As I write this Clara Schumann is turning 200 years old (1819-1896).
I was fortunate to attend an informal talk a few years ago where I felt I could reach out and almost touch Clara Schumann. The talk was given by one of Clara Schumann's students grandson, Oliver Robinow.
To hear a first hand account about Clara Schumann and Brahms gave me the shivers. We often say, if Beethoven or Brahms were alive today they would likely be improvisers and lovers of jazz. Well, according to Ilona Eibenschütz (1872-1967) (Clara's pupil) we are correct:
One day in 1892 after dinner Brahms said to me (Ilona), "Oh I want to play you a few exercises I have just composed". He just tried the piano and then began to play: G Minor Ballade, Intermezzi, the Rhapsody in E flat. In fact all the Klavierstuke Opus 118 and 119. He played as if he was just improvising, with heart and soul, sometimes humming to himself, forgetting everything that was around him. His playing was altogether grand and noble like his compositions. It was, of course, the most wonderful thing for me to hear these pieces as nobody yet knew anything about them. I was the first to whom he played them. When he had finished playing them I was very excited and hardly knew what to say. I murmured only that I must write to frau Schumann about them at once. He looked at me and said "But you did not like them! "How can you possibly say such a thing to me", I asked and he answered, with a twinkle in his eye, " You did not ask da capo for a single piece!" I had the presence of mind to say; "I want them all da capo but not today!". He laughed, and a few days later played them to me again. A few months after at the Monday Popular Concert in London, I gave them their first public performance. Of course I wrote to Schumann about the Klavierstuke at once.
The entire priceless monologue from an old BBC interview is now up on YouTube to listen to first hand. To hear the voice of one who knew Clara Schumann and
Johannes Brahms personally and premiered new works will give you the shivers too.
Here are some scribbles by Clara and Brahms as they tried to outdo one another with birthday wishes to Ilona.
Clara Schumann (along with Liszt and Paganini) were the first memorisers. She taught her students to play all their solo pieces from memory so they would perform with greater finesse and confidence. Before 1820, performers usually used sheet music in concerts and recitals. At the time, performing without the score was viewed as arrogant and ostentatious, focusing attention on the performer and the performance and away from the composer and the music. In 1837, the 17-year-old Clara Wieck (who became Clara Schumann) performed Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, opus 57 from memory.
I'm happy that playing with the music is coming back into style. Memorizing is great when you have the time, but you can still pull off an incredible performance with the music in front of you as Angela Hewitt showed us in her last Bach concert tour.
If you are planning a trip to Bonn in the near future put the Schummanhaus Museum on your list. The correspondence between Ilona and Clara Schumann has recently been donated to the museum by Eibenschütz’s grandson, the Canadian psychiatrist Oliver Robinow and his wife, the wonderful musician and teacher Gwen Thompson.
Please raise a glass with me to this incredible woman, 200 hundred years old today!