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Clara Schumann's presence in the history of European music has become firmly fixed in recent years: the many new biographies, editions, recordings and performances of her compositions testimony to her significance and influence. Her songs, not as well known as her works for piano, are among the treasures of her creative work and can take their place with the best of the German Lieder repertoire.
Except for Walzer, all Clara Schumann's songs published during her lifetime were written after her marriage to Robert Schumann and almost every song was intended as a Christmas or birthday gift for her husband.
She generally chose to set poems exploring the themes beloved by the German romantics: the beauties of nature, love, yearning, unrest, melancholy, foreboding, separation, mystery and death. She set verses of such contemporaries as Emanuel Geibel, Heinrich Heine, and Friedrich Rückert among others. One of her notable songs, Am Strande, was a translation of a poem by Robert Burns.
This disc includes all the presently known songs by Clara. (It is possible that additional songs will be discovered in the future.)
Clara Wieck Schumann, born in Leipzig in 1819, began performing as a pianist at the age of nine and remained on the concert stage for over sixty years. She gave her last public concert in 1891. Unlike most women of her generation, she did not leave the concert stage when she married. Pianist, composer, teacher, editor, wife of Robert Schumann and mother of eight children, Clara Schumann was a unique phenomenon, honoured and respected during her lifetime. Her triumphs as a musician may have compensated in part for the many personal tragedies she endured: the lengthy mental illness and death of her husband in 1856, the hospitalization of her incurably ill adult son Ludwig in 1870, and the deaths of three adult children: Julie in 1872, Felix in 1879, and Ferdinand in 1891.
A child prodigy, Clara Wieck and her father, Friedrich Wieck, her sole piano teacher and manager, toured in northern Germany, Austria and Paris between 1830 and 1838. Since pianists were expected to compose as well as perform, Wieck saw to it that Clara was well prepared for both. She studied composition, theory and harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration with the best teachers of the day in Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin. Vocal studies were an essential part of her musical education.
At six, Clara began attending concerts at the famed Leipzig concert hall, the Gewandhaus. Symphonies, overtures, concertos, arias, Lieder, as well as compositions by the soloists were all presented at the same concert; her own programmes, which began a few years later, followed this pattern. Many of the songs composed during these early years have been lost, but the piano compositions with which she made her early reputation as a composer and performer were published and received favourable reviews. Among these works was her opus 1, four Polonaises, published when she was eleven, and a striking piano concerto, her opus 7, completed when she was sixteen. The young composer also wrote imaginative ‘character-pieces’ in the style of the ‘new romantic school’, a term given to the young composers Robert Schumann, Frederic Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn, with whom she was classed. Even as a child, Clara was well acquainted with Schubert Lieder and the songs of her own contemporaries. The fusion of voice, piano and text was a familiar concept and can be seen even in her earliest songs.
Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann met when she was a child of nine and already performing publicly in Leipzig. Schumann began piano studies with Friedrich Wieck at about the same time and lived in the Wieck home in 1830 for almost a year. Although he was nine-and-a-half years older than Clara, she was a far more skillful pianist, and he began to depend on her to present his works to the public. Because of a finger injury, Schumann abandoned plans to become a pianist and began to concentrate on composing. The adolescent Clara, well on her way to becoming a world-renowned pianist, became the leading performer of his works. Within a few years, the two fell in love, and made plans to marry, despite the violent opposition of Friedrich Wieck. They were wed in September 1840 on the eve of Clara’s twenty-first birthday.
Except for Walzer, all Clara Schumann’s songs published during her lifetime were written after her marriage to Robert Schumann and almost every song was intended as a Christmas or birthday gift for her husband. Autographs of her unpublished Lieder remained in archives in Zwickau and Berlin, known only to scholars, and were not made available for performance until the second volume of Breitkopf & Härtel collection edited by Brigitte Höft and Joachim Draheim appeared in 1992. In the late 1990s, a number of songs—some thought to be lost, others completely unknown—were found. The search for Clara Schumann works continues and it is possible that additional songs will appear.
Robert Schumann had always urged her—even pressed her—to compose, and he undertook the necessary negotiations for publication. After his death, his wife gave up composition and devoted her life to full-time concertizing, editing, arranging and teaching. The question of why she ceased composing may be explained by the necessity to support her family of seven remaining children, by her desire to bring Robert Schumann’s work to the attention of the public, and because she no longer had the encouragement and support of a marriage partner.
