The 184 th birthday of Clara, wife of the famous music composer Robert Schumann, will be celebrated on September 13 th . In a world that is governed by the “I “ syndrome, feminists will question the wisdom of Clara Schumann a talented pianist and composer, who put her own career on the back bench, to further her husband’s genius. What’s even more incredible, is the fact that he was mentally ill for most of their married life. Yet, if this extraordinary woman had not been by his side, the world would probably have not appreciated in full measure, the work of this “master of romantic composers,” Robert Alexander Schumann.
Clara’s father Freiderich Weick was piano tutor to the young Schumann between 1828-1829. Though he recognized the man’s genius, he didn’t consider Robert a suitable groom for his talented young daughter. She was nine years younger, and well on her way to becoming an accomplished pianist herself. After weathering many a storm created by her obstinate father, they eventually married in 1840, and mutually vowed to love each other ‘ through richness and poverty, in sickness and in health.’ Little did she realise how soon her vows would be put to test.
Robert had begun to recognize the multiple personalities within him, and he gave expression to them in his music. Music was his emotional outlet. It diverted his mind from the fear of insanity that haunted him. Towards the latter part of 1840, there were visible manifestations of his illness. But by then he had already established himself as a pianist of repute, and also had many compositions to his credit. His creativity increased after marriage as though his very life had ‘ burst into song.’ But with it came bouts of depression and mental illness. During those episodes, the doctors advised him not to travel or to concentrate on mental work. Many times he could not attend the concerts where his music was being played.
It was Clara who took on the onerous task of organizing details of these programs. Her letters give us an idea of how programs were put together in those days, and how lengthy the process. She confided to friends about their financial constraints, and the urgent need to generate some income for their survival. These concerts were both for showcasing her husband’s compositions as well as a means of sustenance. She took part in many of these, but was always on tenterhooks whether there would be large enough audiences. There were chamber music evenings, quintets, soirees and concerts. Often Robert had to stay away because of his illness, and his doctor would let it be known that he was suffering from lumbago. At other times, he’d have to leave in the middle of a concert. To any young woman this would have been embarrassing to say the least. But Clara’s capacity to love exceeded that of most women. It was not merely physical or emotional but sacrificial. She was the very embodiment of Caring, and wanted to give and give of her love.
When not overcome by his illness, Robert continued to compose beautiful music. Clara went through periods of denial and refused to accept the progressive nature of his problem.
But in 1854, Robert became deeply distressed by auditory hallucinations. This drove him to throw himself into the Rhine . Though he was rescued, he had lost confidence in himself. He told Clara that he preferred to be institutionalized, as he had no way of knowing when he might attempt suicide again.
He was admitted to a private institution at Enderich in Bonn , which was comfortable and modern, with no mechanical restraints on the patient. Robert even had a piano, which he could use. Dr. Franz Richarz was a reputed psychiatrist of that time, but why he forbade Clara from visiting her husband is perplexing. It was a cruel thing to do. Even visits from his other friends were strictly curtailed. Dr. Richarz’s periodic reports about Robert were extremely brief, and gave no details.
In one of her letters to a friend of Robert’s, she wrote, “ How could you not write a single word about my husband? It is now the sixth day since he was taken to Enderich, and I have no word. Not one! My heart is completely broken not knowing how he is living, what he is still doing, whether he hears voices………I ask not for conclusive results but just to know he is sleeping, what he does all day, whether he asks after me or not….. Oh my dear friend, do not afflict my heart in this way, by withholding news from me………I can hardly bear it.”
Johannes Brahms a much younger musician, had taken on himself to befriend the poor tormented musician. He was a great admirer of Schumann’s works, and he tried to cheer up Clara, by giving her news of Robert. He wrote, “ Robert received me with such warmth and friendship, but with no agitation. He showed me your last letter, and told me how you had so beautifully surprised him……….Then he fetched your picture…… Oh if only you had seen the deep emotion, how close he was to tears, and saying ‘Oh how long have I desired that.’……..”
He also told Clara that Robert and he would play duets or fugues together, and that Robert was a great source of encouragement to Brahms in his work. But he also kept from Clara his observations on his friend’s declining mental status. And so Clara held on to the hope that Robert would one day make a complete recovery. She overlooked the fact that in Robert’s letters to her, he always spoke of the past, but never of their future together.
Then on the 5 th May 1855, Robert wrote his last letter to his beloved Clara.
“ Dear Clara, I send you a spring message on the 1 st of may……. But alas a shadow flickers over it, my darling…… Farewell dear one…..”
This was the beginning of the end. In September 1855, Dr. Richarz categorically ruled out any hope of recovery.
Clara continued to support the family by playing at various concerts around the country, even through all the sorrow and anxiety that she suffered. In July 1856, she rushed back to her home in Dusseldorf , after a three month concert tour. The news from Brahms was not encouraging. Robert had grown suspicious that someone was trying to poison him, and refused all solid food. She went to Enderlich to visit him, but was dissuaded from actually meeting him. Disappointed beyond measure, she went back home. But on July 23rd she was summoned by Dr. Richarz. “ If you want to see your husband alive, then make your way to us without delay. The sight of him though, is quite dreadful.”
But when she arrived, the doctor again advised her not to see her husband. It was absolutely frustrating for this poor woman who only wanted to be by his side. But on 27 th July she returned again, this time determined to have her way.
“ I can’t stand it any longer,” Clara said, “ The pain, the yearning for him! Oh to receive just one more look, to let him feel me near him! I have to go.”
She saw him for an hour that evening. Robert had hardly any strength left. At first he didn’t even recognize her. By then he had lost the ability to speak. With great effort, he put his arms around her.
“ I shall never forget it,” she said, “ Not all the treasures of this world could equal this embrace.”
With eyes brimming over, she cupped his face in her hands, and looked into his eyes, so that his features would be indelibly etched on her mind for as long as she lived.
Johannes Brahms said of that scene, “ I believe I shall never experience a scene more loving than that of the reunion of Robert and Clara.”
She was able to visit him for the next three days. Though he refused food and drink, he would suck on her finger dipped in wine, with passion, probably aware that it belonged to his beloved wife. He passed away without a struggle, and the funeral took place on July 31 st 1856.
Robert Schumann’s first resting place in the Bonn cemetery, was a small stone erected by Clara, with her limited funds. But in 1880, a new grave site was selected at a vantage point, in the same Alter Freidhof. It was a marble monument that could be seen from a great distance away.
Clara survived him by forty years, and was responsible for the advancement of Robert Schumann’s music after his death. She had prayed for strength to live without him. She was an accomplished pianist of the 19 th century, and had many compositions to her credit. Yet she put her own needs in second place. She was his wife and lover, but my no means his competitor.
She died in Frankfurt on 20 th May, 1896, and was interred beside her beloved Robert. But she had left strict instructions with Brahms, that the headstone would bear only Robert Schumann’s name.
“ Posterity knows nothing of me, and cares not to know it.”
The monument is ornate. Robert Schumann’s profile is etched into the marble, and is held aloft by a swan’s wings. And at the master’s feet sits Clara, like a slender Greek goddess, robed in a long flowing gown. In one hand is a laurel wreath, and in another, a scroll. She is looking up at her husband as the muse ‘ in the service of genius.’ Her love story has been immortalized for all to see and learn that “ Real love is choosing to make an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person.” (Gary Oliver.)
Sunday Herald 21-9-2003