Thursday, August 4, 2016

Did Clara Schumann sacrifice her career to her family?

I’m currently in Syracuse, New York, getting ready to read a paper at a conference for the North American British Music Studies Association. (The paper is about an obscure 19th-century British composer named William Sterndale Bennett, and why he’s so obscure, even though this year is his bicentenary.) Last night, I was unwinding at my motel, and I came across this Tweet from University of Iowa musicologist Marian Wilson Kimber:
Familiar but inaccurate? Well, I can’t let something like that stand, even when I’m dealing with nausea on the other side of the country.

The original article is from the San Diego Reader, “Female composer Clara Schumann let her opinions be known” by Garrett Harris. He is woefully inept as a classical music critic. He first came on my radar when Byron Adams spite-shared a link to this review, which includes the sentence, “This is hard core impressionism and it’s not really easy listening even though there is a harp involved.” It gets worse. Will Robin directed me to Matt Marks's dramatic reading of one of Harris’s other reviews (NSFW language!). Harris is uninformed about the music he covers, but at least he’s also a terrible writer.

So, what raised Dr. Wilson Kimber’s hackles? She explains, “It just irritates me how we replace one set of myths about female composers with another, then congratulate ourselves.” She says we’ve discarded the old, “Women don’t compose because they aren’t creative” myth and replaced it with, “Women can compose, but shucks, they’re just too darn busy!” It’s progress of sorts, in that the terrible biological explanation has been replaced with a cultural trope. But it’s usually delivered with a smug, “These women should be grateful we’re writing about them at all!” And in the case of Schumann, this cliché does her a huge disservice.

Based on the title of his article, Harris wants to present Schumann as a feisty woman who wrote good music. He even says that “The piano concerto is a quality piece of music.” What an endorsement!

But then we come to the final paragraph:
Once she had a husband, children, and performance career, her composing all but dried up. She didn’t write much after the age of 36. It’s a familiar story. 
There are some half-truths here, and from them he draws the exact wrong conclusion. Schumann’s story isn’t “familiar,” it’s extraordinary.

Your dependence on clichés
is boring Clara Schumann.
First of all, it’s true that Schumann did not compose as many pieces after the age of 36. But look at the first half of that sentence: “Once she had a husband, children, and performance career…” One of these things is not like the others! It’s bizarre that he would lump her exceptional career in with the domestic trappings of the “familiar story” he’s trying to imply.

Let’s take this apart even further. Schumann’s performance career should be chronologically first in that sentence, as she made her formal solo debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus (as Clara Wieck) when she was 11. So, the performance career didn’t hamper her composing.

Next comes the marriage. She married Robert in 1840, the day before her 21st birthday. So, that didn’t slow her down either. In fact, Robert often encouraged her to compose. As Dr. Wilson Kimber pointed out to me, marrying Robert may have allowed Clara to compose more than she might have otherwise, which is not the familiar tale of a woman’s creativity being stifled by her husband.

Now, for the children. That had to stop her career, right? Maternal duties? After all, Schumann was pregnant ten times and had eight children (though, typical of the period, some did not survive childhood). But she had her first child in 1841, in her early twenties, long before she stopped composing. Even motherhood didn’t slow her down—as Nancy B. Reich points out in Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman, “Between 1840 and 1854 Clara Schumann gave at least 139 public concerts, and during those years she was pregnant almost continuously.” This was in an era when pregnancy was a major health risk for women, and traveling also carried real risks of bodily harm.

So, why did Schumann stop composing around 1855? There are many factors, but it’s not because she became a domestic diva, as Harris implies. Robert Schumann attempted suicide in 1854, and after being institutionalized, he died in 1856. Clara continued to perform, it’s true. But she also devoted herself to preserving her husband’s legacy, editing, publishing, and premiering his works. She also advised and arranged works by younger composers, including Johannes Brahms, and—oh, hey! William Sterndale Bennett, the guy I’m talking about tomorrow! And she continued performing in public until 1891. This astonishing fact is glossed over by Harris, and it is certainly NOT a “familiar story.”

Clara Schumann was amazing. Even Google recognizes it. She was a woman, and as such, yes, she did face certain societal expectations. But they didn’t “dry her up”; far from it. Hers is not the story of a female composer whose talent was buried under domestic responsibilities. She was an atypical badass who did it all.

Thank you to Marian Wilson Kimber for pointing out this article, and to Will Robin for reminding me that Garrett Harris is a notorious hack.

“Female composer Clara Schumann let her opinions be known” by Garrett Harris for the San Diego Reader

Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman by Nancy B. Reich (2001)


  1. Clara Schumann was also an extraordinary teacher who transformed promising talents into sublime artists such Fannie Davies, Carl Friedberg, Ilona Eibenschutz, all of whom were shared with Brahms. A letter to Eibenschutz displays her intense solicitude: "“I was really rather disappointed yesterday, to note that none of the pieces which you played were perfect, and I think you should therefore, have another fortnight’s quiet study here in Frankfurt, to prepare for Cologne and Berlin. I have told you so often of my fear that because of the ease with which you learn you are tempted not to practice CONSCIENTIOUSLY ENOUGH. I COULD PROVE THIS TO YOU IN EVERY PIECE WHICH YOU PLAYED YESTERDAY [upper case in the original] and would like to go through them all once more with you. I wish I could spare you the experiences which are inescapable if you do not learn to be STRICTER WITH YOURSELF. You will surely see in my candor only motherly concern and forethought.” (September 6th, [18]90).

    1. Thank you for sharing that marvelous quote! Another one of Harris's crimes is that Clara Schumann provides the juiciest quotes, and he uses the most banal ones instead.