Though Clara forged ahead with her performing career after her marriage, she remained, in many ways, a typical nineteenth-century wife, subordinating her needs to those of her husband and accepting the assumption that genius was an attribute of the male gender. On 14 March 1840, for example, she wrote to Robert: ‘And now [you want me to compose] a song—that I cannot do at all; to compose a song, to grasp a text thoroughly, one needs genius for that …’. She inscribed the gifts to her husband with such phrases as ‘Composed and dedicated to her dearly beloved Robert with the deepest modesty’ or wrote in her diary, ‘Whenever Robert went out, I spent my time in attempts to compose a song (which was always his wish), and I finally succeeded in completing three, which I will present to him at Christmas. But if they are of little value, merely a very weak attempt, I am counting on Robert’s forebearance and [hope] that he will understand that it is done with the best will …’.
Despite the self-deprecatory remarks (to be expected in a male-dominated society), Clara was moved to create and was meticulous about her work, as we can see from the working drafts of her songs and the letters to her publisher. A perfectionist, she insisted on seeing proofs again and again until they met with her approval.
When Clara chose to include her own works in her programmes, she usually selected songs rather than piano compositions. Warum willst du and’re fragen, Liebeszauber, Ich stand in dunklen Träumen, Der Mond kommt still gegangen and O Lust, o Lust appeared on many of her programmes, usually sung by a colleague and accompanied by ‘Madame Schumann’.
Although she made little effort to promote them, Clara’s Lieder were admired by those singers and composers who knew them; they were performed by the leading male and female singers of the nineteenth century in the concert halls of Europe as well as in more intimate settings. Fifteen of her songs (Opp 12, 13 and 23) were reissued by Breitkopf & Härtel in the 1870s, in versions for both high and low voice, in a collection titled Lieder und Gesänge für eine Stimme mit Begleitung des Pianoforte von Robert und Clara Schumann. Single editions of many of her songs were also brought out and performed well into the twentieth century. David Bispham, an American baritone, created a sensation in London in 1906 with his Lieder programs which included Madame Schumann’s Ihr Bildnis and Liebst du um Schönheit and songs by Handel, Loewe, Mozart and Schubert.
Clara Schumann generally chose to set poems of two to three stanzas, exploring the themes beloved of the German romantics: the beauties of nature, love, yearning, unrest, melancholy, foreboding, separation, mystery and death. She set poems of such contemporaries as Emanuel Geibel, Heinrich Heine, and Friedrich Rückert among others. One of her notable songs, Am Strande, was a translation of a poem by Robert Burns, the Scottish poet much admired by the Germans. Although she was not steeped in literature as Robert was, she was by no means ignorant of the poetry of her day. Beginning in 1839, she and Robert began seeking out poems suitable for setting and copied them into a notebook which was treasured and utilized by both. Like other composers of the ‘new romantic school’ Clara felt strongly about the importance of the text and commented, in a diary entry, that singers often did not have an intimate understanding of or respect for the text and, she feared, often showed more interest in the vocal effect than in conveying the inherent emotion of the words.
Clara Schumann used unexpected harmonies, irregular rhythmic patterns, and other musical means to underscore her careful reading of the poet’s words. Her writing for piano is impressive but never overpowers the text: Er ist gekommen, Geheimes Flüstern and Am Strande, for example, have the brilliant accompaniments to be expected from a piano virtuoso but they are also integral to the exploration of the poem. In Volkslied, Sie liebten sich beide and Ich stand in dunklen Träumen the piano is used sparingly to convey Heine’s dark emotions. Among her Lieder, most in modified strophic form, are lyrical and joyous melodies, dramatic narratives, and powerful songs of pain and tragedy.
Friedrich Rückert’s cycle of several hundred poems Liebesfrühling celebrated the joys of conjugal love. Robert Schumann read the Rückert cycle a few months after his marriage, and wrote in the joint diary they kept (and in which they communicated): ‘The idea of publishing a volume of songs together with Clara inspired me to go to work … now Clara should also compose some songs from the Liebesfrühling. O, do it, Clärchen!’
