Saturday 22 October 2016

Classical: Happy anniversary to the Schumanns...

George Hamilton

Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30

Communication was not a strong suit for Robert and Clara Schumann. But music surely was.
Communication was not a strong suit for Robert and Clara Schumann. But music surely was.

Robert Schumann's life tallied with just about every detail of the definition of "romantic" that's in my Chambers Dictionary - extravagant, wild, fantastic on the one hand and, in his work, original, imaginative and free. He was a middle-class boy, a voracious reader, very keen on music, and a chess player, too. His father had a bookshop and was a publisher - among the authors he brought to the German public was the great Scottish man of letters, Walter Scott. Through his teens, Robert would write, and he composed music as well.

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He promised his father, who'd died while he was still at school, that he would go into law. But at university in Leipzig, music became a huge distraction.

There, he made a connection that would change the course of his life. He signed up with a music teacher called Friedrich Wieck who saw huge talent and persuaded his mother to let him give up the law, at least temporarily.

But that wasn't all. Herr Wieck had a teenage daughter. Clara was nine years younger than Robert. The pair were immediately smitten. The father was not best pleased, and did his utmost to keep them apart. The fact that Clara was also a gifted musician gave him ample opportunity. She'd been performing in public since she was nine. He took her on a series of tours through Germany, Austria and France, promoting her as a virtuoso. He sent her off to the top teacher 100 kilometres away in Dresden. But Robert Schumann was still on her mind.

For his part, he'd write specifically for her, including little pieces of musical code in his compositions. The romance flourished despite the opposition and the time apart and they decided to marry.

As Clara was under age, she needed her father's consent, and Wieck refused to give it. There may have been more to this than paternal protection - he was, after all, effectively Clara's manager and she was making him good money. Marrying another musician would undoubtedly diminish his influence and put her husband in a better position to exploit her talent.

When Schumann took him to court for the right to marry Clara, Wieck counter-sued, alleging just that. His would-be son-in-law, he asserted, was financially irresponsible. He was a mediocre journalist (Schumann was an acclaimed music critic, Wieck for his part had been blasted by Chopin for a "stupid" review he'd written of one of his performances). And Schumann drank too much.

It took the best part of a year, but the court eventually found in Schumann's favour, and he and Clara were married the day before her 21st birthday, which was on this date in 1840.

The rest is troubled history. They were kindred musical spirits - his piano concerto reads like a love story, with the solo instrument and the orchestra in constant dialogue - and Clara, the world's first female concert pianist, had huge success performing both his and her own music.

But Robert had his difficulties. He attempted suicide by drowning in the Rhine and ended his days in a psychiatric hospital. Clara survived him by 40 years, and had a lengthy relationship, platonic or not, with Johannes Brahms. That, though, is a story for another day.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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