Two extremes predominate in writing about the great composers: a tendency to romanticize and mythologize them into inspired demigods, and the current tendency to pull their statues down from their pedestals or perhaps their little composer busts from our pianos. This second view focuses on all of their human flaws, whether real or imagined on scant evidence. One thing is usually above guesswork, though, the concrete historical record in things such as birth certificates, deeds, and lawsuits.
The romance of Robert and Clara Schumann involved legal proceedings that tell their own fascinating story, without any need for embellishment. First, the backstory: In 1828, at age 18, Robert was compelled by his family to matriculate at law school in Leipzig, but he had become increasingly enamored by the music of Franz Schubert and was already a fine pianist and composing some piano music and songs. Music eventually won out, of course, and apart from law school, Leipzig offered the opportunity to take piano lessons with the renowned piano teacher Friedrich Wieck and to live in a room in the Wieck house. Wieck had a 9-year-old daughter named Clara. She was already a child prodigy and concertizing and gaining fame as a pianist, and she found a kindred spirit and friend in Robert, who was a little over nine years older.
A Romance Blooms and Is Curtailed
During the summer of 1834, at 24, Robert became engaged to the 16-year-old Ernestine von Fricken, who had been adopted by a wealthy, noble family, but he also began to feel a mutual attraction with Clara, who had turned 16 herself in September. In December, when Clara was giving a concert in Zwickau, Robert and Clara secretly declared their love for each other. The catalyst to break the engagement with Ernestine finally came during the following year, after Ernestine was discovered to be illegitimate and would have no dowry. Meanwhile, Friedrich Wieck had discovered his famous daughter’s relationship with Robert and in 1835 ordered them to cut off all contact with each other and to burn their letters.
Wieck had determined that Robert, though his own gifted piano student and well educated, was fundamentally lazy, drank too much, and would amount to little in the future. Certainly, he felt Robert was no match for his extraordinary Clara. In truth, Clara and Robert were both extraordinary, and that became their great bond.
The lovers endured a 16-month forced separation, but it wasn’t spent in vain. Robert composed his masterful Fantasy in C Major, Opus 17 for piano in 1836. He also co-founded and began editing the traditionalist musical publication Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music). Clara began her transition from child prodigy to young piano virtuoso and composer in her own right, completing her very substantial Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 7 and performing it with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835.
However, love willed out, and the couple began corresponding in secret and catching a brief rendezvous when they could. In 1837, Robert formally asked Wieck for his daughter’s hand in marriage and was summarily refused. It may come as a surprise to some today that a father then had such absolute power over whom his daughter could marry, but such was the case. Yet two more years passed, and Wieck began to threaten Clara with disinheritance and to take the couple to court (something like a restraining order) if she didn’t cut off completely from Robert.
The Couple Battle for Their Love
Clara decided to fight back and consulted a lawyer of her own. She signed an affidavit granting Robert the legal power of attorney over her, and she sent that document to Robert. In turn, he took that to his attorney in Leipzig and asked him to seek an out-of-court settlement with Wieck, but Wieck was intransigent, and the matter was set to go to court. Robert was so pessimistic about his chances that he wrote to Clara saying that he had been so distraught the previous day that, had they been together, he would have suggested they commit joint suicide.
Things went from bad to worse. Wieck stated that he would never relent and boycotted the court hearing, and Clara packed up her bags and moved to Berlin to live with her mother, who had separated from her tyrannical father (and ultimately divorced him). Wieck then made a proposal to the court: He would allow Clara to marry Robert if she gave up all the money she had earned concertizing for the last seven years, paid him a monthly fee to store her piano and belongings in his house, and if Robert would agree to guarantee him a huge sum in the event the marriage failed.
They eventually ended up in court, where Wieck had filed a complaint that Robert was an alcoholic and financially unable to support his daughter as a pianist, due to a hand injury. Robert had tried out a finger-strengthening mechanical device called a dactylion, which actually did injure one or two of his fingers. Fortunately for us, this did cause him to put his greatest energies thereafter into composing. Wieck also circulated his complaint publicly in all the cities in which Clara was scheduled to perform in the coming months. Robert told Clara, “Can nothing be done to save us from such nastiness?”
Robert fought back with testimonies of his good character from the Leipzig town council, police, and even the composer Felix Mendelssohn. The court took several months to make a decision but finally settled fully in the couple’s favor. At last, they were free to marry and did so on Sept. 12, 1840, the day before Clara’s 21st birthday. Had they waited just one more day, she would have been 21 and legally free to marry without her father’s permission!
The Schumanns went on to have eight children, and Friedrich Wieck finally softened his heart and decided to reconcile with them, in part to be able to enjoy his grandchildren.
American composer Michael Kurek is the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com