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Clara Wieck Schumann and the Struggle for Equality in Nineteenth-Century Germany

The place of women before and during the nineteenth century is well summarized by a Bavarian statute book, which states that “by marriage, the wife comes under the authority of the husband and the law allows him to chastise her moderately” (Gay 177). These ideas are similarly echoed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The former did not afford women any of the rights provided for men, such as liberty, property, resistance to oppression, voting, free speech, etc.; the latter reasoned that because women were the weaker sex, they should not (and moreover could not) be a part of society outside of the family.
Although dominated by her father in the early years of her life, the pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann broke through the societal barriers inhibiting women’s success and independence, forming a reputable and commendable career during a time when women’s lives were predetermined by a male-dominated consciousness and society. An investigation into the mindset of citizens in the nineteenth century and the obstacles every woman faced — especially concentrating on Germany — followed by a description of the life and musical career of Clara Schumann will create greater recognition of the upward battle she (and all women) faced at that time, as well as the notability of her career as wife, mother, and musician.

Before delving into the life of Clara Schumann, a description of the world surrounding her must be made in order to understand the magnitude of her accomplishments. Among the positive factors of this time were changes in society from the late eighteenth century, such as population increases, rising life expectancy, and better living standards, which set the stage for more important changes of the next century (Moraze 80). Also during this period, nationalism was on the rise and encompassed nearly all aspects of universities, which increasingly allowed women access to an education, opening the door for their liberation (Gay 48).

Very often during this period, women experienced great monotony in their lives and became jaded with the tasks they performed day after day. While some women put up with this hackneyed life, others struggled to free themselves from it. Many not only fought for rights but against injustices their sex had sustained in previous centuries (Gay 172). The end of the nineteenth century saw an increased activism by women, who argued against their dominated position and for fundamental changes in laws (Gay 177). While there did exist some men who supported women and believed their deprivation of many rights was unjust, many more were disheartened with the advancing woman. Because men had come to relax in their domineering role, they became uncomfortable, if not fearful, when women showed their independence. This led to a bourgeois culture which can be summed up in a single word: uncertainty (Gay 48, 171). Changes were occurring
at a rapid pace, and many older, more conservative citizens saw this as a time of frenzied disregard for the concrete, sustained values and morals with which they had been raised. The nineteenth century was a time when all facets of life—religious, political, sexual—were being questioned and examined under a finer lens (Gay 63, 67). However, while most bourgeois made new political institutions and changed the perceptions of pertinent issues in society, Germany’s belief that its values were superior to others of the West impeded a rapid development of feminism there (Blackbourn 161).

Although trailing Europe as far as societal changes were concerned, Germany was musically the leader in the nineteenth century. Music became a form of self-expression, and changes in instrument designs made way for improvement in techniques (i.e., women with smaller hands had an easier time playing) (Moraze 151-153). In Germany, other forms of art signifying the changes occurring there were limited, so music dominated because it now had motifs which evoked feelings, ideas, and characters (Moraze 267- 268).

This time period gave birth to a large number of Germany’s musical geniuses, including Clara Wieck Schumann, born on September 13, 1819, in Leipzig. Clara beganstudying music at the age of five and was taught to play the piano by her father, Friedrich Wieck. It is even suggested that she comprehended music and piano pieces with greater ease than words and sentences, for she did not speak until after she was four years old (Reich 38, Sadie 827, Thompson 2008). Wieck had a huge hand in her upbringing and identity, criticizing much of what she did. Nevertheless, his domineering role had some advantages; for instance, Clara developed Wieck’s eye for success andmoney and his competitive personality. Wieck wanted to create a virtuosa, so he taught Clara reading and writing as well as providing her with private tutors in French and English. She studied orchestration in Dresden with Carl Keissiger, the Kapellmeister, and voice with Johann Aloys Miksch, a renowned voice teacher. She did not have much of a childhood, but was heavily exposed to operas and concerts. Clara’s early success can be seen in a description of her given by Eduard Hanslick, a Viennese critic and music historian, who classified her “not a wonderchild — yet still a child and already a wonder” (qtd. in Reich 25).