At her husband’s urging, Clara set four Rückert poems and presented them to him on his birthday, 8 June 1841. Three were chosen and published together with his settings of nine Rückert poems in time for her twenty-second birthday on 13 September 1841. Liebesfrühling (her Op 12 and Robert’s Op 37), was designated by the publisher as ‘Op 37/12’. Her songs are numbered according to their position within the joint work.
The cycle was conceived by Robert Schumann as a dialogue for two singers. Though the gender of the singers is not specified by the composers (and is still a subject of scholarly discussion), the two duets by Robert in Liebesfrühling are designated ‘for soprano and tenor’, and ‘for soprano and tenor or baritone’, clearly indicating that the cycle was intended for a male and a female singer.
Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen is one of Clara Schumann’s most impassioned and frequently heard songs. As the melody line ascends, the emotional intensity increases; as the song closes, the voice descends in stepwise motion, the tension is relieved, and the piano postlude reiterates the happiness expressed in the text: he has departed but remains hers.
Rückert’s poem ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ has attracted many composers. In contrast to the dramatic outpourings of Er ist gekommen, the heartfelt message of Clara’s Liebst du um Schönheit speaks directly and simply to the greater power of true love rather than youth or beauty.
Warum willst du and’re fragen was one of Clara’s favourite songs and appeared on more than ten of her programmes between 1843 and 1882. A simple statement of love, with few embellishments but rich harmonies, it was one of three Clara Schumann songs transcribed for piano by Liszt.
Opus 13, a collection of six songs, was assembled from songs composed between 1840 and 1843. Robert presumably chose the songs and negotiated for their publication in 1844. The collection is dedicated to Queen Caroline Amalie of Denmark with whom Clara became acquainted on her concert tour to Denmark in 1842.
Two versions of Ich stand in dunklen Träumen, the first song, are given on this recording. The first—and earlier—autograph version of Heine’s poem, titled Ihr Bildnis, remained in the Zwickau archive and was not printed until 1992. It differs from the published version in small but telling details; most unexpected is the singer’s unresolved ending which underscores the anguish suffered at the full realization of the loss of the loved one. The piano completes the song in a slow and moving postlude. The second version is more polished and conforming, a few measures shorter, but still a powerful and affecting song.
Two versions of Clara’s setting of Sie liebten sich beide, a tragic and enigmatic Heine poem, are also heard on this recording. The first (previously unpublished) version has a longer, reflective postlude, the second a more conventional closing as with Ich stand. The two versions permit a glimpse into the workshop of the composer: the first version was almost always bolder, the later version more orthodox.
Ich hab’ in deinem Auge, based on a Rückert text, was a gift to Robert on his thirty-third birthday, a heartfelt setting of a poem on the constancy of love.
Three songs in Op 13 are settings of poems by Emanuel Geibel, another contemporary whose work attracted many musicians both because of the subjects he chose and the innate musicality of his texts. (Clara’s only choral work, Drei gemischte Chöre, published in 1989, was set to verses by Geibel.) The Geibel songs in Op 13 include Liebeszauber, a paean to love and nature, Der Mond kommt still gegangen, a modified strophic setting made memorable by the unusual harmonies in verses 1 and 2, and Die stille Lotosblume, the closing song in the Op 13 collection. This lyrical effusion brings forth romantic archetypes: the lotus flower, water, the moon and moonbeams, a white swan, and death. With its poignant melody, symbolism, and its unresolved question in the closing phrase of the vocal part, Die stille Lotosblume was considered to be the quintessential romantic Lied and was found in many anthologies of nineteenth-century music.
A reviewer described Clara Schumann’s Op 13 as ‘tender, gracious outpourings of a bounteous heart, quiet and unadorned, but conceived as warmly and sincerely as they are expressed: simply, clearly, unpretentiously’.
In June 1853, after a hiatus of seven years, Clara returned to composition. The mother of six children (one had died in infancy and one was not born until 1854), she and Robert had settled in Düsseldorf where her husband, appointed municipal director of music, had his first full-time salaried position. Within a few weeks she composed her Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op 20, three Romances for piano Op 21, three Romances for violin and piano Op 22, and a set of six songs: Opus 23.
