Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

A classical music love triangle (Part 1)

Someone wanting to create a movie with all sorts of plot twists, psychological drama, and great music, would do well to tell the story of Johannes Brahms, and Robert and Clara Schumann. And such a movie would not need dramatic embellishment; the real story is wild enough.

The story begins with Robert in Leipzig in 1828. He began taking piano lessons from Friedrich Wieck (pronounce "Veek"). Wieck had developed a method of piano instruction which involved countless hours of practice, including special fingering exercises. Robert was eighteen at the time.

Wieck's proof of his piano method was given by his daughter Clara, who was nine years old when Robert began taking lessons with her father. It was Wieck's plan to transform his daughter into the world's greatest pianist.

In four years, one of Robert's fingers became numb and mostly unusable, owing to the eight-hour practice sessions and the use of a finger-strengthening machine. He consulted a Professor Kuhl, who instructed Robert to soak his hand in an "animal bath,", essentially the entrails of a freshly slaughtered animal. The cure, of course, didn't work, and Robert's career as a pianist was nearing an end.

Wieck was appalled at Robert's injury. He was afraid that his piano method would be damaged by a reputation for injury, and began to estrange himself from Robert. This had caused pain for Robert, who was not only seeing his pianist career ending, but was also becoming a problem for a man he had begun to think of as a second father.

But this was not the end of Robert Schumann's connection with the Wiecks.

Wieck's daughter Clara began piano lessons at the age of five. At the age of seven, she was pulled from school and received private tutoring in languages, music theory, composition, and violin. She made her first public appearance at the age of nine as a pianist. By the age of ten, Wieck was parading his daughter before aristocrats and the wealthy. She played her first solo concert at the age of eleven.

Wieck and his daughter went on a concert tour across Germany, where she received great reviews for her playing. The money earned by Clara at these concerts was invested by Wieck in his own business. Wieck's scheme seemed to be working well.

By the time Clara was fifteen, her interest in music had waned, replaced by an interest in young men. By this time, according to Clara later in life, she had fallen in love with Robert. Robert, for his part, began to return the affections when she was sixteen.

At first, Wieck was unaware of the growing relationship between his daughter and his student. When he began to suspect what was going on, he removed Clara from Leipzig and sent her to Dresden. Robert thought that Wieck would welcome Robert into the family; for Wieck's part, Clara was his source of income, and was to be the world's greatest pianist, not a wounded student's housewife.

What was to ensue over the next few years was a love affair that was carried out mostly in secret (Wieck even claimed he would shoot Robert if he came near his daughter). During this time Robert had bouts of depression and drinking problems. Still, the relationship continued, with Wieck doing all he could to end it.

Finally, in 1839, Wieck began proceedings to disinherit his daughter, keeping the money made from her concerts. Robert countered with a suit against Wieck, after obtaining an affidavit from Clara, that would allow him to marry Clara (who could not consent to be married without her father's approval until she was twenty-one). The lawsuits went back and forth, finally ending in favor of Clara and Robert in August of 1840.

As a final thumbing of the nose to Wieck, Robert and Clara were married on September 12 of 1840, the day before her twenty-first birthday. It was the last day Wieck could be legally and finally beaten.

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