores. He is also a broadcaster, who presented Howard Goodall’s Story of Music on BBC Two in 2013