Janice Galloway

"Clara"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 31, 2003)

"A pianist must develop more than technique, more than musicianship, more, even, than luck. She needs the capacity to deny fear. Passion one might take for granted; [but] its control is the medium through which all else flows. That every emotion evoked by music is created through containment is a commonplace…."

With single-minded determination, born from years of mental discipline, thirty-seven-year-old Clara Wieck Schumann, dressed in black, took the arm of her friend, Johannes Brahms, and was escorted to the piano, where she would begin a new phase of her life. Her husband, composer Robert Schumann, had just died in the mental institution into which he had admitted himself and where he had spent the past two years, and she was now alone with their children. The past two years had been especially difficult for the devoted Clara, a famous concert pianist awarded the title of Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa to the Austrian Court. Robert's doctors, believing that he would recover faster if he were denied all contact with Clara and their growing family, had withheld her letters to him for two years and had refused to allow her to see him until his death was just hours away. Clara, the mother of their eight children, one of them a baby born shortly after Robert was institutionalized, was now the sole support of her family, dependent on her talents as a performer to keep her large family together.

Read excerptClara was well schooled for a life of self-denial and duty. The daughter of a largely self-taught Leipzig teacher, Friedrich Wieck, and his wife, Marianne, a singer, Clara began piano lessons early, copying what her father played on the piano, doing exercises, practicing two hours a day, even as a very small child, and eventually studying voice, composition, counterpoint, orchestration, and even violin. She never regarded these lessons as a hardship, or her life as one which denied her the fun which other children might have had, feeling instead that "her childhood was quite unforced, quite normal. She says nothing of willingness, engagement; it wouldn't occur. She had a gift; willingness didn't come into it. There was Duty and there was Art. For the sake of both, there were lessons, that's all."

Her domineering father demanded total control over Clara's life, retaining custody of her and two of her brothers after he and Clara's mother divorced, confiscating gifts her mother sent to Clara, and even composing "Clara's" diary. As if anticipating her eventual fame, he used the diary to assure the world that his relationship with Clara was an affectionate one. In "My diary begun by my father," he actually wrote as if he were Clara, saying, "Father deserves my greatest devotion and gratitude for his ceaseless efforts on my behalf." He dictated and she wrote, and he edited and added, thereby guaranteeing that the diary was officially authorized. Nevertheless, he succeeded in creating a pupil whose talents were astonishing.

Clara played for Paganini at eight, for a Dresden audience at nine, and for the music lovers of Paris at twelve, and her father laughed when he overheard comments from the audience asserting that she was really a midget. Robert Schumann joined the family to study piano with her father when Clara was eight, and through her concerts, she also came to know Chopin and Mendelssohn, Goethe and Heine. At sixteen she wrote her first concerto. As her repertoire grew, her father skillfully planned her tours, never allowing her to play a concert piece until she was mature enough to handle the material on all levels, and she became a sensation, recognized as one of the most gifted performers in all of Europe.

Eventually, of course, Clara grew up, and by the time she was eighteen, she and Robert Schumann were in love, to the horror of Friedrich, who promptly arranged a long concert tour to keep her away from him. He created a set of almost impossible conditions for Robert to meet before he would grant him permission to marry Clara. Eventually, she had to sue her father to become free from his control, giving up all her earnings from her entire career to date, enduring lies her father made about Schumann in court papers, and being disinherited in the process, though most of her father's estate was the money she had earned as a child. When she finally won her court case, she and Robert married, and father and daughter did not speak again for four years, by which time she already had two children.

Robert Schumann, according to the author, was unstable from a very early age. As a young man, he believed that he was inhabited by two people, Florestan and Eusebius, and he often alternated marathon composing sessions (once producing 27 pages of music in a single day) with times in which he could find no inspiration at all. For Clara, marriage to Robert probably wasn't much more difficult, in some ways, from her life with her father. Robert had to have silence when he was working, and he was inconsistent in his behavior, often blaming her for small infractions over which she had no control. She had no life of her own. Once the babies started arriving, which they did with discouraging regularity, Clara was often unable to play the piano or practice for fear of disturbing him, though she continued to have concerts regularly, as she was the primary bread-winner in the family. "If he was excitable, she would engineer that they withdrew from company; if he was moody and withdrawn, she would ensure they surrounded themselves with books and home; if he was melancholy, she would sit it out, be patient, wait and see." He was unappreciated and unrecognized by the public, and he was frustrated, often wondering how he could keep going, when his work was so misunderstood. When, despite everything medical science could do to help Robert, he became suicidal and feared he might also hurt others, he voluntarily admitted himself to an asylum, where he died in 1856, at age 46.

The ill-starred love story of Clara and Robert Schumann is as romantic as the music of Schumann and his contemporaries, but Galloway keeps this novel on a factual level, as much as possible. There are no flights of fancy here, no imaginative soaring into the stratosphere of romance, and no attempt to recreate the passionate feeling of their love or of their music. She has done enormous research into their lives and presents her novel as if time and circumstance are being filtered through the consciousness of Clara, her father, or Robert. Her recreation of domestic situations and scenes, combined with what the various participants have said about them in their (real) diaries and journals allow her to reflect their inner turmoil while remaining fairly objective as a historian.

Galloway is largely successful in bringing Clara to life, and most women reading this book will identify with her and with the restrictions she faces as a daughter, performer, and eventually, wife. Though she lives in a period of intense romanticism, her life itself is anything but romantic. Her father is manipulative, the worst stereotype of a controlling parent. Her husband Robert is manipulated by his demons and is often unable to distinguish between his inner demons and the actions by Clara which he believes may have been inspired by the demons. Because we never see Robert as a "normal" person, the reader remains at a distance from him, observing, rather than feeling, what is happening to him.

Galloway presents a thoroughly researched novel, loaded with information about Clara and Robert Schumann, and sympathetic to Clara's enormous burdens before, during, and after her marriage to Robert. I wish she had included information in a brief afterword about Clara's life following Robert's death, as she lived almost forty years longer. Aided by Johannes Brahms, who babysat for her children for long periods of time, Galloway's Clara makes one wonder what the rest of her life was like, what new associations she might have made with the musicians of the period, and whether her late life career as a teacher was satisfying. Tied inextricably to Robert throughout their marriage, one can only wonder if she eventually found happiness on her own.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Clara at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Janice GallowayJanice Galloway was born in Saltcoats, Scotland in 1956. After she earned her degree at the University of Glasgow, she taught school for ten years, leaving in 1989. After that she turned her thoughts to writing, more out of desperation than anything. Her first novel, The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, won the 1990 MIND/Allen Lane Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. Her second novel, Foreign Parts, won the 1994 McVitie's Prize. In 1994 she also won the E. M. Forster Award, presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her third novel, Clara won the Satlrie Prize for Scottish Book of the Year in November 2002. Her fiction has been translated into German, Dutch, Slovene and Czech. She has also written plays, song cycles and opera libretti and has edited numerous anthologies.

She has one son and lives in Glasgow.

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