Influential German pianist and mother of a brood of eight children Clara Schumann is celebrated in today’s Google Doodle, on what would have been her 193rd birthday.
The Doodle shows Schumann playing piano with her children, five of whom stand in place of the two “o”s and the second “g” in the Google logo. Though the artistic rendering shows a tranquil, contented Clara, she suffered greatly in life.
Schumann was born Clara Wieck in Leipzig on September 13, 1819. At just four years of age, she went to live with her father after her parents divorced. At the age of eight, she met composer Robert Schumann, who was nine years her elder and would eventually become her husband. Their first meeting took place when she performed in the home of Dr Ernst Carus, the director Colditz Castle mental hospital.
One year later, Schumann played her first public concert in her hometown of Leipzig. It was a career that would span over 60 years and earn her great accolades, even through her troubled marriage, child rearing, and later, much personal tragedy.
When Robert Schumann and Clara met, he left his legal studies to join her in the study of music in the Romantic era. Her tyrannical father, Friedrick Wieck, led Clara in her daily one-hour lesson and two hours of practice. He had divorced her mother, the famous singer Marianne Tromlitz, years earlier when he’d discovered her affair with a family friend.
At 11, she left her home to tour Europe, accompanied by her father. This trip would have her performing in Weimar and Paris, among other major city centers.
By 18, Clara was performing a series of recitals in Vienna. In 1831, she published her first piece of work, Quatre Polonaises pour le pianoforte, Op. 1. She published several more pieces before her 1840 marriage to Robert Schumann, which was so contested by her father than he took them to court in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the union.
As Steven Isserlis describes the relationship, “The marriage was hardly the idyll for which the young lovers had been hoping. Tensions surfaced increasingly as the years went by, but initially Clara was Schumann’s muse and musical voice, using her fame as a performer to propagate her husband’s works.”
Schumann, once a great pianist himself, could no longer play. He had invented a type of hand-strengthening machine in an effort to improve his skills. Unfortunately, it left him with partial paralysis and ended a promising career.
By 1850, Robert Schumann was desperate for employment and took a rather unsuitable position as a music director. In 1854, again unemployed, Clara’s husband threw himself into the Rhine in a failed suicide attempt. Raising their children, composing and performing, Clara took on most of the household bills and duties as her husband’s mental health deteriorated.
Isserlis writes, “The cause of his madness was probably tertiary syphilis, although his (apparent) manic depression cannot have helped. Clara, bereft and shamed, supported the household by endless concert tours, often leaving her children in the charge of a young man who had fallen passionately in love with her – Johannes Brahms.”
Brahms looked up to Clara, an iconic composer in her own right, though his music tends to be remembered and celebrated more than hers. Though they were close friends, Brahms and Clara never had a romantic relationship, even after the death of her husband in 1856.
Four of Clara’s eight children died before she did. One son would live out his end days in insane asylums, as had his father.
Later in her career, Clara Schumann performed with the likes of Chopin, Mendelssohn, and violinist Joseph Joachim. She worked alongside Brahms to rehabilitate his D minor concerto. From 1878 to 1892, she held the post of piano teacher at Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main.
Clara Schumann played her last public concert in 1891 and died of a stroke in 1896, after a period of ill health in which she went deaf and was confined to a wheelchair. In 1947, Katharine Hepburn played Schumann in the classic film, Song of Love. In 2008, she was again featured on film in the German “Geliebte Clara.”
Today, Google remembers a gifted female composer who excelled despite the many challenges she faced both personally and professionally, throughout a career nearly as long as her entire life.