Monthly Archives: October 2015

Clara Schumann: A Prodigy in the Shadows


When the name Schumann is mentioned, most people, if they even recognize the word, would think of Romantic composer Robert Schumann. That’s what I want to change, regardless of how few people I educate.

Clara Wieck, born 1819, was the daughter of famous music teacher Friedrich Wieck. He had always wanted a prodigy to call his own, which translated into training his two children to the point of virtuosity. It certainly worked, as Clara became a piano prodigy in her youth. In 1830, Robert Schumann, a young pianist and one of the most prominent composers of the Romantic Era, moved into her house to further pursue music lessons with her father. She would marry this man, have 7 kids, and be left essentially widowed when his mental illness put him in an asylum.

Clara lived her days as a performer, composer, and all-around music talent (BONUS: she was a woman in a heavily male-dominated time!), so why doesn’t anyone know her name?

One word: Robert (if you haven’t been listening, that’s her husband). This man, who is also one of the required composers to study in music history, was a performer before a strange condition struck his hands. He moved on to become one of the most influential composers and music journal writers of his time.

Yes, piano prodigy Clara’s skill were greatly underestimated simply because of her more famous husband (and the tragic tale of his life, including his hand ailment and mental illness leading towards his death). Her compositions were amazing, but her husband basically told her to stay home and watch the kids as he lived his glamorous life, basking in the glory of his successful compositions and music articles.

So how and why did I choose Clara Schumann as my eminent person?

All my life (or at least half of it) I have been dedicated to music. Performing, competitions and exams are all part of my regular schedule, but they don’t come without the music theory courses, which, ultimately, helped me make my decision. There I was, 3 weeks ago, thinking that I would dig up my old music history notes to help me research my original eminent person, Claude Debussy. However, while sifting through 3 years worth of notes, I came across Robert Schumann’s. For some reason, I had a hunch about this and re-read them. Only then did I realize that Clara Schumann, who appeared a mere 3 times within his biography, was the right person for me. She was a female icon: in a time riddled with male composers, she created such beautiful music. Both of us were/are female musicians, advanced pianists at a young age. I’m worried however, about the fact that I can’t empathize with the situation Clara was in at the end of Robert’s life: she was left to take care of her 7 kids while her husband slowly went insane, and she was the subject of another composer’s (one of Robert’s closest friends) affection. Clara also died 200 years ago, totally separating our generations; she also lived in a lower-middle class status in the 19th century with an ill husband and 7 kids, so it would be hard for me to relate to that.

What do I hope to achieve by studying Clara Schumann? That’s a good question. In switching eminent people, I realized that I needed a new goal, a real reason I chose Clara Schumann. I then realized that, although I knew I wanted to study a composer, Clara was a female prodigy who introduced her composition ideas to the world, but gave up her position to take care of her family. This is why I was so drawn to her. In completing this project, I will focus on not only her composing skills, but how she lived her life as a female composer, how she managed to keep her fidelity even as Johannes Brahms proclaimed his love for her, and how, above all, she dealt with the various struggles she did at the end of her husband’s life.

The Seeds of Equality in a Civil War

What starts a civil war? It could be anything from treason, economic decline, or a murder. What does a civil war achieve? Is it ethical? What does it accomplish? Who decides which side is morally just? Is there more regress than progress, vice versa, or is it subjective?

Most people focus on the fighting and economics of the war, most of which were controlled by men. But what I wondered was how women acted during this war. I knew for a fact that women had minimal rights and roles, not just in England, but in most of the world (during this time), but I wanted to know what (if any) actions they took in order to step towards their freedom, and how their lives changed, for better or for worse.

Now, we come to the discussion of women’s roles and rights and their development, albeit minimal, before, during and after the war.

Prior to the English Civil War, in terms of profession and work, women were prohibited from taking on professional jobs, although they were usually employed by their fathers or husbands to work in their guild. Pay was minimal, for no matter what field a woman was in, her work was not as valued as a male with the same skill set. Women’s roles were mostly domestic, such as washing, weaving, tailors, shoemakers, and embroiderers. Some women were given the roles of brewers and bakers.Being a domestic servant was not an uncommon job. Others were often given the job of midwife. However, contrary to popular belief, most men would not be able to keep their farms and businesses running without the help of their wives. However, this does not change the fact that women had no right to pursue a professional career, and were paid minimally for the jobs that they had.

Women were expected to follow the rules without question, set by the Father, considered the ruler of the family, in this highly patriarchal society. Outside of the house, a woman’s opinions and thoughts were represented by her husband. A single woman was feared, solely for the fact that she was living without a man. This in itself was one of the most affecting reasons for the witch hunts, for it was considered suspicious for a woman to be without a man, the “authority” of the house, which almost amuses me now to think. (“A highly capable, equal human being living without a male of whom she can match the skills of, if not exceed? Must be a witch. Let’s unjustly murder her without any solid evidence!”)

During the civil war, the “radical” idea of spiritual equality for both genders was presented by numerous protestors. In the highly religious and hierarchical 17th century England, in which religion still played a huge role, it was nearly impossible for them to separate the spiritual from the secular (which was still pretty religious, if you ask me).

In the later stages of the civil war, women’s actions served the purpose as an advocate for eliminating social (and gender) distinctions. A petition was created to release Leveller leader John Lilburne. In another event, women were sent in to plead their case, but ended up attacking political figure Cromwell, ripping off his cloak.

In the end, regardless of their ethical (and not-so-ethical) actions, the Leveller acts made by the women ventured the idea of an equal role for women in a male-dominated society. In 1647, Mary Overton was arrested, breaking laws that stated that women were given significant roles usually played by men. Leader John Lilburne wrote, “Neither Adam nor Eve held dominion over one another and that their descendants should not either.” Although at the end of the civil war, women were still fighting for equality as they are today, it was a step in the right direction.

In the history of Europe, never before had such a bold feminist movement been presented. Their actions, no matter how small they seemed, were the biggest that had been seen in this time.

The English Civil War was a time of government/economic dominated struggle, but quietly, underneath the prominent clashes, women were struggling to be heard.