Clara Schumann and the Berliner Philharmoniker

On the 200th birthday of the pianist and composer

She embodies the prototype of the modern, successful career woman, yet she lived at a time when this was not usual for a woman: Clara Schumann was a composer, a piano teacher and one of the most acclaimed pianists of her day. Contemporary accounts describe her playing as just as energetic and powerful as that of a man. Such an assessment was considered the highest praise in those days. From childhood she was groomed for a career as a pianist by her father, the piano teacher Friedrich Wieck. After her marriage to the composer Robert Schumann she made every effort to combine her career and family life, a balancing act that she managed only because of her extraordinary talent, her unflagging diligence and her iron discipline. Although Clara, who bore eight children during her 16-year marriage, took her role as wife and mother very seriously, she considered herself first and foremost an artist. She contributed substantially to the support of the family with the fees from her tours and concert appearances. When she became a widow at the age of 36, she had to provide for her family alone from then on. She resumed her career again at full speed and concertized throughout Europe. “The practice of art is, after all, a great part of my inner self. To me, it is the very air I breath.”

Powerful touch

She also made several appearances with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the first time on 18 February 1883, ten months after the orchestra’s founding. Under conductor Ernst Rudorff, the then 64-year-old Clara Schumann played the piano part in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and her husband’s Piano Concerto. “She displayed a surprising physical and intellectual vigour. Her powerful touch, the rich tones, strung like pearls, combined with a thorough understanding of her task, brought musical pleasure,” according to a review in the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. The pianist was enthusiastically acclaimed. What the audience did not know was that Clara Schumann had fallen down the stairs a few days earlier and injured her hand. She played in great pain, as she confided to Johannes Brahms in a letter. But the success made up for everything: “I have rarely encountered such warm enthusiasm.” She returned to the Berliner Philharmoniker in October of the same year to perform Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto under Joseph Joachim.

Again and again Berlin

Clara Schumann had given many concerts in Berlin even before the founding of the Berliner Philharmoniker, not least because of her friendship with Joseph and Amalie Joachim. The pianist frequently performed in concerts with the artist couple – he a conductor and violinist, she a singer. Moreover, Clara’s mother, a singer and pianist, had lived in Berlin with her second husband, the music teacher Adolph Bargiel, since 1826. Clara’s half-brother from this marriage, Woldemar, a composer and professor at the conservatory, was also one of the city’s important musical figures. Thus, Clara Schumann was well-connected in Berlin. She made two appearances with the Berliner Philharmoniker in quick succession in April 1885: she was heard in Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto under Joachim, then played the Schumann Concerto again under Woldemar Bargiel. “I believe I played more boldly than ever,” she wrote to Brahms. “What pleased me very much about the concert was that I could entrust the conducting to Woldemar, who had longed for such an opportunity for years.”

Sold-out concerts

Clara Schumann’s fame ensured full coffers: her concerts were sell-outs. When she came to the Berliner Philharmoniker for the last time in January 1889, there were no empty seats in the auditorium of the Philharmonie. The audience welcomed her enthusiastically when she mounted the platform. “There was something extremely moving about it when the seventy-year-old woman sat down at the piano, bending forward slightly, to play Chopin’s F minor Concerto, and the way she then accomplished the difficult task with the strength, the fire and the freshness of a seventeen-year-old, leaving nothing at all to be desired. The enthusiasm of the listeners has rarely been expressed more justifiably and with such vehemence . . .” (Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung).

Joseph Joachim
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
From our archives: Clara Schumann’s letter of thanks to an unknown recipient (estate of the former principal cellist Hermann Beyer-Hané)