Clara Schumann at 200, a Princeton concert from the Richardson Chamber Players, was an excellent visit with one of the musical lights of the 19th century—when few women were able to enter the field.
A few years ago, everyone in the Pantheon of Great Composers seemed to be having a 200th birthday, including Franz Liszt, Frederick Chopin, and Robert Schumann. Looking ahead to next year, Beethoven will get his 250th birthday in December, and Joseph Bologne (the Chevalier de Saint-George, a prominent composer of French and African descent born to a woman enslaved in the West Indies), will observe his 275th. Such celebrations often come with new recordings, special concerts, and festive decorations in music departments throughout the land.
Forbidden to compose
Notably absent among the natal commemorations is a birthday party for a highly regarded composer who was also a woman. Is this for any lack of women composers in the Western concert tradition? (Take a look at the Wikipedia page on this subject.)
Scholars often point out that women were flat-out forbidden to compose, had onerous home responsibilities including bearing and raising children, and were subject to ridicule if they dared to intrude on the male domain of musical composition. Biographies of male composers include references to Mendelssohn publishing songs under his own name which were composed by his sister, Fannie; or Mahler telling his wife, Alma, that there could be only one composer in their family.
Not so for Clara Wieck Schumann, whose bicentennial is being celebrated this year, with the Richardson Chamber Players in Princeton, NJ offering one of the most attractive local concerts. The group is Princeton University’s resident chamber ensemble, composed of faculty, guest artists, and the occasional student of exceptional talent. The ensemble impressed in a program of Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms, and believe me, Clara held her own and then some against some stiff competition.
After the duets
Born in Leipzig, Germany, Clara Schumann, née Wieck (1819-1896), was raised by her father, a strict piano pedagogue, and methodically molded into one of the leading pianists in 19th-century Europe.
When she was nine, she was playing duets with another of her father’s students, the 18-year-old Robert Schumann, who was her artistic peer despite being much older at the time. Clara grew up working closely alongside Robert, and he proposed marriage when Clara was 17, but her stern father forbade the union. The lovers went to court, received permission to marry, and were wed in 1840, one day before Clara’s 21st birthday.
At the time, Clara was not only a remarkable pianist, but also a talented composer at the forefront of the then-emerging Romantic school of music. Robert encouraged her compositional forays even as he developed into one of the leaders of the new music. But Clara faced a challenge that Robert did not: pregnancy and eight living children. She was raising babies from the time she was 22 until she was 35, and then, after the birth of their last child, her husband Robert suffered a mental collapse, attempted suicide, and was put into an asylum where he died two years later.
In spite of these difficulties, Clara was a survivor, and went on the road as a pianist to support her family. But her compositional aspirations had to be put on hold, and there they remained until the end of her long life.
Daring and driven
The Richardson Chamber Players chose Clara’s masterful Trio in G Minor, Op. 17 as the highlight of this tribute to a woman who not only composed, but was a leader in setting the course of concert music in the 19th century. The four-movement trio is anything but staid, with daring chromaticism, emotionally charged themes, rolling arpeggios, and bold harmonic innovations. The quality I think most characterizes this absorbing work is “driven,” as though the composer is reaching into the future to help delineate a new music of feeling and imagination. In Princeton, stand-out performances were given by a three-woman trio: Jennifer Tao on piano; Sunghae Anna Lim on violin; and Susannah Chapman on cello.
Another real treat was hornist Chris Komer in Robert Schumann’s familiar Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano in A-flat Major, Op. 70. What a delight to see and hear this gleaming instrument, played by Komer with clarity, depth, and expressive phrasing. Tao also served as pianist in this duet, superbly performed by Komer from the first bold entrance to the last lingering note of the adagio, and throughout the cheerful allegro movement. There are no signs of dark days to come for Robert Schumann in this optimistic work from 1849.
Mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek brought her glorious voice to two sets of Lieder: four songs by Johannes Brahms (a “discovery” by the Schumanns and lifelong friend of the family) and six by Clara Schumann. The final song offered, “Die stille Lotosblume,” ended on a soft, questioning chord (an E-flat dominant seventh when we are expecting A-flat), the unexpected final note almost whispered by the soloist with a knowing smile. Horner-Kwiatek enjoys an illustrious career and was a member of the great Anonymous Four ensemble from 2000 to 2016.
Alan Feinberg, a champion of new music, played several movements of Clara Schumann’s Impromptu and two of the Soireés Musicales, Op. 6, with depth of feeling. The Mazurka from this selection did indeed remind the listener of Chopin’s contributions to that genre during the same time period.
What, When, Where
Clara Schumann at 200. Works by Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms. Alan Feinberg and Jennifer Tao, piano; Chris Komer, horn; Sunghae Anna Lim, violin, Susannah Chapman, cello; and mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek. The Richardson Chamber Players. October 20, 2019 at Richardson Auditorium of Princeton University’s Alexander Hall, Princeton, NJ. (609) 258-2800 or princetonuniversityconcerts.org.
Princeton University Concerts provides wheelchair-accessible and companion seating, assisted listening devices, and accessible restrooms and parking. To drop off guests with limited mobility or to reach the limited number of accessible parking spaces, patrons should enter campus via the south guard booth on Elm Drive, off of Faculty Road. For more information, call the concert office.