The songs of Op 23 were set to lyrics interspersed in Hermann Rollett’s novel Jucunde. Robert had read them, found them ‘very musical’, and turned them over to his wife. The songs are dedicated to Livia Frege, née Gerhardt, a Leipzig friend of Clara’s who gave up her singing career when she married.
From the first song, the joyful Was weinst du, Blümlein to the last lively O Lust, o Lust, these songs set a new spirited, exhilarating tone for Clara. The author, Rollett, assumed the Schumann settings of his work were by Robert but he was assured that they were by Clara, and Robert added ‘even if they were not written by my wife, I would still be delighted with them’.
Walzer and Der Abendstern are the two songs on this recording composed during Clara Wieck’s girlhood years. With its lilting melody, dancing accompaniment and surprising modulations, Walzer is a remarkable achievement. It appeared in 1833 when Clara was fourteen years old in a collection of settings of poems by Johann Peter Lyser, a novelist, artist, and close friend of Robert Schumann. The less sophisticated Der Abendstern is probably a very early song; text and time of composition are unknown.
Am Strande, a translation by Wilhelm Gerhard of the Robert Burns poem Musing on the Roaring Ocean, was one of the first songs composed after the Schumann marriage and presented to Robert as a Christmas gift in 1840. It was first published in the July 1841 musical supplement to the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the journal Robert founded and edited. The undulating accompaniment conveys the sense of the billowing waves as the agitated woman stands on the shore awaiting her beloved.
The songs Volkslied, Die gute Nacht, Oh weh des Scheidens, Lorelei, Beim Abschied, Mein Stern and Das Veilchen were not published during the composer’s lifetime and did not appear in print until 1992. Composed by a mature Clara Schumann between 1840 and 1853 they are among the most rewarding of all her works. Why they were not chosen for publication, and whether they were withheld by Robert or the composer herself, remains a puzzle.
Volkslied, like a number of other poems Clara chose to set, deals with tragedy and death. These are subjects to which she seemed to be drawn. Even when she was a young girl, observers remarked on the sadness and a certain wistfulness in her beautiful eyes. An article attributed to Heine describes thirteen-year-old Clara thus: ‘The child could tell a long story, a story woven out of joy and pain.’ In Volkslied the foreboding chords, throbbing quavers in the bass, and the spare texture express dramatically the haunting mood of Heine’s text.
Die gute Nacht was one of the songs written at the same time as the three from Rückert’s Liebesfrühling in Op 12 but not chosen for inclusion. The semi-declamatory text sets forth a feeling of calm and finality which presumably did not fit into Robert’s conception of the cycle.
Oh weh des Scheidens opens daringly with a diminished fifth, the ‘forbidden interval’, followed by disturbing harmonies and a jagged vocal line that describes the singer’s anguish at parting from a loved one. The accompaniment is sparse, the song brief, the emotions powerful.
Clara’s version of Lorelei is an unforgettable miniature drama and can proudly take its place among the many musical settings of Heine’s familiar poem. The repetitive triplets in the piano accompaniment create an atmosphere of intensity and fear that leads to a terrifying climax (reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig); in the virtuoso piano part, we hear the master hand of the concert pianist.
Mein Stern and Beim Abschied use texts by Friederike Serre, who, with her husband Major Friedrich Anton Serre, had known Clara since childhood and were admirers and supporters of both Clara and Robert Schumann. The Serres were a well-to-do, cultivated and hospitable family whose country estate near Dresden was a haven for composers, literary friends and music-lovers. Mein Stern was not published in Germany during Clara Schumann’s lifetime but did appear in an English translation as O thou my star in London in 1848, presumably with the composer’s permission. The original German is sung here.
Das Veilchen, as far as we know the last song Clara wrote, is based on the well-known text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, set by Mozart among others.
Der Wanderer, composed by a twelve-year-old Clara, exhibits some of the characteristics she was to develop further in later songs; most marked are her union of words, melody and accompaniment, and her use of unexpected harmonies. For many years Der Wanderer and Der Wanderer in der Sägemühle were believed to have been the work of her father, Friedrich Wieck. The two songs were included in the 1992 Breitkopf & Härtel collection of Clara Schumann songs because of strong evidence that they were by Clara rather than her father.
Nancy B Reich © 2002