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Happy Valentine’s Day: The Love Story of Robert and Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann Robert Schumann

 

“You write to become immortal, or because the piano happens to be open, or you’ve looked into a pair of beautiful eyes.” – Robert Schumann

 

I’m a little ashamed to say I didn’t shed a single tear when I saw The Notebook. On top of that, I fell asleep about two-thirds of the way into Titanic. And, like a true middle school weirdo, I spent a good portion of the eighth grade wondering what might have become of Romeo’s Rosaline.

I’ll take a cup of coffee and an old fashioned murder mystery over a pint of ice cream and a rom-com any day. However, there is one love story so hauntingly beautiful it’s made me bawl with the best of them.

Here are the cliffs notes:

The year is 1830, and a young pianist by the name of Robert Schumann has recently abandoned his study of the law in order to devote himself to music. He is taught by a man named Friederich Wieck.

Schumann works tirelessly, determined to become not only an accomplished pianist, but a renowned composer as well. It is widely believed that he took drastic measures in an attempt to strengthen his fingers and technique, only to cripple his right hand in the process, thus ending his hopes of a concert career.

Skipping ahead to 1835 (because I’m anxious to get to the good part!), Schumann takes notice of Wieck’s daughter, Clara. Clara is a young and highly regarded concert pianist. The two musicians declare their love for each other, but Friederich Wieck forbids them to be together.

The very model of modern romance, no?
The very model of modern romance, no?

In spite of this opposition, their romance blossoms, and in 1837, Robert approaches Clara’s father with marriage on his mind. Friedrich says no, and why shouldn’t he? In his mind, Schumann is little more than a “penniless composer.”

Lucky for us, Clara doesn’t feel that way. The young lovers exchange letters and meet in secret. Robert often waits for hours just to see her for a few, precious minutes following her performances. Eventually, love wins out and they are married.

Things are wonderful for a while. Robert composes, Clara performs, they have children, and are deeply in love.

Of course, there are accounts of Robert’s jealousy over Clara’s talent…

In the mid-1840’s, he begins to show early signs of mental illness. He develops several paranoias and complains that he can’t stop hearing the note A5.

Over the next decade, his symptoms escalate so drastically that he tells Clara he is afraid he might hurt her. In 1854, he throws himself into the Rhine River, but is fished out. He voluntarily enters a sanitarium. Clara is not allowed to visit him until July of 1856. He says nothing, but seems to recognize her. Two days later, he dies at the age of 46.

Literature’s most gut-wrenching love stories would suggest that she ought to have died with him, but what happened is so much better than what Nicholas Sparks, Jane Austen, or even Shakespeare might have written. Clara Wiecke Schumann spent the better part of her long and fruitful life performing and publishing the works of her husband. She continued to tour and perform his compositions around Europe while raising their six children. And she is often singlehandedly credited with popularlizing Robert’s music and giving him the reverence and legacy his work enjoys today. It is because of Clara, and their love, that any of us know Robert Schumann’s name.

Clara Schumann lived to be seventy-six years old, having been an opinionated and influential member of the musical community.

For more on Robert Schumann’s legacy and the impact Clara had on his work, check out this NPR profile.

Listen to the works that Clara helped popularize and preserve:

Some of Clara’s own compositions:

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Mahea Lee

Mahea Lee is a classically trained pianist and composer who has a degree from a jazz school and leads an electro-pop band. Her greatest musical passion is lyrical songwriting, but she's been known to write the occasional fugue. She graduated from Berklee College of Music, where she majored in Contemporary Writing and Production and minored in Music Theory. For more Mahea, check out Soundlfly's course, The Improviser's Toolkit.

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