Clara Schumann: Biography, Music & Compositions

Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the 19th-century pianist and composer, Clara Wieck Schumann. Read an overview of her dramatic biography, and learn about the style and genres of the music she composed.

Meet a Different Kind of Composer

Classical music newbies often imagine a composer as a stuffy old guy with funny hair. Maybe they're remembering that marble bust of Beethoven that used to glare down from their old music teacher's bookshelf.

The truth is, most famous composers were feisty rebels, not stuffy old guys - and some weren't even guys. Take Clara Wieck Schumann, for example. Not only did she write songs and piano pieces to rival those of her greatest contemporaries, she also wowed Europe with her performances at a time when most concert pianists were male. With an exciting performance career and a rebellious love interest, Clara Schumann's story is decidedly unstuffy.

Clara Schumann: Prodigy, Rebel, and Renowned Pianist

15-year-old Clara Wieck in 1835
Clara Wieck at 15

Clara Wieck (pronounced 'KLAH-rah VEEK') was born in Germany in 1819. She spent her childhood studying piano with her father, the ambitious music teacher, Friedrich Wieck. Clara proved herself a prodigy with her concert debut at the age of nine. By the time she was twenty, her brilliant performances were turning musical heads all over Europe.

She was also turning heads close to home. In 1830, a boarding student named Robert Schumann came to study music at the Wieck household. Robert was a talented pianist and an imaginative composer. Robert and Clara fell in love, but Clara's father was violently opposed to their relationship: he may have felt it would hamper Clara's career. Since Clara could not legally marry without her father's consent, the couple resorted to a lawsuit before their wedding finally took place in 1840.

A portrait of Clara Wieck Schumann, from the year of her marriage.
Clara Schumann in 1840

Robert Schumann in 1839.
Robert Schumann in 1839

Robert and Clara Schumann became one of history's great musical partnerships. Together they kept a remarkable musical diary, exchanging compositions, musical ideas and love letters. But their marriage was tinged with tragedy: Robert suffered increasingly from mental illness, eventually dying in an asylum in 1856.

Clara revived her piano career to support her eight children. She frequently performed works by Robert, and her concerts helped establish his fame as a great composer. When she died in 1896, she was one of the most respected pianists and teachers in Europe.

Clara Schumann performing with the violinist Joseph Joachim in 1853.
Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann

A Romantic Composer

Clara Wieck Schumann lived during a time that musicians call the Romantic Period, which lasted from around 1820-1900. Romantic-period musicians often believed that music could communicate emotion more powerfully than words could. Clara Schumann's music is a great example of Romanticism: her songs and other works often explore emotions that were personal to her.

Clara Schumann composed a good deal of music for her own concerts, including solo piano pieces, pieces for piano and string instruments, and pieces for piano and orchestra. However, Clara Schumann didn't just write concert music: she also wrote domestic music, music that average people could perform in their homes.

A 19th-century painting of women enjoying domestic music.
Domestic music

In the 19th century, most middle-class families had a piano as their home entertainment system. Composers published music for amateur singers and pianists to enjoy as a family around the piano. Clara Schumann wrote many pieces that could be performed either in homes or in concerts, including piano works and songs.

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