Donald Macleod explores the lives and music of Clara Schumann and her circle. Today, Clara and Franz Liszt – a man and musician she at first idolised but came to loathe.
This week, Donald Macleod explores the lives and music of Clara Schumann and the extraordinary circle of composers and musicians she moved in. Today, Clara and Franz Liszt – a man and musician she at first idolised but came to loathe.
Clara Schumann was one of the most important and influential musicians of the 19th century. Hot-housed by her pushy and ambitious piano-teacher father, Friedrich Wieck, she made her concert debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus at the age of nine and published her first opus – a set of four mazurkas – only two years later. Friedrich’s Grand Plan for Clara would ultimately be knocked off course, however, by the arrival on the scene in autumn 1830 of Robert Schumann, who became the Wiecks’ live-in student. In time, a relationship blossomed, leading eventually, a decade later – when Clara had reached the age of majority – to marriage, whereupon her career very much took a back seat to looking after Robert and the eight children they would produce together. After Robert’s death in 1856, Clara resumed her concert career in earnest – it was, after all, her principal source of income – but more or less stopped composing for good. Her oeuvre, some 50 works, mainly piano miniatures and songs, poses one of the most tantalizing what-ifs in music history – what if her family commitments and the social mores of her day had not constrained Clara Schumann’s development as a composer? Her Piano Trio in G minor, one of less than a handful of large-scale works she was able to complete, suggests one possible answer: that she might perhaps have become one of the leading composers of the second half of the 19th century.
“Distintissimo!” – most distinguished! – that’s how the 19th-century piano superstar Franz Liszt described Clara Schumann after seeing her play in Vienna in 1838. And Clara, like most people, was absolutely bowled over by Liszt – “He cannot be compared to any other player – he is absolutely unique”, she wrote in her diary. But as a composer, she gradually came to detest him, and by the time of his death she could write that “his compositions lack those very qualities which he possessed as a virtuoso; they are trivial and tedious and will certainly soon disappear from the world in the wake of his passing.” Liszt, by contrast, paid Clara the compliment, late in life, of transcribing three of her songs for solo piano.
Barbara Bonney, soprano
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
Schubert, transcribed Liszt
Gretchen am Spinnrade (D118), S558 No 8
Yuja Wang, piano
Variations de concert pour le pianoforte sur la Cavatine du Pirate de Bellini, Op 8
Suzanne Grutzmann, piano
Impromptu in G, Op 9 (Souvenir de Vienne)
Jozef de Beenhouwer, piano
Grandes variations de concert (Hexaméron) sur un thème des Puritains, S654
Piano Duo Genova & Dimitrov
Clara Schumann, transcribed Liszt
Warum willst du andere fragen?, Op 12 No 3; Ich hab’ in deinem Auge, Op 13 No 5; Geheimes Flüstern, Op 23 No 3
Leslie Howard, piano
Producer: Chris Barstow