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Mrs Schumann's story of strength is an inspiration

IT was impossible, during the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's recent performances of Robert Schumann's four symphonies over two weeks, to be unaware of the spiritual presence, as it were, of a key figure in the creation and evolution of the symphonies:

the composer's wife Clara. Clara was everything to Schumann, and he to her. Their relationship, in my view, was one of the greatest love stories in the history of western classical music; it was the greater because Clara unlocked something magical in Robert's musical genius; and it was greater still because her presence in this Play of Life represented a monumental achievement in the agonisingly slow development of what we might call today the rights and position of women in the arts.

It's not that many years since conductor Marin Alsop, now music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and one of the most powerful women in musical America, sat in Glasgow and, in painstaking detail, explained to me the difficulties she experienced in having to push against what she called "the glass ceiling" because she was a woman in a man's world and, moreover, a then youngish American woman in a male-dominated profession where US audiences and orchestras expected their music directors not only to be male, but European and grizzled.

Clara Schumann, a century and a half earlier, was the complete woman and a hugely successful musician with an international touring career as a concert pianist and recitalist. She married Robert in 1840 after a long-running battle with her obstructive father, Friedrich Wieck, who went to extraordinary lengths to prevent the union between his then teenage daughter, whom he had groomed for superstardom on the world's concert stages, and Schumann. He was unstoppable in his efforts to keep the two apart. He even sent Clara away on recital tours to ensure separation between the young lovers.

Wieck unleashed his fury on Robert by attempting to have the composer (who liked his tipple) legally declared a drunkard. As his attempts failed, he became even more poisonous. He turned on his daughter. He threatened to disinherit her. He threatened to confiscate her earnings unless she broke off all relations with Schumann. He attempted to ensure legally that they were not allowed to live in Saxony during his lifetime. He insisted at one point that he would keep all of Clara's earnings for the next five years and allow her just 4% interest as income. Schumann, additionally, was to provide Wieck with a legally validated statement of his income and Clara would have to forfeit her inheritance, while all Clara's income from the last seven years would revert to her half brothers.

Further, insisted Wieck, fighting desperately to the bitter end, Schumann would have to set aside a huge sum so that Clara, if the marriage should fail, could live off the interest. And in a particularly vile move, he insisted that his daughter would have to pay him a large sum to repossess her piano, housed in Wieck's home. The man was an unspeakable horror, and eventually Robert and Clara took him to court, where he was charged and found guilty of defamation of character.

With Robert, Clara produced eight children between 1841 and 1854, seven of whom survived infancy. She continued her performing career. A fine composer herself, Clara actively encouraged Robert to take up composing music not just for voice or for piano, but for orchestras: ergo the four symphonies. She cared for him and supported him as his mental health deteriorated: he attempted suicide on at least one occasion and ended up begging Clara to have him committed to an asylum.

She was kept away from him after his incarceration, but did attempt to see him when the end was inevitable. He was dead when she got there. She noted in her diary: "Now I have a new life." She resumed her concert and touring career, outliving her beloved Robert by 40 years, performing until 1891 and dying only in 1896. Clara Schumann: a great woman of profound inspiration and staggering fortitude.

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