May 14, 1847: Fanny Mendelssohn dies in Berlin. Clara Wieck, Robert Schumann’s wife is aghast. “The case of [Felix] Mendelssohn’s sister is very sad. I just had had the chance to get to know her in Berlin and think highly of her. We saw each other every day, had planned to go sight-seeing in Berlin when we would meet next and to perform together. She most likely was the best female musician of her time […] I had dedicated my trio, that expect to be printed very soon, to her and now she is dead!”
Two soul mates had met, two exceptional female pianists and composers, but their friendship did not have a chance to blossom. A year before Clara Wieck had composed the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in G Major, op. 17 under difficult circumstances. The Schumann family had just moved from Leipzig to Dresden, Clara was pregnant once more, money was scarce, and Clara had to give concerts to sustain the ever-growing family. And Robert was no big help, he was still recovering from his breakdown in 1844.
The author of a biography of Clara Wieck, Dieter Kühn, has an interesting thesis about Wieck’s evolution as a composer: According to Kühn she composed the most original works before she had married Schumann. Once they lived under one roof and exchanged ideas about music, Wieck apparently has aligned her style on the musical language of her husband and did not muster the courage to explore her own ideas about musical language. It may thus be fortunate that Robert Schumann had not composed any trio up to 1846. Wieck had no template and this may explain why the Piano Trio in G Major is one of the best known of her compositions.
Once Robert started to compose trios too, she belittled her own work: “There are some nice passages in the trio and as a whole it is well done, I think, but of course it will always remain just a woman’s work, lacking power and inventiveness here and there.” A ridiculous statement, one is tempted to say with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time it was common sense that a woman could never compete with a man in any field except, well, except giving birth to a child.
If you listen to the recording by the Boulanger Trio, you will agree that this is composition that neither lacks power nor inventiveness. It has four movements in the traditional form, a deep Romantic signature in line with the aesthetic ideal and the fashion of the time, set by Felix Mendelssohn, but still a true expression of Clara Wieck’s own musical ideas. Wieck had begun to deepen her understanding of counterpoint* before she began to write the trio and it shows. The three voice often follow independent, but logically connected paths.
The study of Johann Sebastian Bach’s fugues and the counterpoint underneath them had been Robert’s idea. It was meant to distract him from his fears, his depressive mood. It did not help Robert in terms of psychotherapy, but it helped Clara to expand her musical vocabulary.
© Charles Thibo