The erstwhile Lutheran theology student and later music master, Friedrich Wieck of Toergau in Saxony, was both highly intelligent and musically talented. However, in common with a great proportion of mankind, he cherished the fallacy that passion is synonymous with love. At the age of almost thirty-one, he married one of his pupils, the pretty nineteen-year-old Marianne Tromlitz under the misguided conception that that he could not live without her.
The wedding took place in 1816 and the couple moved to Leipzig where both husband and wife formed teaching partnerships. Within seven years the marriage produced five children: Adelheid, Clara-Josephine, Alwin, Gustav and Victor. Sadly love suffered an early shipwreck. In the eighth year of the marriage the couple separated, after Friedrich discovered that his wife had been carrying on an affair with another man. By this time, the eldest girl, Adelheid, had died, and Clara-Josephine, born in 1819, was not yet five. In view of Marianne’s adulterous behaviour, Friedrich was permitted to keep the children, with the exception of Victor, who was the youngest.
Clara-Josephine became Friedrich’s favourite, simply because she was older than her brothers and could be turned into an object for his pedagogic theories; he loved music above all else and intended to make of his daughter a first-rate musician: Clara Wieck, pianist!
Shortly after her fifth birthday Clara had her first keyboard lesson. The child had talent but progress with her piano tuition was at first hindered by her inability to speak or even understand speech. However, Clara started talking after being allowed – eventually – by her strict father to mix with older children. She soon became precocious, prematurely wise, pensive, methodical and prudent. She also displayed a droll self-assurance and a need for approval.
As Clara Wieck became more proficient at the piano she came to the realisation even before she had learnt the alphabet that she would become a popular piano artist.
Whether this was implanted by her father or was of spontaneous origin, her mind was ruled by a true obsession (her name means ‘clarity’ or ‘the lucid one’), and Friedrich Wieck fed this ambition. Her father was a disciplinarian but not to the tenth degree of ‘bend or break’ and he was no sorcerer. He could not have forced an unmusical Clara into a pianist’s mould. Clara’s ear and memory was prodigious and before she could read or write, she was able to remember songs, minuets, études and sonatas. Music dominated the young girl’s life. By the end of 1827 Clara’s sense of pitch was so well developed that she could turn her back to the piano and name any key struck by her father.
The Leipzig in which Clara grew up had only recently achieved an uneasy rebirth, since scarcely fourteen years earlier the city had been devastated by the clash of arms between Napoleon’s forces returning from their Moscow defeat. Friedrich Wieck was widely known and musical aspirants came to Leipzig from remote parts of Germany for the privilege of studying under him. Among them was a handsome youth named Robert Schumann.
Robert had been born in 1810, the same year as Chopin and the French poet Alfred de Musset. The musical giant of the age, Beethoven, had just turned thirty-nine, and Felix Mendelssohn was a year old; his compatriot in later life, Peter Franz Schubert, was a boy of just thirteen and the birth of another pianistic luminary, Franz Liszt, was only a year away.
In the year 1828 Father Wieck achieved an important triumph, winning for Clara her very first professional engagement. Clara played faultlessly and won her share of the final applause. Under the glow of this first brush with the limelight, Clara sat down and composed a merry waltz!
Robert Schumann took up lodgings with the Wieck household as it was convenient for him to do so under the tutelage of father Wieck who had by that time re-married. Clara was a gangling elven year old when her interest in the twenty-year-old Robert was first awakened. In Clara’s eyes Robert was the apogee of male beauty, but to Robert, Clara was just a precocious child. Robert Schumann was by no means unresponsive to feminine charm, but he was not susceptible to the wiles of a gawky eleven year old. In fact he looked upon the adoring Clara as a confounded nuisance.
Clara in the meantime was progressing fast under her father’s tutelage in November 1830 she appeared as a soloist with the Gewandhaus orchestra playing the Rondo Brilliant, opus 101 by Friedrich Kalkbrenner. In a second visit to Dresden Clara played before the aristocracy and twice in concert. Some disgruntled fellow musicians circulated a rumour that she was not eleven but sixteen and that she could not even read or write her own name. The truth is that she was kept a virtual prisoner by her fathe, who made her sit at the piano for twelve hours a day. If Clara’s interest in toys had faded early she nevertheless had a love for birds, kittens and other pets, which she mothered with passionate abandonment. Her sunny radiance was compared to that of the young Mozart.
In January 1832 Wieck succeeded at last in presenting his daughter to a Frankfurt audience. Clara played with passion, but incredibly the audience did not applaud. Only the orchestral members with whom she appeared as soloist showed appreciation by gently tapping their music tripods. This event was followed by a trip to Paris which Clara had been preparing for; it was to be a supreme test, the playing of a full evening’s programme entirely from memory. It was father Wieck’s hope that Clara, who was still unknown beyond German borders, would win auditions with Parisians like Herz, Hiller, Kalkbrenner and Chopin, whose works had inspired Clara since early childhood. If just one of these famed men took a liking to Clara, introductions to some leading impresario might follow.
Shortly after they arrived in Paris, they made a courtesy call to Chopin’s home. The twenty-three year old Pole received the visitors with warmth. He listened attentively to Clara’s playing, marvelling at the masterly with which she played some of his own most difficult compositions. Having listened with care and pleasure, Chopin promised to introduce his guests to the Paris musical élite, which included Hector Berlioz,Vincenzo Bellini and Jacob Beer – known professionally as Giacomo Meyerbeer. Before long, Clara was on friendly terms with Chopin, Mendelssohn and Hiller, three young Parisian men with a fondness for revelry.
But as Clara’s own specially arranged concert grew near, Paris suddenly emptied; a cholera epidemic had broken out and citizens were leaving the city in droves. The City Hall closed its doors and Wieck and Clara received word that the concert was cancelled. Before they could return to Leipzig father and daughter were quarantined for a week at the border town of Sarreguemines. On arrival in Frankfurt, Clara promptly fell ill. Her condition alarmed at first, but fortunately it just turned out to be only fatigue. After a few days’ rest they reached their home in Leipzig where Clara’s step-mother, the younger children and Robert Schumann awaited them. – Peter Grist
To be continued.