A Prodigious Child

3-d cover of Clara Schumann by LitzmannAll children are, of course, gifts from God, or so I have told myself, with gritted teeth, on many occasions over the last 36 years (and counting). It is claimed that Leopold Mozart believed that his son Wolfgang was a miracle, and that it was his own religious duty (as well as a hoped-for source of income) to show the child off as widely as possible. In fact, judging from Otto Jahn’s account, Leopold thought that God or Providence had endowed his son with prodigious gifts, which is not quite the same thing.

But what did Friedrich Wieck think of his daughter Clara? Berthold Litzmann’s two-volume biography makes it fairly clear that he attributed her precocious and prodigious skills as a pianist to his own training, and not to any divine intervention or inspiration. The sympathetic W. Henry Hadow, music historian and educationalist, in his preface to his sister Grace’s translation of Litzmann’s work, says that ‘We are long past the period of regarding [Wieck] as a mere pedant with an unreasoning antipathy to his son-in-law’, but my goodness, that’s precisely how he comes over.

Johann Gottlob Friedrich Wieck (1785–1873) wanted to be a musician. From an undistinguished background, and largely self-taught, he trained as a Protestant pastor, but his first jobs were as a private tutor, and about 1815 he set up in Leipzig as a piano teacher, with a business in selling and renting musical instruments and sheet music. He married a pianist and singer, Marianne Tromlitz (grand-daughter of Tromlitz the flute man), and their first child, Adelheid, was born in 1817, dying just before the birth of Clara in 1819.

Clara was so named by her father because he was determined that she should become illustrious and famous. Interestingly, she barely spoke until she was five, but with both her parents busy teaching, she was left mostly in the company of the family’s taciturn maidservant. Three sons were born in 1821, 1823 and 1824, but four months after the birth of young Victor, Marianne left her husband and the two middle children, taking Clara and the baby back to her parent’s house.

Wieck (as was his right) demanded Clara’s return by her fifth birthday, and got her back. He divorced Marianne, and married again in 1828, starting a new family, of whom one daughter, Marie, was also trained by Wieck as a pianist, though with considerably less success than her half-sister. (Marianne was also married again, to a music teacher, Adolph Bargiel, who had been a friend of Wieck: it is possible that they had been conducting an affair before her flight. One of their sons, Woldemar, was a composer whom the Schumanns later helped to get his work performed and published.)

So the motherless five-year-old was returned to her father and brothers. The maid who had largely brought he up was dismissed in 1825. It is perhaps not surprising that it was not until she was nearly eight that her father was satisfied that her speech and understanding were in fact normal.

He seems always to have intended that Clara would become a musical phenomenon – perhaps, as John Worthen suggests in his biography of Schumann, he wanted to demonstrate to the world that his teaching methods could turn even a woman into a great artist. At five, she began studying music: one hour of music tuition and two hours of practice every day, plus a walk in the fresh air (other education was arranged around this).

At the same time, Clara started a diary: or rather, her father began one for her (the idea being that when she was old enough, she could continue herself). Written in the first person, it begins, ‘I was born at Leipsic, Sept. 13th, 1819…’. It was partly a record of events, partly a weapon of psychological warfare. On 29 October 1828, the diary says: ‘My father … noticed again today that I am still lazy, careless, disorderly, obstinate and disobedient, and that I play as badly as I study.’ This was nine days after the nine-year-old had made her public debut in the Leipzig Gewandhaus: the diary comments, ‘It went very well, and I did not play any wrong notes, but got much applause.’

It was in the same year that Clara first met Robert Schumann, a nineteen-year-old law student who wanted to become a professional pianist and believed that her father’s teaching method could achieve this. The rest is history: Clara’s European fame, Robert’s injury, destroying his chances of a performing career, Wieck’s implacable opposition to their marriage, the eventual reconciliation, Robert’s success, illness and death, the years of widowhood.

On 6 October 1873, Wieck died, at the age of eighty-eight. Clara wrote in her diary (a custom she maintained throughout her life): ‘I had loved him dearly … Although we disagreed on many points, this could never affect my love for him, a love which all my life has been heightened by gratitude. How many years he dedicated to me, to the exclusion of all else, what an excellent influence he had over me in making me understand the beauty of a practical, active life, how many wise rules of conduct he gave me …’.

Litzmann’s detailed and thorough work, using letters, diaries and the personal reminiscences of Clara’s children, is a gripping and moving read. It is interesting that he at first refused the family’s request that he write it, feeling that, as he wasn’t a musician (he was a professor of literature), he might not do her life justice. Similarly, Otto Jahn, the biographer of Mozart, was a professor of classics. (He famously decided to write his biography after a conversation at Mendelssohn‘s funeral.) Perhaps one needs to be at a slight remove from the music to see the whole person?


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2 Responses to A Prodigious Child

  1. Pingback: Johannes Brahms | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

  2. Pingback: Winter Journey | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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