She was pushed by her father to play outside of the small circle of her family in order to make connections that would help to establish her as a figure of great prominence (Reich 42-47). The most important of these relationships, which eventually aided Clara’s downplaying of her music and independence, was with Robert Schumann. Robert boarded with Wieck’s family and was impressed after hearing Clara play. He applied for piano lessons with Wieck but had a hard time because of a lack of discipline; hence, he concentrated his efforts on composing. Once Clara and Robert’s relationship became more serious, Robert proposed to her, but Wieck detested the idea of them together, for he thought it would distract Clara from her music. Although it is possible that they could have secretly stayed together behind Wieck’s back, they both needed his guidance in composing and music; hence, they needed his approval. Finally, after eighteen months of separa tion — some of it largely due to Wieck’s planning of long concert trips for his daughter — Clara and Robert reunited. Wieck was still extremely unhappy. Part of this anger may have been because Clara was such a large source of his income with her music career, concerts, and travel. As such, he might have foreseen her throwing away the numerous musical gifts which she possessed at such a young age for marriage (Chissell 41).

In light of the fact that women were either controlled by their fathers or their husbands at this time, Clara displayed her bravery and strength in facing a world alone as a woman by repeatedly rejecting Robert’s proposals of marriage, for she felt she was too young and did not need to rush into a commitment. However, in 1840 she finally conceded to marry him. Numerous biographies and entries in the shared diary of Robert and Clara Schumann suggest that their marriage was a happy one filled with an abundance of love. While this statement is not false, it is not entirely true, either. Despite their tremendous love for one another, struggles for power existed between them, ultimately leading to Clara’s decreasing involvement in music during their marriage. Even before they were married, Clara realized that she would one day have to sacrifice her performance for his creative genius, which ranked above her talent (Chissell 59). Nevertheless, the beginning months of their marriage were recounted as the most joyous of Clara’s entire life, for she said to Robert, “I can truly say I only live through you. It is my greatest happiness when you are satisfied with me” (qtd. in Nauhaus 7).

In spite of her joy with Robert and the strength shown in her teenage years in travelling and performing numerous concerts, Clara’s independence began to fade once she married; she also began to fall into the stereotypical image afforded to married women in the early nineteenth century, characterized by Mrs. E. Lynn Linton as “wholly without colour or interest” (qtd. in Gay 173). As the Schumanns’ marriage progressed and they began a family, she increasingly became disconnected from her music, focusing on Robert’s accomplishments and wishes. Although Clara’s passion was music, she would often refrain from practicing as to not disturb Robert in his composing. The juxtaposi- tion of her love for Robert and her struggle for independence can be seen in her entry in May of 1841 when she says, “This love is really the most beautiful, and everyday we get to be more united in heart and soul… [however,] the more diligently my Robert pursues art, the less I accomplish therein” (Nauhaus 78).

These self-subordinating attitudes were common among married women during the nineteenth century. Society expected women to be mothers; those without children were viewed as useless (Gay 243). A thought which sums up the position women held in relation to their husbands comes from Mill describing the Subjection of Women.: “The Wife is the actual bondservant of her husband: no less so, as far as legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called.” (qtd. in Gay 175). Since nineteenth- century Germany was unreceptive to any ambitions of women, it was much easier for them to comply with the wishes of their husband instead of fighting for what they believed.

As previously stated, these ideas concerning women are reiterated both directly and indirectly by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and by Rousseau. The Declaration excludes women from certain rights and protections from the law. Article Six states that “all citizens… are equally admissible to all public offices, positions, and employments, according to their capacity,” suggesting that both genders are included. However, Articles One, Two, Seven, Nine, and Ten use language specifically dismissing any basis for this argument. For example, Article 1 states that “Men [emphasis added] are born and remain free and equal in rights; social distinctions may be based only upon general usefulness” (qtd. in Applewhite 27). This idea appears to be useful, but it indirectly (albeit importantly) prohibits an entire gender from the rights and liberties enjoyed by the other.

