Though she remains one of the most influential musicians of the 19th century, Clara Wieck Schumann is relatively unknown as a musician and composer. Historically, her life and work has only been discussed in conjunction with studies of her husband, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms, both male musicians.
But in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library current exhibit, Clara is the focus.
Sept. 13 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Clara Schumann. The exhibit in her honor, titled “From Prodigy to Priestess: Clara Schumann at 200,” includes two manuscripts and two letters in her own hand, manuscripts by Robert Schumann and Brahms, photographs of Clara Schumann and recordings of her music.
Clara Schumann was known as one of the greatest pianists of her time, according to Richard Boursy MUS ’94, who curated the exhibit. She was a child prodigy who toured throughout Europe to great acclaim. Schumann married universally-recognized German composer Robert Schumann and later became lifelong friends with Brahms, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era of classical music. Throughout her life, Clara Schumann continued to perform not only her music, but also the music of her husband and of Brahms. She stopped composing after her husband’s death, 40 years before her own.
“We did not know why [she stopped composing]. Who knows what wonderful things we would have had if she had chosen to pursue that?” Boursy said.
The music displayed outside the music library includes an excerpt from her “Four Studies for Piano,” a manuscript facsimile of Variation six from her “Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann,” and a lied — or song — titled “Warum willst du and’re fragen,” which translates to “Why inquire of others?”
“Clara Schumann is unusual for her time in that she was married but kept up her musical career in spite of marriage,” said music librarian Suzanne Lovejoy.
The lied is part of a song cycle jointly published by Clara and Robert Schumann based on a set of poems by Friedrich Rückert. The exhibit highlights the difference between this song cycle and another co-written collection by Felix Mendelssohn and his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, displayed by the library in 2009. All of the songs in the Mendelssohn cycle were attributed to Felix, while Clara and Robert Schumann are both credited as composers of their song cycle.
“The [Schumanns’] work was conceived as a joint project, but they were doing their work as individuals also,” said Boursy. “That kind of characterizes their marriage. On the one hand, they were extremely close to each other and everything they did was intertwined, but on the other hand they were both geniuses.”
Visitors to the exhibit can listen to an audio recording of the song while viewing the displayed score. Also on view is a manuscript of a Brahms piece written as a gift for Clara Schumann and a sketch of one of Robert Schumann’s works. The letters and photographs complete a portrait of Clara’s personal life, in addition to the materials revealing her musical talent.
“I like that they emphasize that she wasn’t just a virtuosic concert pianist for all of her life,” said Epongue Ekille ’21, who studies violin. “She was also a cultivator and influencer and benefactor of classical music.”
After her husband died, Clara Schumann began to change her public image.
“She usually dressed in black and instead of being the flashy virtuoso who would dazzle you with pyrotechnics on the piano; she cultivated a more serious image,” said Boursy.
As a whole, the display portrays her career as a journey from “prodigy” to “priestess.” Her life was central to not only the lives of two prominent male composers, but also a broader shift in the culture of Western classical music. Boursy characterized this change as a shift away from classical music’s identity as lighthearted entertainment.
“Classical music became more serious and respectful,” said Boursy. “Instead of it being about the pianist showing off, it was about the masterpieces of the past — of the great composers who should be approached with reverence and respect in a concert as a serious elevated occasion.”
For Clara Schumann, those great composers included Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and her late husband.
“I am so struck by what an amazing woman Clara Schumann was — both as a composer and pianist — and am really pleased that we are displaying the work of another woman in an important anniversary for women at Yale,” said Lovejoy.
The exhibit will remain on display until Sept. 23. It follows a spring 2019 exhibit celebrating women: “Musical Daughters of Eli: Women Pioneers at Yale.”
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org