Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Part One

THE PIECE(er… -s): “Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann”, Clara Schumann (Op. 20) / Johannes Brahms (Op. 9)
DATE: 1853 (Clara Schumann) / 1854 (Johannes Brahms)
ERA: Romanticism
GOOD FOR: when you feel sad because love is so beautiful but will you ever find it?!?!, generally crying your eyes out


The relationship between Robert and Clara Schumann is the most beautiful, bonkers, and heartbreaking love story in classical music. It has everything: Star-crossed lovers! A scandalous legal battle! Incredible musical works inspired by and dedicated to each other! Syphilis! And one of the most tragic endings you’ll hear this side of Shakespeare. It’s my favorite coupling in all of music, so just give up now, Taylor Swift!

So why am I talking about Johannes Brahms? As a young man, Brahms was a protege of the Schumanns, eventually becoming one of their most intimate friends. And his Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann (Opus 9) is a fascinating view into the deep emotional and professional bond between Clara and Robert, as well as Brahms’… well, being-there-ness.

In fact, the backstory of this piece, and Clara’s earlier variations on the same theme, is so dramatic and I love telling it so much, that I’m dedicating an entire post just to their relationship, before even getting into all that music nonsense. Day one, and I’ve already screwed up our system!

Part 1: The Ballad of Bobby and June Clara

Emo Schumann. Just look at the hair!

Robert Schumann was an intense dude. He began writing music as a child in Saxony and was reading great literary works by Goethe, Schiller, Byron, and more when he was barely pubescent (for reference, when I was a tween I read books with titles like GODDESS OF THE NIGHT and YOU’RE THE ONE THAT I WANT. They were not written by Goethe). But, in a tale that is clearly as old as time, his mother made him study law instead of music.

Robert played along with this plan for about a year before he jumped ship to study piano with Friedrich Wieck, who just so happened to have a piano-playing-prodigy daughter named Clara.

Now, if at this point you’re thinking “BOW CHICKA BOW BOWWW” I have to burst your bubble, because Clara was only 11. That didn’t stop her from being an all-around bad ass, virtuosic, nineteenth-century rock star.

“Oh, Robert, you like Goethe? Did I mention he gave me a medal? When I was eleven?”

Robert ended up living with the Wiecks for a year before a hand injury led him to abandon his plans of becoming a concert pianist. Instead, he focused on writing music and layin’ truth bombs on other composers in his publication “New Journal for Music.” He wrote moody, literary works, sometimes featuring his “split” personalities. Robert was a troubled adult, haunted and prone to manic and depressed episodes, but in spite of his troubles he became well-regarded as a composer, particularly for piano music.

Meanwhile, Clara kept at that rock star touring life, performing for Chopin and winning awards from the Austrian government. Robert and Clara’s relationship began briefly while she was still a young teen, but was quickly ended by her extremely controlling father. Seriously, that dude was pretty much the Joe Jackson of 19th century Leipzig.

When Clara was 19, Robert proposed, leading to a nasty court battle with her father when he wouldn’t give his consent to allow them to marry. While Friedrich maintained that his objections were due to Schumann’s unsuitability, it’s pretty clear that his biggest concern was losing his cash cow daughter’s massive performance fees. This led to an extremely public year-long legal battle that wouldn’t be out of place on a nighttime soap nowadays. Some of the lowlights? Friedrich submitted public documents to the court accusing Robert of being a lazy drunk, spread nasty rumors about the couple, and demanded seven years of Clara’s concert earnings as ransom for his consent.

The high court of Saxony wasn’t having any of Friedrich’s nonsense, though, and in 1840 ruled that Robert and Clara could marry without his consent. Ironically, they married the day before she became of age.

High Court of Saxony to Friedrich Wieck

The uncertainties and indignities of the trial and its eventual happy conclusion led Robert to compose an extraordinary output of some of the finest music for piano and voice that exists. 1839-1840 is often referred to as his “Year of Song,” during which he wrote over 100 pieces, including the absolutely tremendous song-cycle Dichterliebe, which deserves a post or five of its own (though if you’ve ever seen a baritone in recital, you’ve probably read some at-least-semi-literate program notes on the subject).

Thus began one of the most awe-inspiring musical relationships in history. Not only was Clara the principle performer and muse of Robert’s work, but, unlike other dude composers married to equally gifted women, he actively encouraged her to compose as well (LOOKIN’ AT YOU, MAHLER). Fun fact: in the first year of their marriage, they shared a musical diary that Robert published as his Opus 37, the Liebesfruhling lieder, and Clara published as her Opus 12. That might not seem like a big deal, but back in the day it was huge. Even now, opus numbers are like precious little babies to composers, so to give Clara not only joint credit but independent claim over these pieces was pretty #woke of Robert. Okay, okay, he didn’t exactly love having to go on tours with her, but he was still extremely supportive of her career, especially by 19th century standards.

She is a gift from above. There is no doubt that she really deserves affection and encouragement as an industrious and hard-working artist, and indeed as a woman too. – Robert in a letter to Felix Mendelssohn

Speaking of precious babies, the Schumanns had eight of them, and Clara’s compositional output lagged as she took care of them, despite Robert’s encouragement. She still found time to edit his music, write criticism, and maintain a rigorous concert performance schedule, though, because again, she was a badass.

Being the Beyonce and Jay-Z of their day, the Schumanns also attracted a super-cool friend circle of gifted musicians, composers, and other assorted artists. In 1853, a young and totally unknown Johannes Brahms popped up on their doorstep, wanting to meet Robert who, in an astoundingly prescient turn, publicly declared him to be one of the future of music, despite the fact that he hadn’t even been published yet. Brahms became an extremely close friend of the couple, to put it mildly (but we’ll get to that).

By this time, though, Robert had gone from “pretty eccentric” to flat-out unstable, and his compositions from this period are generally considered inferior to his younger works. It is difficult and extremely problematic to try to arm-chair diagnose him two hundred years after his death (she says, just before doing exactly that), but today it is generally thought that he suffered from syphilis, along with a myriad of possible mental illnesses. Whatever the particular issue, he suffered severe aural hallucinations, sometimes repeated melodies he felt compelled to compose, other times just a single constant musical note in his head. He attempted suicide in 1854 and subsequently sent himself to a sanatorium.

This part makes me sad, so here’s a pomeranian.

If you think mental healthcare today isn’t great, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that in the mid-19th century it was downright horrific. During the time he spent in the sanatorium, the doctors for whatever reason decided that Clara should not be allowed to see him. Why? Because 19th century doctors didn’t know what they were doing. You know who was allowed to see him? Good ol’ Brahms, who became the couple’s  primarily conduit to each other.

Robert spent the final two years of his life in the asylum, with no direct contact with Clara until just a few days before his death in 1856.

Have another pom, just for good measure

Clara, being a badass, continued her wildly successful career as a concert pianist after he died, though she did give up composing altogether. She championed her late husband’s work, and also helped Brahms’ career by performing his work frequently. In fact, she still performed publicly until she was 71 years old, and if that wasn’t enough, found time to revolutionize piano pedagogy and programming recitals, too. Because Clara Schumann was a badass.

Can we please just talk about the music?

Wellll, funny you should ask! This story begins tapping into an eternal debate in musicology: How much of the composer’s life should you take into account when you’re studying his or her music? As we’ll find out in Part Two, knowing this story makes listening to both Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann” a very different experience. One that involves much more ugly crying.

Stay tuned, kids!

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