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Clara Schumann: Famous wife but a musician in her own right

September 13, 2012|By Sherry Stern | This post has been updated. See the note below for details

In the world of classical music, Clara Schumann's husband, Robert, is widely known. Yet Clara was not just wife and mother, but a virtuoso pianist.  Clara is getting worldwide attention Thursday, on the occasion of her 193rd birthday, with a Google Doodle.

Though Robert was 10 years older than Clara, her career started flourishing before his.

She was born Clara Josephine Wieck in Leipzig, Germany. Her music-teacher father taught her to play piano and she was performing by age 9.

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Around that time, Robert Schumann was in the early stages of a musical career and took piano lessons from Clara's father. But Robert became so obsessed with developing his playing technique that he damaged a finger badly enough that he had to give up playing and turn to composition. At 19, Clara became infatuated with him.

Even before it began, their marriage wasn't easy. Believing an unknown composer unfit for his talented daughter, Clara's father tried to keep them apart; when they wanted to marry he refused to give permission. They ultimately wed a day before she turned 21 and settled in Leipzig.

As he became musically proficient, she continued to perform both alone and on tour with Robert. She had their first child a year after they married and became pregnant nine more times, bearing eight children over the next 14 years.

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In the mid 1840s, Robert was suffering from bouts of depression that would continue to plague him and their marriage. In 1854 he attempted to drown himself in the Rhine river and was committed to an asylum, where Clara could not visit him. She finally saw him once before he died two years later at 46. 

Clara lived for 40 more years, outliving several of her children.

She continued a long career as a concert pianist and editing her husband's works.  In her later years she taught piano in Frankfurt, where she died following a stroke at age 76, in 1896.

[For the record, 8:48 a.m., Sept. 13: An earlier version of this post had incorrect years for events in the Schumanns' lives. Robert was suffering from depression in the 1840s, not the 1940s, and Clara died in 1896, not 1986.]

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