Clara Schumann (née Clara Josephine Wieck; 13 September 1819 – 20 May 1896) was a German musician and composer, considered one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era. She exerted her influence over a 61-year concert career, changing the format and repertoire of the piano recital and the tastes of the listening public. Her husband was the composer Robert Schumann. Together they encouraged Johannes Brahms. She was the first to perform publicly any work by Brahms. She later premiered some other pieces by Brahms, notably the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.
Clara Josephine Wieck was born in Leipzig on 13 September 1819 to Friedrich Wieck and Marianne Wieck (née Tromlitz). Marianne Tromlitz was a famous singer in Leipzig at the time and was singing solos on a weekly basis at the well-known Gewandhaus in Leipzig. The differences between her parents were irreconcilable, in large part due to her father’s unyielding nature. After an affair between Clara’s mother and Adolph Bargiel, her father’s friend, the Wiecks divorced in 1824 and Marianne married Bargiel. Five-year-old Clara remained with her father.
From an early age, Clara’s career and life was planned down to the smallest detail by her father. She daily received a one-hour lesson (in piano, violin, singing, theory, harmony, composition, and counterpoint), and two hours of practice, using the teaching methods he had developed on his own. In March 1828, at the age of eight, the young Clara Wieck performed at the Leipzig home of Dr. Ernst Carus, director of the mental hospital at Colditz Castle. There she met another gifted young pianist who had been invited to the musical evening, named Robert Schumann, who was nine years older. Schumann admired Clara’s playing so much that he asked permission from his mother to discontinue his law studies, which had never interested him much, and take music lessons with Clara’s father. While taking lessons, he took rooms in the Wieck household, staying about a year. He would sometimes dress up as a ghost and scare Clara, and this created a bond.
In 1830, at the age of eleven, Clara left on a concert tour to Paris via other European cities, accompanied by her father. She gave her first solo concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. In Weimar, she performed a bravura piece by Henri Herz for Goethe, who presented her with a medal with his portrait and a written note saying: “For the gifted artist Clara Wieck”. During that tour, Niccolò Paganini was in Paris, and he offered to appear with her. However, her Paris recital was poorly attended, as many people had fled the city due to an outbreak of cholera.
At the age of 18, Clara Wieck performed a series of recitals in Vienna from December 1837 to April 1838. Austria’s leading dramatic poet, Franz Grillparzer, wrote a poem entitled “Clara Wieck and Beethoven” after hearing Wieck perform the Appassionata sonata during one of these recitals. Wieck performed to sell-out crowds and laudatory critical reviews; Benedict Randhartinger, a friend of Franz Schubert (1797–1828), gave Wieck an autographed copy of Schubert’s Erlkönig, inscribing it “To the celebrated artist, Clara Wieck.”Frédéric Chopin described her playing to Franz Liszt, who came to hear one of Wieck’s concerts and subsequently “praised her extravagantly in a letter that was published in the Parisian Revue et Gazette Musicale and later, in translation, in the Leipzig journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.” On 15 March, Wieck was named a Königliche und Kaiserliche Kammervirtuosin (“Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso”), Austria‘s highest musical honor.
The appearance of this artist can be regarded as epoch-making…. In her creative hands, the most ordinary passage, the most routine motive acquires a significant meaning, a colour, which only those with the most consummate artistry can give.
An anonymous music critic, writing of Clara Wieck’s 1837–1838 Vienna recitals