A more direct exclusion of women from social importance is seen in Rousseau’s theory, considered today as a“gendered political theory” (Applewhite 12). His writings parallel the thoughts of Sigmund Freud, who argued that because nature gives women beauty and sweetness, they can neither be dominant members of their household, nor hold a job; their position is pre-determined (Gay 176). Similarly, Rousseau’s writings denote his idea that, intellectually, women are inherently different from men, for they are closer to nature. Because of a woman’s limited reasoning ability, she loses her independence and must rely on her father or husband to support her. Furthermore, she must remain at home, because the family is the only place where intellectual ability and lack of reasoning skills do not completely inhibit her effectiveness. Also, Rousseau considered interacting with family to be closer to nature and hence able to be performed by a woman (Applewhite 12-14).

Despite these opinions of the role of a woman in nineteenth century Europe, the Schumanns’ marriage and both musical careers continued. However, Clara’s playing decreased for a variety of reasons: not wanting to disturb Robert, lack of energy, and the distraction of a family. Yet, she sometimes did practice during her pregnancy — for example, in 1845, when she had conceived her second child, she practiced regularly. Also during this time period, one of Clara’s greatest contributions was made: her G Minor Piano Trio, Opus 17, which displays her creative potential and craftsmanship (Chissell 96). The flow and rhythm of these pieces provide a feeling of harmony with oneself, and this opus is often considered to be her masterpiece. So, although she did not practice as much at this time, she certainly should not be considered musically stagnant. In fact, during a summer when she was not pregnant (because of Robert’s ill health), she took advantage of the opportunity to tour, beginning in Leipzig. Because her love of touring was so great, after having completed one tour, Clara would always return with some sense of boredom (Chissell 98-100). This could have been due to the monotony of her family life, which led to a realization of her musical opportunities being forfeited for her family.

The spring of 1847 brought Clara another pregnancy, further depleting her hope of continued touring; in her diary, she wrote, “What will become of my work? But Robert says children are blessings, and he is right for there is not happiness without children, and therefore I have determined to face the difficult time that is coming with as cheery a spirit as possible” (qtd. in Chissell 102). Clara subsequently became more immersed in raising her children, so it appeared as if she was ready to give up her musical career. However, as had happened during previous periods of doubt, she continued to play, performing in such places as Altona and Hamburg where she made more profits than she had ever received, proving she still could play and affirming her independence (Chissell 104-108). She says of this time period, “This inspired me to put forth my intellectual and physical powers to the utmost” (qtd. in Chissell 109).

It may be due to this intense devotion to her husband that Clara was not able to (or perhaps chose not to) foresee his fading health. Tragedy struck when Robert threw himself into the Rhine because of the tremendous agony caused by the strange noises in his head and the immense struggle with his work. As a result, he was taken to an insane asylum. After this, Clara never saw him again alone (Chissell 122, Harding 127).

While the institutionalization of Robert was by no means a positive experience in Clara’s life, it did encourage her to begin practicing with an increased zeal so that she could pay for the new expenses with which she had been inundated. At age 35, she was obligated to begin a concert career like she had with Wieck. In spite of the relatively sparing appearances made during her marriage, she could still play well, and she never gave up practicing nor perfecting herself, saying, “I am haunted by music as never before… By day I am so absorbed by music that I lose track of all else” (qtd in Harding 133). Her newfound strength as an independent.

Works Cited
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Chissell, Joan. Clara Schumann: A Dedicated Spirit. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1983.
Gay, Peter. The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Vol 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. 3 vols.
Harding, Bertita. Concerto: The Glowing Story of Clara Schumann. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1961.
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Schumann, Clara Wieck. Secret Whispers: Three Romances for violin and Piano. Kym Amps, Soprano; Erica Deaaring, violin; Joanna Borrett, cello; David Carhart, piano. Meridian Records 1996.
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Thompson, Oscar, ed. “Clara Schumann.” The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1975